Wanted: Seasoning hacks, vegetable edition
July 29, 2016 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I want to uplevel my vegetarian cooking. Today I bought a fantastic salad for lunch that includes kale, quinoa/pepper salad, avocado, pickled onion, beets, carrots (which I generally hate but somehow they are awesome here) and zucchini. All of it is remarkably flavorful. I can make all of these things except the pickled onion, but nothing I make tastes anything like this. What are your secret weapons for good, TASTY seasoning for grains and vegetables?

If it's relevant, I'm not vegetarian, but I'm good with cooking meat. I also eat cheese and there are no food restrictions in my household. Bonus points for anything pickled - how do you do that?

I'm not a fan of lots of onion or garlic, but I'm game for everything else!
posted by onecircleaday to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You certainly can make pickled anything! My favorite pickling recipe is here -- Smitten Kitchen easiest fridge dill pickles. When I make them I also throw in sliced red onion because I love pickled onions as well. She has several other pickle recipes on the site, but just a tip, pickled carrots are not the best.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My veggie/grain bowls usually taste the best when I make a dressing to pour over them; vinaigrettes are what I do most. I usually just whisk some oil (avocado, extra virgin olive oil) with some acid (lemon juice, champagne vinegar, rice wine vinegar), a tablespoon or so of mustard, tapenade, avocado or other for flavor and heft, and a bit of sweet (honey, maple syrup, agave) with salt and pepper to round it out. You could also do green goddess dressing, lemon tahini dressing, or any number of other sauces.

I bet they're also using a ton of herbs, chopped really finely so it's not immediately apparent what you've got. Italian parsley is great at making food taste really bright and fresh; you can also snip handfuls of whatever you have on hand and it will brighten things up without affecting the taste too much. I usually use Italian (flatleaf) parsley, tarragon, chives, rosemary, dill, and basil at will, but it looks like there are certain herbs that go better with certain vegetables.

And pickles! You can basically pickle almost anything; here's a recipe for pickled red onions and one for daikon and carrot pickles (like in banh mi), both of which I've made and are very good.
posted by stellaluna at 12:23 PM on July 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: OMG! You guys are awesome. Keep 'em coming! And, if it's not obvious, thank you! (OK, done thread sitting).
posted by onecircleaday at 12:26 PM on July 29, 2016

Infused salts can add a lot of pop to food when you sprinkle it on just before serving. The best easy and cheap one to make at home is to put some dries porcinni mushrooms in an airtight container with sea or kosher salt for a month or two. It's fantastic sprinkled overp pasta with a red sauce.

You can also buy premade infused salts. They look pricy but keep in mind you're only using a sprinkle, so you're really only spending a penny penny meal at most.
posted by Candleman at 12:46 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: I could talk about this for days! I don't know if you've seen this thread about non-salad salads but there are a TON of good ideas in there. I also like Heidi Swanson's recipes; here are her salad recipes from her blog 101 Cookbooks. Love and Lemons is another blog that has a good salad category that might work for you. And, Buzzfeed often has awesome recipe lists; here's one for 21 Healthy One-Bowl Recipes.

In general if I'm putting together bowls I try to do a base of legumes or grains with an equal amount of vegetables, then something creamy and something crunchy, a bit of something tart or strongly flavored, and a dressing. So one I make often is quinoa and french lentils with finely chopped kale as the base, a ton of parsley and tarragon, some feta crumbles, chopped hazelnuts, and diced preserved lemon with tapenade vinaigrette. You could easily up the vegetables or change the grains/flavor profile if you had different needs. A similar example is this recipe for Tart Cherry Tabouleh.

If you're googling for more resources, I'm calling them bowls, but you could also try searching for 'power salads'; I see that term used a lot, too.
posted by stellaluna at 12:47 PM on July 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Quick pickling is definitely going to be your jam, especially when you're not using a vinegar-based dressing.

I agree with people who say you'll need to increase your herb use. Here's an article about prolonging the fridge survival of fresh herbs.

