Creative Cooking

5 Principles to Follow for Great Vegan Food

At a pop-up dinner a few months ago, I swept my knife through a buttery sesame seed-crusted avocado adorning a plate of crisp butter lettuce, speared a seared mushroom along a savory pile of kelp noodles and grilled endive and forked bites of black bean brownie through a small puddle of aquafaba marshmallow meringue. Expertly crafted by vegan chef Stephanie Hoban of Ripe Cuisine, the meal was creative, full of flavor and incredibly satisfying; I left the meal well beyond satiated.

Vegan food often gets a bad rap for being flavorless, weird and insubstantial when in reality, vegan cooking can open up a whole new landscape of vibrant flavors, fresh ingredients and healthful ways of being. Eating a more plant-based diet benefits not only your body, but also the environment. Whether you’re new to vegan cooking or a veteran, here are five principles from vegan cooking experts around Houston to make vegan cooking satisfying and delicious every time.

Use Seasonal, High-Quality Products

“Understanding foods at their peak of seasonality is my biggest tip — in Houston, we have plenty of opportunities to get to farmers’ markets and find what’s in season,” says German Mosquera, culinary director at Yoga One’s juice bar. A vegan for seven years, Mosquera is now a flexitarian focusing on body awareness and health.

“When simple, whole, minimally to non-processed foods are at their peak, they’re really flavorful and require very little preparation,” says Mosquera. Sites such as Edible Houston make it easy to figure out what’s in season locally — or, even easier, a trip to your local farmers’ market will showcase all that’s in season.

Alyssa Dole, pastry chef at Coltivare and Revival Market, first gained exposure to the world of raw vegan baking while at Roots Juice. She was a vegetarian for three years and continued to hone her interest in alternative cooking and baking while designing desserts such as a vegan, gluten-free chocolate avocado mousse at Corner Table.

“A huge component of that mousse was getting the right cocoa powder — high-quality raw cocoa powder really made a huge difference," says Dole.

Vary Your Cooking Techniques
While a lot of people associate vegan food with bland steamed vegetables, you can often apply the same meat cooking techniques on vegetables.

“The perception that vegetables and vegan food taste bad often speaks to a lack of technique and creativity,” says Mosquera.

One simple, favorite recipe of his uses a cooking technique that is almost universally available — the oven broiler. Tossing cauliflower florets, olive oil and salt on a baking sheet and placing it all under a broiler for 12-20 minutes (depending on the strength of your broiler) yields incredible flavor and caramelization at its greatest state.

Hoban, who has been vegan for nearly nine years and opened her vegan food business barely three years ago, often smokes various products like tofu, jackfruit or cauliflower using woodchips — just as a cook would do with meat — lending a smoky umami flavor to her dishes.

Finding established leaders in the vegan community can help inspire new ways of cooking. Dole cites Matthew Kenney as a figure who helped guide her vegan journey.

“He has a line of raw vegan entertaining cookbooks as well as a cooking school — every recipe of his that I’ve tried has been spot-on and spectacular,” says Dole. Popular vegan bloggers and cookbook authors like Angela Liddon and Kathy Patalsky are other good places to start.

Season With Intention
Mosquera says that cooking begins with the choosing of salt, which greatly affects the flavor profile of food. He generally works with two main types: pink Himalayan sea salt and sel gris (gray salt). The clean, clear flavor of pink Himalayan salt works well in accentuating the flavor of raw foods without overpowering it with oceanic flavor. Gray salt is the cleanest version of sea salt (and is often still moist from the ocean) and smooths out beautifully around cooked food flavors.

Oil is another key ingredient that can either enhance or dampen flavors — avoid refined oils like canola and vegetable in favor of lightly processed oils like olive oil, grapeseed oil or avocado oil. Cold-pressed or virgin oils tend to retain more flavor and color, and are ideal used in salad dressings or low-heat cooking techniques. Oils with high smoke points, like grapeseed and avocado oil, are ideal for high-heat cooking techniques like stir-frying and deep-frying (heating oil beyond its smoke point leads to free radicals and dangerous compounds).

Spices are key in Hoban’s cooking; spices are a crucial element she believes people typically underutilize.

“Most vegetables are 90 percent water, so the first step is cooking them properly to get the water out so they don’t taste so bland,” says Hoban. “Then using different spices like smoked paprika, sumac or curry blends can really change how a vegetable tastes and add unexpected flavor.”

Dole says she often leans toward using southeast Asian flavors when cooking vegan food.

“Asian flavors are highly flavorful — garlic, ginger and soy all lend themselves really well to cooking with vegetables,” she says.

One of her go-to savory vegan dishes is an Asian-flavored lettuce wrap — a stir fry with as many vegetables as she has around with soy sauce, sweet chile sauce and sriracha, wrapped into a lettuce leaf.

Compose Balanced, Flavorful Meals
Part of a satisfying meal is also leaving the meal feeling satiated. While many perceive vegan food as rabbit food that won’t keep them full, Dole notes that meals should have a good balance of grain, vegetables and enough fats to feel full.

