Some of my fellow food-loving folks have the innate ability to open up the pantry and whip together a stunning meal in mere minutes. It’s even more impressive when they take the blandest ingredients and transform them into restaurant-worthy delectable delights right before our eyes.
David Lee, the co-founder and executive chef of PLANTA, a legendary plant-based restaurant located in Toronto, South Florida, New York City, and Bethesda, is a professional when it comes to making simple vegan meals that taste divine. And lucky for us, he's got tons of tips and tricks—from seasoning and sourcing to which ingredient substitutes to skip—to help your homemade plant-based dishes taste just as good (well, nearly as good) as what you'd eat at a real-deal vegan restaurant. Here, Lee shares the secrets to cooking restaurant-worthy vegan food at home.
5 ways to add more flavor to your vegan cooking, according to a plant-based chef
1. Don’t rely on “meat” substitutes
Lee underscores that he doesn’t like to rely on alternative meat substitutes when cooking vegan meals. “My preferred route is cooking with fresh vegetables and non-processed foods,” he says. While these plant-based alternatives are great for mimicking the taste and texture of animal-based foods for those that gravitate towards a meat-y element in their meals, some can be highly processed and even lack nutritional value, including sufficient protein and excess sodium or saturated fat. If you choose to consume them, all good! Just remember to read the nutritional label to know what you’re really getting.
2. Cook with seasonal ingredients
To make restaurant-worthy plant-based meals at home, Lee says it’s imperative to cook with seasonal, fresh ingredients whenever possible. “Visit your specialty grocers and farmer's markets to find the most unique seasonal and local ingredients. This will help your thought process, too,” he says.
When you focus on serving what’s in season and local, your dishes—especially those that spotlight fresh foods, like veggies, herbs, fruit, even eggs and fish—will naturally taste better, because the ingredients are at their peak. What's more, registered dietitians say that eating foods that are in season can have added nutritional value. “Fruits and vegetables tend to be the most nutrient-dense right after they're harvested when they're at that peak ripeness, which is part of why seasonal produce tastes better,” Sara Riehm, RD, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health, previously shared with Well+Good.
If you're planning to host guests for your vegan meal, Lee also suggests thinking of a theme for your dinner party, so you can make a cohesive menu that highlights seasonal ingredients that match the winter, spring, summer, or fall vibes.
3. Get creative with your cookware
Chef Lee suggests dusting off your pressure cooker and wiping down your BBQ grill to diversify the way you cook your favorite plant-based ingredients. Instead of using only your beloved cast iron for cooking every component of your dish (we’re guilty, too), he says that other cooking appliances can potentially help bring more flavors to life.
When grilling, Lee uses charcoal to add tons of smokiness and char to simple vegetables. His other go-to gadget is a pressure cooker, which he says is the unsung hero of his kitchen. “A pressure cooker is the most under-used kitchen equipment, especially for plant-based cooking,” he says. Instant Pot, it's your time to shine.
4. Add an element of umami
Lee says one of his secrets to creating perfectly-balanced flavor for plant-based dishes is by adding loads of umami—one of the five basic tastes, commonly known as savory. To achieve a well-balanced flavor palate filled with umami, Lee focuses on four key components: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. He achieves this with ingredients like antioxidant-rich olive oil, which adds depth to a dish and is a great garnish to drizzle on top of pasta, soup, or salad. There's also gut-healthy miso, which adds saltiness and umami and can be used with a variety of cooking techniques, including braising, making soups, and marinating veggies for grilling.
5. Play with the textures in your dish
To prevent a dish from falling flat, Lee recommends enticing your tastebuds with different ingredients that have varying textures, which will add complexity to your dish. “You can create great textures by utilizing different cooking methods, like air frying, boiling, sauteing, and dehydrating,” he says.
Lee calls out his four-ingredient mushroom carpaccio recipe as the prime example. To make it, he thinly slices umami-rich mushrooms to yield about 10 to 15 pieces and marinades them in ponzu sauce, a Japanese condiment with a citrusy, vinaigrette-like taste. Then, he adds diced shallots, which add sweet punchiness and crunch. To serve, Lee lays the mushroom nicely around the edge of a flat plate or bowl, drizzles it with ponzu and sesame oil, and sprinkles it with chopped shallots—crunchy, savory, and refreshing. Check, check, and check.
As a final tidbit, Lee reassures us that if you’re feeling intimidated by the whole process or taking the first leap into cooking homemade vegan food, you can always rely on your peers for support. “Think of a restaurant dish you’re trying to replicate and research what vegetables are great substitutes,” he says. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to transform some of your childhood favorites into vegan-friendly recipes using tasty and nutritious plant-based foods.
Thinking about dessert? Same. Try this easy vegan cheesecake recipe to satisfy your sweet tooth:
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