However, do keep in mind that food you buy in restaurants usually has a lot of additional oil and salt added to it. The dressing on that salad, for instance, even if it didn't look like some kind of McD's squeeze-packet ranch gloop, probably got a lot of its tastiness from oil and sodium. You probably don't want to eat that kind of dressing every day (even if you're comfortable with a high-fat diet, you won't want that many calories), so you'll need to experiment to work out the yum-healthiness tradeoff.

just a tip, pickled carrots are not the best


(seriously, do you not eat banh mi?)
posted by praemunire at 1:15 PM on July 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: some options (obvs not good in some combinations, or with every dish)

finish with *very good* EVOO
citrus zest
finish with a small squeeze of fresh citrus juice
garam masala
aged vinegar
small amount of brown sugar or molasses adds sweetness AND depth
umami: soy sauce, msg, mushrooms, sundried tomato
pastas and grains with a veggie stock instead of water
smoked sea salt
subtle volume of honey & cayenne
pepin loves ketchup - in the right amount - sweet, salty, umami, thickens...

finally, the restaurant secret: butter & salt.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:32 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ok I revise my previous statement, dill pickled carrot sticks remain not the best but slivered banh mi carrots are dope
posted by tatiana wishbone at 1:34 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like the salad philosophy of Edward Espe Brown (he calls it the Outline for Making Salads) in the Complete Tassajara Cookbook. From what I recall, a salad should have at least four elements: a background element (greens for example), something bright/surprising (fresh tomatoes or red onion), something crunchy (perhaps some nuts) and something sweet/tart? It's something like that.

You can see the philosophy at work in this recipe of his that was adapted by 101 Cookbooks.

My go-to salad based on this philosophy: greens or lettuce, red onion (quick pickled or plain), pepitas or walnuts or almonds, crumbled feta cheese (or parmesan) and a simple red wine vinaigrette. You can add other backgroundy vegetables like carrot or cucumber or celery to this too (though the celery is more of the crunchy category).

Most basic red wine vinaigrette in a pint jar:
two fingers red wine vinegar
a teaspoon-ish of mustard
1/2 teaspoon-ish kosher salt
two fingers olive oil

There's also an excellent quick pickle recipe in the Tassajara Cookbook for red onion. He doesn't put any sugar in his, which I like better.
posted by purple_bird at 2:03 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Quick pickling is amazing and adds so much. Same with fresh herbs; makes a huge difference for me.

You might need to add more salt than you think you need. Acids in soups is a huge thing that a lot of people overlook; the first time I made a vegetarian borsch, the recipe adds balsamic vinegar at the end, and it make the whole dish SO addictively good. A little fat always helps too. Salt + acid + fat in reasonable amounts.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:19 PM on July 29, 2016

Oh, pickled turnips are great for salads and pita sandwiches, and if you add some beets you get pink pickles. Highly recommended.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:20 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: Have you tried Dr. Fuhrman's Vegizest or Matozest seasonings? (Available on Amazon.) They are great in practically any vegetable or grain dish.

I also strongly recommend quality vinegars, like excellent balsamic vinegars. This is an amazing site. (I know, I tried a lot of these vinegars in their shop.) Fuhrman's vinegars are very good too.
posted by bearwife at 2:43 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: Just a dash of sesame oil will ramp up the flavor of just about anything.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:07 PM on July 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: MSG, butter, salt, pepper (grind it; the pre-powdered stuff is a different animal and barely worth it), oils, vinegars, sugar, maple syrup, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, heavy cream. I like to joke about how when I am cooking for other people, I'm just serving different varieties of flavoured butter, because everything is so laden with dairy fat, and people thrill to dairy fat even if they don't realise it. Ask somebody if they like creamed vegetables and they will probably give you a disgusted look, think of creamed corn in a tin, and say 'Hell no.'

But, take some good green peas, simmer them in heavy cream until the cream reduces, add S&P and chives and whatever other herbs, and near the very end quickly stir in an egg yolk or two for even more richness. Check out the Swedish dish stuvad potatis, potatoes stewed in cream. People actually do love creamed vegetables once they have them properly made.

Roasted AND marinated veg is a great thing for sandwiches. Refrigerator quick pickles for onions come out great (ditto cherry tomatoes, cukes, carrots, cauliflower, etc, etc).

Also, grilled or fried cheese -- I don't mean sandwiches and mozzarella sticks, but cheeses like halloumi and paneer, cooked up and cubed and mixed in with your salad, or cooked in slabs and inserted in to your sandwich.

We have a greengrocer chain here with a really extensive and delicious salad bar, and I like stopping in and getting a big mess of all their grain and bean salads, some egg/egg salad, their pickled onions, a bit of veg, and a sack of pitas and making sandwiches out of this mess of interesting salad bar stuff -- a scoop of a good bean/grain salad in a pita sandwich is terrific.

(It is impossible to find vegetarian banh mi where I am. Both Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are just out of the question for vegetarians here because veg-oriented dishes are few and far between, and everything comes with fish sauce. There are probably actual vegetarian Thai/Vietnamese restaurants in bigger cities, but in my medium-ish one those are not good cuisines to look to for flavour inspiration for vegetarian cooking. A bit crazy-making; it certainly looks tasty.)
posted by kmennie at 3:16 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: My favorite multipurpose seasoning is nutritional yeast. You can sprinkle it on almost any vegetable/mixture or salad and it will combine well with many flavors.

