How to take my cooking to the next level (vegetarian)?
June 28, 2021 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I consider myself a fairly accomplished home cook. I've always loved food, and love to cook. I've been complimented on my cooking by friends and partners. I have no problems modifying recipes or cooking without a recipe. The thing is, I feel like my skills have plateaued, and I really want to take it to the next level. How do I get there?

I've been a vegetarian for several years now, and as someone who really liked meat when I ate it, I've spent a lot of time to learn to cook in a way where I wouldn't miss meat--learning ways to make vegetable dishes that felt savory, satisfying, filling, and rich. I'm somewhat lactose intolerant, so this is also without using cheese or butter, which I often feel like are shortcuts to making vegetarian things rich or filling. However, I've reached a point where my skills are good but not great, and I want to get better.

Two anecdotes to illustrate this- Tonight I was cooking some food for my mom. She asked for some spinach, so I kept it simple. I thinly sliced some king oyster mushrooms for umami, a shallot, and some garlic. I cooked the mushrooms down a little first in a dry pan with the shallots, browning them slightly before adding any oil or salt. I added some olive oil and the spinach and garlic after that, counting on the liquid released from the spinach to help deglaze the pan, and added salt as well so it'd have time to incorporate. It came out pretty good, I thought. However, my mom had some leftover vegetable dishes from a Cantonese restaurant we like that she wanted me to try, so I got to eat those next to the spinach I made.

And in comparison, there was no contest. The flavors of the Cantonese dishes were light but complex, you could taste the ingredients both individually and as a group, and the flavors just felt really harmonious. My spinach tasted fine, but didn't meld the flavors in the same way or taste as clean. (for the curious, the Cantonese dishes were bitter melon with egg, and luffa gourd (sing gua - wiki) with mushrooms and tofu skin).

I know there's certain things I don't have (commercial grade stove and well seasoned wok), but I still feel like there's things I can do to at least get closer to that with my home cooking.

Anecdote two--A friend's partner is a chef and he made some of the best beans I've ever eaten. They were pinto beans in a southern style, with some aromatics but mostly beans. The flavors were well-balanced, savory, rich, and I raved about the beans to my friend. As a vegetarian I thought I'd gotten pretty decent at making satisfying beans, but I'd never made beans that good before. I asked if I could know what was in his beans. She asked him, and told me that he said "a little of this and that", which I felt a little put out about. I get some people don't like to share recipes, but I thought just knowing the ingredients would be innocuous enough. But it was the same feeling as tonight's situation. I know there's another level I could get to, but I don't know how to get there.

Often I've heard/read that to make food more like restaurant food you should use more butter, salt, and shallots than you use at home. But as I said, I'm slightly lactose intolerant. I almost never use butter in my cooking. So how do East Asian and Southeast Asian restaurants do it? How do vegetarian American restaurants do it? How do good chefs do it?

Things I've done:
-Tried to read more about the science. I own but have not done a deep dive into: Howard McGee's "On Food and Cooking" and Samin Nosrat's "Salt Fat Acid Heat". I've watched America's Test Kitchen and read Cook's Illustrated, and have read a lot of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's articles and plan to buy "The Food Lab".
-I've watched a handful of youtube cooking channels, usually culture-specific ones and less cooking instruction channels (any recommendations here would be welcomed!).
-At one point I thought about cooking more in restaurants to learn these skills, but the restaurants I worked at already had full kitchen staff, and after a couple of years I decided I couldn't handle the stress of restaurant work.
-Tried to experiment with recreating dishes I've had elsewhere and enjoyed.

So chefs and home cooks of askme, how do you do it? What things took your cooking to the next level? What am I missing?
posted by wander to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Fellow vegetarian, home-cook enthusiast. I know you mentioned America's Test Kitchen, but I'd recommend their Complete Vegetarian Cookbook, specifically their red beans and rice recipe. I cook this recipe at least once a month in colder weather. The recipe calls for a fair amount of butter, but I could see subbing olive oil or butter substitute. For me, ATK's Asian recipes are far less reliable. But there are many, many gems in that book.
posted by cursed at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2021

For Asian food on YouTube I really like:

Chinese Cooking Demystified
Pailin's Kitchen
School of Wok


Peaceful Cuisine

Peaceful Cuisine is vegan, and the others are largely meat based with an occasional vegetarian recipe.