Hoban agreed, adding, “Some people think vegans only eat salad — staying full is a matter of eating enough calories so that the meal will stick with you. Beans and grains are very filling — adding farro, brown rice, quinoa or a bean to a meal can really help.”

Aside from the balance between the food groups, you can also make dishes pop by ensuring you also have a balance of salt to draw out the flavors, some element of sweet (a touch of honey in salad dressing can do wonders) and acid to brighten a dish.

“Having that mix of flavors on the plate is also what’s satisfying. Meat naturally has umami — mushrooms and tomatoes are other natural sources of umami, and having that salty, sweet, spicy, sour mix will let you feel satisfied because tastebuds have hit every flavor profile,” says Hoban.

Mosquera notes that feeling full is often a matter of flavor as well as looking at the balance of your meal.

“I like to put a lot of flavor in my food, and that’s what speaks to the satisfaction of the food. If it’s not flavorful, you won’t feel satisfied because you’re not achieving the desire of flavor. That’s often where the mental disconnect is — because often vegetables are not cooked to be as flavorful as fish or meat,” said Mosquera.

Dole also notes that letting your body acclimate to a different type of fullness can be key.

“At the end of the day, you have to have a good balance and be happy with your meal — as long as you satisfy your palate, sometimes that’s enough to make your stomach feel satiated in the end. We’re used to feeling physically full instead of satiated,” says Dole. “When I went from eating meat and cheese and bread, I had to let my body get used to a different definition of full. For me, saltiness is a really big deal, so as long as there’s enough salt there, that makes me happy.”

Redefine Your Norms
Mosquera notes that the perception that vegan food tastes bad often stems from attachments to the food people are attempting to replace — for example, using processed vegan food to replace meat products, which often lack satisfying flavors and consistencies.

Reframing your expectations around a meal — for example, moving from planning a meal around steak or chicken breast to a bed of grains or a sauté of caramelized winter squash — can make all the difference.

Two polenta-based recipes Dole recommends for cooks new to plant-based cooking are either a loose polenta made with vegetable stock and finished with coconut milk (for an unctuous mouthfeel) topped with an Asian-flavored vegetable stir fry, or a firmer polenta panfried with spinach and stewed tomatoes, a rich source of umami flavor — perhaps with some cashew cheese as well. Risotto is another great seasonal vegan dish when cooked with vegetable stock and incorporating a variety of seasonable vegetables.

“Plus, a lot of times people forget about dishes that are already vegan — PBJs, tomato sauce and pasta — so the term ‘vegan’ might seem more foreign to people than it actually is,” says Hoban. “An easy weeknight meal like a stir fry with rice or quinoa and any favorite vegetables can be vegan. You can make a really easy vegan lasagna with mixed veggies, tomato sauce and pasta. None of that is scary.”

“When people say vegan food tastes bad — well, there are bad cooks,” says Hoban. “If you say you don’t like the vegetable, I say you haven’t had the vegetable cooked well. People who say they don’t like brussels sprouts haven’t tried Uchi’s brussels sprouts. Once you cook out the water and season them properly, vegetables can really transform and be presented as a beautiful dish.”

Go-To Vegan Recipes
Mosquera’s go-to vegan recipe is a Romanesco sauce that can be used for anything from a quick salad dressing to an entertaining dip to topping leftover roasted cauliflower or savoy cabbage with mushrooms. The sauce is simply a mixture of peppers, tomato, garlic, pistachios or almonds, olive oil, paprika and salt — the vegetables can be chopped raw, roasted in the oven and then processed in a blender with the rest of the ingredients until smooth, yielding a creamy consistency thanks to the nuts and olive oil.

Hoban’s go-tos are either a roasted cauliflower steak or some type of pasta with brussels, cauliflower and other roasted vegetables paired with a nice side salad. (Many more of her favorite recipes can be found on the Ripe Cuisine website.)

For a sweet take, Dole’s go-to vegan dish is a chocolate avocado mousse. At Corner Table, she incorporated a raw vegan ganache and a coconut milk whipped cream to make it a little more finished and add a layer of decadence, but the mousse by itself is also delicious.

“Raw vegan ‘baking’ is really great because you’re not just using a substitute for eggs, but you’re using really flavorful and healthy ingredients like cashews and coconut oil to make a very satisfying dessert,” says Dole.

In the end, Hoban notes that eating meatless is all about making shifts in the right direction.

“You’re your own scale — if people were a little more relaxed about it, I think that would help with some negative perceptions around being vegan,” Hoban says. “If you eat cheese every so often, it’s not the end of the world. If you are reducing your impact and eating less cheese, meat and animal products, that’s a positive shift toward helping our bodies, animals and the planet.”
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Erika Kwee is a freelance food writer, photographer and contributor to the Houston Press who particularly enjoys exploring the many unique sweet spots around Houston. She is constantly on the hunt for exceptional pad thai, vegetarian dumplings and pancakes.