Flavor Up Meatless Meals

When you start cooking without meat, you may find the results somewhat flat. This is because meat — read fat — naturally adds a lot of flavor. When you eliminate meat, you’ll need to add more seasonings in order to compensate for the flavor.

Seasoning advice:

  • Use fresh herbs whenever possible, as their flavor is superior to that of dried. To maintain their delicate flavors, however, always add fresh herbs near the end of the cooking time.
  • Dried herbs are more convenient than fresh. They’re also much more potent. Use about 1 teaspoon of a dried herb for every 1 tablespoon that you’d use of fresh.
  • It’s best to add dried herbs early in the cooking process to give them time to release their flavors. Before adding to food, rub the herbs well to release the flavorful oils.
  • Flavored liquids like hot sauces and herbal vinegars add a startling splash of excitement to rice, legumes and other vegetarian fare.

Delicious strategies

Many of us took our first tastes of vegetarian cuisine in the 1960s and early 1970s, when “healthy” was all too often a euphemism for “tasteless.” As a result, many cooks continue to regard meatless meals with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

But things have changed. Vegetarian cooking has been a popular cultural phenomenon for more than 30 years. Chefs are well-versed in the glorious tumbles of colors, textures and shapes available at supermarkets and farmers markets nationwide. In short, there’s nothing dull about today’s meatless meals. On the contrary, they represent an exciting journey of discovery, good taste and vibrant good health.

Here are some basic strategies:

Go for the whole

Whenever possible, use whole-grain foods. The less milling or processing a food undergoes, the more natural fiber and nutrients-as well as textures and tastes-it’s likely to contain.

Fill up on rice

Even though whole grains are preferable, white rice can play a valuable role in the healthy cook’s kitchen. White rice turns out fluffy and light, with the additional advantage of cooking quickly. For more fiber and a nutty flavor, opt for brown rice. Let your taste buds — and the recipe — be your guide. Whereas rice is perhaps our most familiar grain, many cooks are exploring other varieties, such as corn, oats, bulgur, amaranth and quinoa.

Put up some pasta

It’s nutritious, filling and a breeze to cook. Plus, it’s available in an enormous variety of interesting shapes and flavors. It can be tossed into salad, added to soup or used as a base for a delicious sauce or topping.

Explore the produce bin

Many of today’s supermarkets stock dozens or even hundreds of varieties of vegetables and leafy greens. Variety is good not only for nutritional balance but also for creating an exciting culinary palette. Since vegetables and greens typically get star billing in vegetarian meals, it’s important to find the freshest ingredients available. Chefs agree that it’s best to use fresh ingredients within a few days of buying them.

  • Frozen vegetables will do in a pinch, but they lack the texture of fresh.
  • Canned vegetables have an even softer texture than frozen and can be extremely salty. Always rinse canned vegetables thoroughly to remove at least some of the excess sodium.
  • Don’t hesitate to create your own vegetable recipes. Steamed vegetables are good; so are vegetable sautés and stir-fry medleys. Feel like pasta but don’t want the sauce? Just sauté a little bit of garlic and onion in a spoonful of olive oil for an instant aromatic pasta topping.
  • For extra flavor, try steaming vegetables over water that’s been infused with herbs, spices, garlic or shallots.
  • Go dark. As a rule, the darker the vegetable-dark orange, dark red or dark green-the more nutrients it contains.
  • Turn over a new leaf. Here’s a tip about iceberg lettuce: Mom may have bought it religiously, but the fact is, iceberg is pretty devoid of nutrients and fiber. Since salads often play a big part in no-meat meals, go for the nutritious darker leaves, such as romaine, Swiss chard, endive, watercress, spinach, arugula and turnip greens.

Toast for the most

To boost the flavors of spices, nuts or seeds, toast them in a dry no-stick skillet over medium heat, shaking the skillet often, for 3 to 5 minutes before adding them to your recipe. This will help release the essential oils that give these items their flavor-and that make meatless meals a flavor treat.

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