300K BTUs aren't required for most asian food at home, you can do just fine on a seasoned wok over a gas flame. I do sometimes hit the top of a wok with a blow torch that I normally use for searing when I think a dish would benefit from wok-hay. I'm an omnivore who is cooking a lot more vegetarian these days for health and environmental reasons and while I'm not an expert I thought I'd chime in with a few things.

Ghee is great as a butter substitute. It should be lactose free since it's just the butterfat, so you end up with a lot of the mouth feel and flavor, but without the solids that'll cause problems. It also has a much higher smoke point so you can do heavier frying without burning it.

Chinese restaurants tend to advertise no MSG because of racism in the 70s and imaginary allergies, but glutamates are all over the place in soy sauce, liquid aminos, fish sauce, etc etc etc. Feel free to just use MSG when necessary for richer umami flavors.

The green cap golden mountain seasoning sauce is incredible and gets subbed a lot for conventional soy sauce in vegetarian recipes for me. It brings a lot of the richness that vegetarian dishes tend to miss.

A lot of dishes tend to be cooked separately then tossed together at the end. Blanch broccoli, green beans, cabbage, etc first and then combine together with sauce at the end. Cleaner flavors all around, more even cooking, etc.

I've found a lot of cookbooks tend to have really bland recipes. I usually bump most herbs and spices up, keeping the general proportions, and then then salt to taste, using way more than you'd think.

Also, in addition to explicit recipe channels on youtube there are a ton of people doing videos of street vendors with no commentary. They tend to be great for figuring out techniques that otherwise don't get shown and you can figure out recipes once you know how to identify ingredients.

Dancing Bacons, Aden and Yummyboy all come to mind, again, largely not vegetarian, but the technique is really solid.
posted by mikesch at 4:36 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

learn new dishes, especially those that incorporate sophisticated spices. many asian cuisines fit this as well as the many regional indian cuisines. taste and smell every spice every time to develop a natural feel. eventually the combinations begin to make sense. i hear ya on dairy, but don't be afraid of liberal oils (olive, avocado, sesame, truffle...), salt, even msg. this book is good because of the long introduction to off the beaten track varieties of veg, legumes, shrooms, grains...the recipes are delish but a little precious for me (on preview, actually, i dunno, its a much newer edition than mine). have a terrific adventure.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:44 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Often I've heard/read that to make food more like restaurant food you should use more butter, salt, and shallots than you use at home. [...] How do good chefs do it?

They use a lot of oil (usually vegetable oil), lots of salt, and a decent amount of MSG. Butter is too expensive to use in a lot of commercial kitchens.

If you think of a non-vegetarian bean dish with a pound of dried beans, one might 0.5-1 lb of bacon. That's roughly 1200-2400 calories, of which 800-1700 calories come from fat. An equivalent amount of fat in a vegetarian dish would be roughly 0.4 cups - 0.8 cups of oil.

That amount of oil sounds absurd, but fat tastes good. If your vegetarian dishes are not using an equivalent amount of oil as a meat dish would, you're lacking one of the primary satiety signals your body is looking for, and preventing soluble compounds in your food from being consumed.

When you are salting dishes, consider that most restaurants end up salting dishes to 0.5% salt by weight. That same one pound of beans, cooked in 2.5 quarts of water, weighs roughly 6 pounds. To properly season it, you'll want roughly 0.5 oz of salt in the dish - that's one full tablespoon of kosher salt. Are you using that amount of salt? If not, you're lacking one of the primary mechanisms by which your taste buds operate. Without salt, your taste buds literally stop working and food is tasteless.

Finally, MSG is brilliant. Try making popcorn with MSG sometime. You'll see why it's used.

