As an omnivore eater and cook, I was always one to think a lot about the flavors and textures of food, and to follow my instincts when it came to seasoning. Still, I found that I relied a lot on already flavor-packed animal products (e.g. parmesan cheese, smoked and salted meats, etc.) to add depth to my food. In my book, “bacon” was a flavor, as was “seafood stock,” “beefiness,” and “cheesiness.”
Now that I’ve cut animal products out of my diet, though, I’ve come to think about and understand flavor in a totally different way. This shift was gradual, but the ultimate turning point for me, I think, was after an absolutely incredible meal at the vegetable-focused, vegan restaurant Vedge in Philadelphia. Two of the most memorable plates I had that night were Honshimeji Beach Style stew and Saffron Cauliflower Soup. The stew tasted exactly like a New England seafood boil, while the soup was reminiscent of a fish stew I’d had in a little waterside inn in Corsica years ago. What was so remarkable was that both dishes somehow captured what I had previously understood to be the taste of the ocean, without using a single artificial flavor or meat substitute. I realized that it wasn’t the flavor of “seafood stock” that I had always loved, but the combination of various herbs and spices, in this case brininess with Old Bay, or saffron with white wine and fennel. Once mixed with those perfectly balanced seasonings, the chewy honshimeji mushrooms were hardly distinguishable from fresh clams, or the cauliflower from tender white fish.
After this discovery, I began to look at my favorite animal-product flavors through a new lens, breaking them down into their composite parts. Parmesan cheese, for example, became not simply “salty-cheesiness,” but salt, nuttiness, earthiness (umami), and a little tang. Once I was able to deconstruct the flavors in this way, it became relatively easy to put them back together using plant-based products. Nuttiness, for example, was easily achieved with toasted almonds; earthiness/umami with nutritional yeast; and the tang with a squeeze of fresh lemon. All three together made for a surprisingly delicious pasta topping. (Of course I’m far from the first to think of this. Parmela, for example, offers a wonderful all-natural vegan parmesan that seems to be based on the same principals.)
Through lots of trial and error, I’ve so far found and/or developed several easy vegan cheats to naturally capture the essence of some of my favorite taste profiles from my omnivore days. The ratios vary depending on the other ingredients in your dish, so I encourage you to play around and experiment! In the weeks to come, I’ll be featuring these tricks in some of my recipe posts.
-Mediterranean-style seafood broth: saffron, fennel, tomato, white wine
-American-style seafood broth: Old Bay spice, corn or corn broth, saffron
-Western-style beef broth: dried mushrooms (especially porcinis), soy sauce, red wine(optional), thyme(optional)
-Asian-style beef broth: dry shitake and/or porcini mushrooms, soy, five spice(optional)
-Chicken broth: carrots, parsnips, leeks, browned button mushrooms and/or light dried mushrooms (e.g. chanterelles), nutritional yeast
-Cream/bechamel sauce: cashew cream, nutmeg, nutritional yeast
-Bacon flavor: liquid smoke, salt, brown sugar
-Parmesan cheese: toasted almonds or pine nuts, salt, nutritional yeast, a squeeze of lemon
-Cheddar cheese: Miso paste, mustard, nutritional yeast
Readers, any good cheats I’m missing?