Tuesday, February 23, 2010

5 Vegan Ingredients I Can't Live Without

What are the basic ingredients I turn to again and again to create vegan dishes? I have tons of fun using all kinds of obscure and interesting ingredients, but there are a handful that would cause me a mild panic attack if they weren't present in my household. These are the ingredients that many of my recipes call for. Without them, my cooking would be sad and not so spunky at all.

1. Nutritional Yeast I have a love affair with this stuff. I could say that I love it most for its high nutritional value but that would be a lie. I truly love the taste. I can not get enough of the slightly cheesy, salty, yeasty flakes. I buy it bulk at Whole Foods, $5 to $6 at a time. Our cat Stella the Fella is obsessed with it, too. If I leave the bag out on the counter, he tears into it like catnip. My favorite ways to use nutritional yeast? Chicken-fried tofu (cubes or slices of tofu coated in nutritional yeast pan fried in olive oil, sprinkled with soy sauce), nutritional yeast gravy (to smother the chicken-fried tofu with, of course), on popcorn with smoked sea salt, in vegan mac-n-cheese; the list could go on and on.

2. Lemons I go through about a bag of lemons a week. It seems that almost every recipe I use calls for them in some form. Cashew ricotta, Smoky Lentil Soup, Garlic Pasta with Cannellini and Arugula, Lemon-blueberry muffins, lemon Italian dressing. I think lemons enhance vegan cooking so well because of the brightness they impart. Vinegar also lends a brightness, but with a much stronger more distinct taste.

3. Cashews Though I always have a container of raw cashews in my fridge, I rarely eat them whole. I usually blend them in the food processor with lemons, tofu, garlic and salt to make the most delicious vegan ricotta. There's nothing I've found that works better to replace the rich creaminess of ricotta than cashews. I use the ricotta to stuff shells, layer lasagna, make pumpkin-baked ziti, and other Italian comfort foods.

4. Soy cheese products: Cream cheese, sour cream and cheese. While many vegans don't care for dairy analogs, I heart them big time. I didn't stop eating dairy because of it's taste, I stopped eating it because I didn't want to contribute to the suffering of animals. I use Tofutti cream cheese and sour cream exclusively because other products I've tried taste super foul. Like "I'm not sure how there's even any demand for the product for them to continue making it" kind of foul. I use cream cheese on bagels, in icing, to make the best caramel macchiato "cheese" cake, in potato salad, and to make a delicious Blueberry Cheesecake Icecream. I use sour cream to make seitan stroganoff, creamy chicken stew, or just with a package of Lipton's Onion Soup mix and a bag of Ruffles (total guilty pleasure, I know). Soy cheeses I'm a little picker about. I mainly use Follow Your Heart and Sheese. I really would like to try the cheese that the vegan community is raving about - Daiya - but no luck yet at my lil Jacksonville store carrying it. My favorite? The blue cheese version done by Sheese. Mmmmmm blue cheese dressing. I have half a block of it in my fridge now that I think I'm going to stuff the jalapeno peppers with that I got from the Farmers Market this weekend.

5. Tofu I know this is probably a no-brainer, but I love tofu the way white loves rice. I buy it by the ever lovin case at Whole Foods (did you know that buying 8 boxes earns you a 10% discount?). Tofu is magic and alchemic. You want a smooth chocolate mousse or a peanut butter pie? Tofu. A rich replacement for ricotta? Tofu. Chicken fried loveliness? Tofu. Grill night? Miso glazed grilled tofu. A smoothie? Tofu. I eat so much tofu that I'm certain I'm contributing singlehandedly to soil depletion by the amount of soybean crops they must grow to meet my insatiable appetite for soy. Eating 432 pounds of tofu a week can't possibly be good for you, though, so I'm currently trying to break my crack-like addiction and eat less of it.

There they are; the five ingredients I couldn't live without. What are yours?