This is likely a simpler answer than you were expecting, but in my experience, it explains a lot of the differences you see between restaurant cooking and home cooking. Restaurants don't actually (generally) use absurdly hard to source items, nor do they generally have "better" ingredients. Of course, sometimes they do, but usually only for a specific "star" ingredient for a dish. If you've ever looked at the produce restaurants work with, you might be a bit appalled compared to what you see in a grocery store. Restaurants don't have absurdly high food budgets - most of their money goes to the chefs, not the ingredients.

One of the most useful experiences I've had as a home cook is to try cooking the same dish to different levels of fat content, and different levels of salinity. You can train yourself to properly season your dishes. After you do that, the fine details between restaurant dishes and your dishes can be easier to tease apart, as you'll be 80% of the way there already.
posted by saeculorum at 4:53 PM on June 28, 2021 [14 favorites]

This is not an incredibly helpful answer, but I might be paranoid the beans had lard in them if they were 1) unusually delicious and 2) the person who cooked them wouldn't tell me what was in them. Source: vegetarian for 10 years but don't ask too many questions when I order beans at the taqueria, where they are always better than when I cook them at home.

But yeah, I'd say in general "restaurant taste" = more fat, more salt, strong umami-flavored things (parm rinds, soy, truffle...) or just straight MSG. And I know the hype is a bit out of control, but for bean-specific dishes, buying Rancho Gordo has really paid off flavor-wise without changing anything else about my bean cooking methods (lots of coconut oil, aromatics, liquid smoke for southern beans).
posted by sparkling at 5:12 PM on June 28, 2021 [13 favorites]

One last comment - it occurred to me a few months ago that restaurants usually either cook food very quickly (for dishes prepared on demand) or very slowly (for dishes that are prepared well in advance). As a corollary, most ingredients for a dish will either be completely fresh (or maybe blanched), or very well-cooked. So, I've moved my cooking to cook fresh ingredients less, and long-cooked items (usually background flavor notes like caramelized onions) longer.

Although I can't necessarily say this is always better, I can say that my cooking has more closely approximated restaurant cooking, especially for vegetables. Most restaurants seem to cook vegetables much less than I used to, and I can now approximate a restaurant stirfry (even without a 100K+ BTU burner).
posted by saeculorum at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Studying Thai cooking theory of balancing five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, savory, and spicy changed all of my cooking for the better. I took an in person one day class then read a few books.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 6:53 PM on June 28, 2021

Grow your own food.

It tastes better when you grew it yourself. Sometimes just emotionally, but other times it really actually is better. I can grow potatoes that seem nearly as dense as rocks. They're amaaaazing! Not the same as the watered-down potatoes you get from the grocery store. Etc.
posted by aniola at 7:05 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Would ghee be ok for your lactose intolerance? Also came in to say MSG. Add lime or lemon juice, depending on the cuisine. Try experimenting with truffles, chipotles in adobo, and other flavorful ingredients.
posted by at 7:13 PM on June 28, 2021

Blooming spices in oil/fat is a pretty big deal (and makes a big difference) for a bunch of cuisines, if you're not doing that already.

Also, combining raw spices with the same spice that's been bloomed/roasted. So, for example, raw garlic in a dish that also has roasted garlic. Or cumin seeds + toasted cumin powder, etc. Adds depth/complexity. You can toy with this a bit, by combining different sorts of the same flavor concept -- so, for example, parsley, yogurt, and lemon. They're all sort of sharp/sour, but in different ways, so if you add all three in a dish that has an appropriate foil (eg: for carnivores, maybe lamb) it can really knock it out of the park.
posted by aramaic at 7:55 PM on June 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

If you want to put some time/elbow grease into it, I suggest checking out the cookbook Flavor--vegetarian (with vegan modifications) recipes that are all quite rich in flavor. I've only cooked a few things out of it and they were rather labor intensive, but quite delicious. It has a section on cooking techniques and a pantry list that I've found helpful.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:14 PM on June 28, 2021

What do you like to eat? Learn the core recipes of those cuisines. Get all the cookbooks from the library you can muster; you might only get a dish or two out of an entire book that you want to cook. . When trying a new recipe of a dish that you like, index it against 5-6 other recipes from reliable websites. Learning how to cook core dishes in a cuisine gets you technique, and that technique is what allows you to riff well with ingredients on hand. Steal techniques from vegan recipes, even though you're not cooking vegan. (Western) vegans are good at technique. Collect techniques, this is where your ability to riff and roll with recipes will germinate from (and expand your ability to read a recipe and call bullshit on it).