My favorite dressing that I put on almost all my salads and vegetables is Hollyhock Yeast Dressing. It's basically a vinegraitte with nutritional yeast, but I have found it to be extremely flexible. For oil, I have used safflower, olive, and hemp oils. For tamari, I have used soy sauce and Bragg's aminos. I usually omit the garlic. So delicious in any format.

Amazon and Vitamin World have the best deals on nutritional yeast, KAL brand 22 oz for about 18-19$.
posted by danabanana at 3:19 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: Furikake! It's meant for rice - and is very very good on rice - but it is also very good on vegetables, fish, eggs, meat, cottage cheese, etc.

I have been on a huge Japanese-inspired breakfast kick, which also overflows to lunch and dinner. Aside from rice and furikake, I usually have fish, tamagoyaki, and several very basic quick-pickled vegetable and slaw sides. My go-tos are sunomono (that one's the cucumber variety you may know from your local sushi place, but sunomono is actually a methodology (see also lessons 3 and 4 after that page). I actually recommend just poking around that site and sister site Just Bento, especially the bento fillers category, which is sides and salads. You might get inspired by thinking outside the Western box.

I also shred an entire cabbage and half of it gets made into mayo-base slaw, the other quick-pickled with a big splash of sriracha.

One of the reasons a lot of restaurant/prepared foods tastes so good is sugar and fat. The sugar just amplifies the flavor (in a companion manner to salt, and it doesn't take lots, you don't necessarily need to make it sweet), and a lot of spices/seasonings are not water-soluble, so they require fat to actually unlock the real flavor in them.

The other way to bring out natural sugar in food is by browning it, either pan/stir frying or roasting until it takes on some color.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:14 PM on July 29, 2016

Best answer: Unless you're eating a rice that already has a lot of nutty heft to it, season your rice. Just a tiny bit of rice vinegar/sesame oil/soy sauce/saffron/chopped herbs/savory powders will do a lot to bring it into the foreground.

If you are AT ALL unsure about whether there's enough salt, there is not enough salt. Also, you can always rescue a mild oversalting with sweet + sour -- so don't be afraid.
posted by miniraptor at 4:47 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of my favourite things to throw on top of vegetarian food that needs a flavour punch:

Nutritional yeast
Sesame seeds, roasted fairly dark (get the whole, unhulled ones if you can)
Pinch of salt

Grind into powder in a coffee grinder, or use a mortar and pestle for a rougher texture.

I keep a jar in the fridge at all times. It's awesome sprinkled onto salads, sandwiches, and cooked veggies.

You can do the same thing switching out nori sheets for the nutritional yeast (then it's basically furikake. You could add bonito flakes if you like (I don't).
posted by Frenchy67 at 5:55 AM on July 30, 2016

Response by poster: near the very end quickly stir in an egg yolk or two for even more richness

This is interesting - how do you keep the egg yolk from cooking and being like scrambled eggs?
posted by onecircleaday at 11:21 AM on July 30, 2016

Yup: one thing I learned from the incomparable Yotam Ottolenghi is the incredible difference that fresh herbs make to something like roasted carrots, a chickpea salad, etc. I don't even LIKE parsley but somehow a fresh-herb yogurt sauce is the greatest thing. Here we can et these frozen finely chopped herbs so spoilage isn't an issue, though you can freeze your own fresh herbs in olive oil. Game changer.
posted by athirstforsalt at 12:54 AM on August 1, 2016

A book for your library would be Parisi's Get Saucy which is a great one book source for dressings, marinades and sauces that work with foods including vegetables. Another one is the Vegetarian Flavor Bible, which does flavor and seasoning pairings.
posted by jadepearl at 5:49 AM on August 2, 2016

how do you keep the egg yolk from cooking and being like scrambled eggs?

I was dubious when I first read a creamed peas recipe with that idea, but went ahead, ditched the whites, stirred the yolks a bit, and stirred them in in a thin drizzle, quickly, with the pan off the heat, and it blended right in and disappeared. I've since repeated this with a lot of cream-of dishes and never run into a chunk of cooked egg -- you can't tell it's got egg; it's just a little richer/creamier for the yolk addition. I think there's just so little egg compared to the cream that if you put that amount of cream with a couple of yolks in a pan even without the veg and tried to make it firm up, you wouldn't get far; it's just too dilute. (Probably?)
posted by kmennie at 3:08 PM on August 2, 2016

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