Pick 5 dishes in 5 different cuisines (and fundamentally different styles) and destroy them to the point that you do not need a recipe in front of you. Your dish will not be 'authentic' in the end, but you will have created something that is in the spirit of the dish, that is yours. While not vegetarian, I make ramen from scratch. I no longer require a recipe (except for my noodle dough, which is a mutation of several ramen doughs). It is not authentic. It has been given the stamp of approval by several Japanese nationals. That knowledge has directly lead to "other ramens" that my family loves; we do a chicken and a mushroom ramen that are both stripped down, and more simple, but no less wonderful.

White miso is a good butter analog, but I would use a little less than you would butter. It won't do all the same things, but can stand in place for a number of things. Corn on the cob with miso? Fuck yes please. I make a succotash and almost always drop a dollop of miso in there. Anything where sweet and savor dance that line, Miso is often an answer.

As others have suggested, MSG babee. But also, you may not be using enough salt. "Seasoned to taste" can actually be pretty fucking bananas amount of salt, especially for something like beans or lentils. Flakier salts can simulate more saltiness when a dish is finished with them.

Liquid smoke is underutilized, and really useful, and gets a bad rep because it is strong stuff, and in large amounts, used improperly can make things taste like shit. High quality liquid smoke should just have water and smoke listed as the ingredients. It is basically heavily smoked water, that has creosote filtered out. I store mine with an eyedropper lid. Hickory gives you a pretty distinct southern vibe, but applewood I find to be more 'just tasty smoke' flavor. If a dish is missing something, after balancing with salt and vinegar, I'll drop just a couple drops of the stuff into a dish; it is almost imperceptible as smoky flavor, but adds a nice complexity to dishes. My vegetarian lasagna uses like a teaspoon of liquid smoke. It does not come out smoky, but it tastes deeper than if I omit it.

Eggplant is the dark horse when it comes to meaty, filling dishes. The answer is always eggplant. Learning how to deal with that soggy beast of a veg is difficult, but oh, so rewarding. Lately, we have been enjoying bahn mi with grilled eggplant. Super dope.

Learning to cook a couple of key Indian dishes from various provinces has helped me cook seasonal veggies way better. Both Saag ____ (fill in the blank) and ____ Masala are our dumping grounds for all seasonal veg. Eggplant "tika" masala? Oh god. Indian "Sauce and stuff" format is a dope move. Daal is a revelation. The curry guy skews "Indian restaurant by way of Britain by way of Punjab" but is solid nonetheless, and his cookbooks are written for a western kitchen (which is helpful). I do not tire of Saag or Masala anything.

Power Vegetables from Lucky Peach is going to be right up your alley. That book is specifically designed to outline what makes a vegetarian dish fuckin pop off. Again, lots of good techniques there.

If you are at all interested in modernist techniques, I would listen to the back catalog of the Cooking Issues podcast. The information is more "let it wash over you" but you'll find good techniques in there.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:28 PM on June 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Learn Indian cooking techniques. It will teach you how to build layers of flavors that meld into a harmonious final product. Madhur Jaffrey is a good resource here.

Also if you havent explored the wonders of blending hemp hearts, nutritional yeast, salt and olive oil as a sauce base....well, my friend, you are in for a good time. I just made a vegan pesto with this plus arugula, lemon juice, and fresh garlic and I had to restrain myself from just eating a bowl of it straight.
posted by ananci at 8:51 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

For flavorful lactose-free vegetarian cooking, Indian and Chinese foods are great ways to go.

One cookbook that has really leveled up my home-cooked Chinese food game is Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop. It's not a vegetarian cookbook but many of the dishes are vegetarian. She is a Sichuan-trained chef from the UK and so she is very good at explaining what the differences are between Chinese and Western technique when it comes to things like flavoring and even chopping vegetables.

For Chinese food in particular, there is a whole different set of pantry staples. Much of the flavor in Chinese food comes from fermented ingredients that (other than soy sauce) you won't have on hand unless you seek them out. Tianjin preserved vegetable, black vinegar, and fermented black soybeans are three of my favorites. One of the best things about Every Grain of Rice is that there is an index of ingredients at the back, with pictures of everything.

Indian food is a whole different set of techniques. One thing that you'll find is that the details of given Indian dishes vary a ton region to region and cook to cook. Indians love to tell you that you're doing it wrong. But the general techniques are pretty shared, and getting them right makes a big difference to your food. The big ones are toasting your spices, and then how you "layer in" aromatics -- usually it starts with cumin seeds in oil, then ginger and garlic paste (or asafoetida) and perhaps fresh chilis, then onions (or not) and tomatoes (or not), then your ground spices and masalas, and so forth. I have had a very hard time learning Indian cooking from the Internet or books, but cooking with people who know what they're doing makes a huge difference -- so much of it is about feel.

Also, French or no, restaurant food has much more fat and salt in it than a home-cooked meal. For Chinese takeout in the US, I've also noticed the restaurant food also has a ton more sugar. In Indian food, the fat is often ghee (clarified butter) which *should* be lactose free since it contains no milk solids. (Also you can totally use oil instead -- mustard oil is traditional in Bengal and Orissa but can't be sold for culinary use in the US for some cancer reason I don't totally understand, but neutral oil works too.)

(Another Indian restaurant trick is adding cashew paste to everything which pisses me off to no end since I am allergic to cashews!! I have never once gotten sick from eating at the home of a South Asian person but with North Indian restaurants it's like 50-50. Anyway, if you want your Indian food to taste more like a restaurant's, try cashew paste maybe?)
posted by goingonit at 9:29 PM on June 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Since you mention butter and egg, I assume you have no objection to animal by-products. A lot of Cantonese sauces have meat flavoring (e.g. oyster sauce, shrimp sauce, XO sauce, etc) that helps add an extra dimension to vegetarian dishes. Other seasonings like fermented bean curd are vegan, but add a lot of umami and thickness. In Japanese cuisine, you can get miso and various sauces (e.g. memmi and hon tsuyu) that have bonito flavoring. When I'm making vegetarian dishes, I find that these help a great deal.
posted by ambulatorybird at 9:31 PM on June 28, 2021

Three of the really common ingredients of restaurant cooking that make them stand out compared to home cooking - lots of salt, lots of butter (though not so much with Chinese) or other fats, and MSG.

As far as taking your own cooking to the next level without just putting those into them, getting fresh spices, grinding them yourself, and blooming them in oil will help elevate your cooking. Adding a dash of fresh citrus right before serving can also help.

For oriental style food, use sesame oil rather than butter but don't cook with it, particularly at high temperatures. Add it to the dish after it's off the heat before serving it (give it a good stir to make sure it mixes in well).
posted by Candleman at 10:48 PM on June 28, 2021

Salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Those are the canonical five components of flavour.

NONSENSE. Because fat is missing. And I don't care what anybody else says: I can taste fat, and I can taste the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat, and saturated fat just tastes better.

If butter doesn't work for you, try cold pressed coconut oil.
posted by flabdablet at 11:39 PM on June 28, 2021

Sometimes, I get to restaurant level food. Not at all every time I cook, but it happens now and then.

The first thing is that home cooking is its own genre and in my opinion it can be the best genre. If you focus on the best ingredients, simple cooking can be amazing. But the best ingredients really, really make a difference. Often restaurants, even cheaper restaurants, have access to better produce because their whole distribution system is different from the retail system. And because they have the staff, they can do things we ordinary home cooks may avoid. I don't know about your spinach, but a couple of weeks ago, I bought fresh spinach in a crate from a wholesaler. It was grown in earth outdoors, not in a growing medium in a greenhouse. And it was rich and incredibly tasty and a pain to rinse. My daughter is a restaurant worker, and we just do this together and it's sort of manageable, and our spanakopita was just a whole other thing than what one could achieve with bagged or frozen spinach (though frozen is better than bagged in this case).

The next thing is the classic cookbooks. I learnt how to cook by going systematically through a few French classics with my friends. Those classics of my youth won't be your classics, because you are vegetarian and Asian-leaning. But by very carefully following their instructions, I learnt a lot that I wouldn't have learnt through more popular volumes. Even though I mostly make simple sauces today, it makes a huge difference that I know how to make the classic French sauces from scratch. I know what the shortcuts are trying to reach, and so I can adapt when they don't work as intended, or I can already improve them from the outset, if I can see they are missing an important aspect. Not all cookbooks have those qualities. I have a friend who is a cookbook author, and she simplifies the recipes for the home cook, which is fine for a lot of people, but it is not what you are looking for. ATK does the same.
I agree with several posters above that Madhur Jaffreys books are excellent. Right now I am trying to learn Sichuan cooking through Fushcia Dunlop's book, she has attended a chef school in the Sichuan Province, so knows the right techniques and ingredients, even though she isn't Chinese. You can try her fish-fragrant eggplants without buying the book, and see if it works for you.
posted by mumimor at 12:49 AM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

> So how do East Asian and Southeast Asian restaurants do it?

At least for Japanese cooking, a really flavorful dashi or broth/stock is essential. It's often the missing ingredient in a lot of Americanized Japanese dishes. Conversely, there were some European/fusion/Californian/Mediterranean dishes that were so satisfying that they still linger in my culinary memories, and it was because the flavor reminded me of that deep deep profile of dashi.

If you want to avoid fish/animal stock, one of the best light broths I've had (on its own, as a snack) was a vegan version: in a large pot, boil and simmer some shiitake, gobo/burdock root, carrot, maybe some daikon, maybe some kombu; remove the veg bits or strain, add plenty of salt, and enjoy. This is just one version; I'm sure there are a bunch of different recipes out there.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 4:09 AM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

So there's a lot here to unpack.

Just a few notes.

One thing I've noticed a lot of chefs do is layer on flavors in two ways, one way that seems simple but adds complexity is combining similar foods, for example making a simple salad with Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheeses instead of just parmesan. In your example using multiple types of mushrooms, this adds complexity that "seems" simple. Or preparing the same ingredient in different ways. Roasted, and raw etc. Multiple similar spices and fresh herbs is another way. Most chef's these days are developing a pretty broad pantry of flavor bombs. XO sauces, fermented foods, preserved lemons, and their ilk. So developing a broad pantry of flavor additions is one way that something like beans can be pulled together "with a little bit of this and that".

Having a really good olive oil on hand makes a difference that can be huge.

One technique that has become super popular these days is fermentation. Fermenting foods for long periods of time adds complexity and flavors that are hard to replicate and add a lot of umami and depth. One of SF's best restaurants is State Bird Provisions their cookbook goes into a lot of this. Noma, which was for years the "World's best restaurant" is another. This leads me to the next subject. These cookbooks from Michelin-starred restaurants are not for the faint of heart, but they're packed with techniques and flavors you can learn from. The recipes can be intense but getting into their techniques can be huge on upping your game. There are similar cookbooks for regional cuisines. and the Grand Master which is Modernist Cuisine. Something similar but maybe slightly more user friendly would be Chez Pannise's cookbook.

My point above is that the books you mentioned are great (I thought of Samin's book immediately before you got there) for the basics but you're going to want to do a deeper dive than what you can get from America's Test Kitchen or most YouTubers if you want to get to restaurant-level depths of flavor.
posted by bitdamaged at 6:37 AM on June 29, 2021

I personally feel that the key to really good cooking is to start with the best quality ingredients possible that you can get, and then just....get out of their way.

For instance - let's look at the spinach you cooked for your mom. You had king oyster mushrooms for umami, a shallot, and some garlic going on in there, along with olive oil and salt; that is twice the number of ingredients I would use myself. I'd just use the olive oil and garlic, maybe some salt, and that's it. Chop the garlic and let that saute in the olive oil a few seconds in the pan first, then add the spinach and cook just until it wilts down, add salt to taste and done. But I would also be cooking farmers' market spinach instead of supermarket spinach, because farmers' market spinach don't need nuthin' else to make it good, and if you have mushrooms and a shallot also going on in there, it makes it harder to taste the really good spinach.

Or another example of my own - for years I would think I wasn't a big fan of butternut squash soup or carrot soup, but that's because a lot of those soups throw in all kinds of extra foobaz ingredients like curry or ginger or orange juice or whatever. But one of the absolute hands-down best lunches I have ever had was at a bistro in Paris where I had a carrot soup that tasted like carrots and nothing else, and I realized that "oh duh, of course I can do it that way." And at the soonest opportunity, when I next got some really good carrots in the CSA box, I just chopped them up, threw them in a pot with just enough water and a little salt, cooked them until they were soft and then pureed the lot. Perfect. My go-to butternut squash soup is a similar mix of "chopped up squash with just enough water, and a couple whole cloves of garlic, and MAYBE some sage leaves clipped from your windowsill garden."

You say that the thing you noticed about the restaurant vegetables was that they "tasted like themselves", and I think that's the key - make sure that the vegetables you get do taste good enough to taste like themselves, and then just stand back and let them. Spinach doesn't naturally have an umami quality, so you don't need to add one in; let the umami come from the other dishes you serve with the spinach. Really good butternut squash and carrots are sweet enough on their own, you don't need to make them even sweeter by adding fruit juice.

Save the not-so-stellar vegetables for a big pot of clean-out-the-fridge soup or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got myself a wok for Christmas and it has vastly exceeded my expectations and upped my cooking game. I ordered this one from The Wok Shop and used this easy method to season it, and I've been in love with it ever since. It does things none of my other pans can do, and makes even the simplest stir fry into a "damn, you made this at home??" masterpiece. If you are interested in Chinese cooking, you gotta get one.
posted by cakelite at 9:14 AM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I also strongly back watching Pailin's Kitchen/Hot Thai Kitchen and Chinese Cooking Demystified to see how flavors are built, in very similar ways, over and over and over again. It's formulaic - in the best possible way - in that more or less the same array of building blocks (both in terms of ingredients and techniques) are used to create flavors in a very repeatable way. Acid does X, sugar does Y, a fermented product does Z. It can be learned.

I do think part of learning to have intuition about these things does mean cooking the same thing over and over and over with very minor variations. It's not hugely accessible to a busy life, but you can declare July to be Spinach Month (or something more seasonal, summer squash or tomatoes and eggplants or something) and just plan to eat a lot of that one thing along with your meals, so you can have that repetition.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:17 AM on June 29, 2021

Asian restaurant food also relies on Asian sauces - oyster, soy, Hoisin, sweet chili, fish sauce, and many more, along with MSG, sugar, and salt. Try a tsp. or less of fish sauce to add depth and flavor, and try recipes using bottled sauces. MSG, sugar, and salt get right to the taste buds and liven things up. If you reduce sugar and salt generally, you'll notice it more in prepared foods.
posted by theora55 at 10:45 AM on June 29, 2021

First, I would start with the oil when you're cooking the mushrooms and garlic. Never dry saute anything, that I can think of. Mushrooms you probably want to cook down first in a not-crowded pan, because they are so wet they'll tend to steam. But, if I wanted to add umami to spinach, I'd add broth (maybe a nice kombu seaweed broth, or something made with mushrooms) or msg (basically the same but someone else already did the work).

A pinch of sugar helps in lots of recipes, or if you cook them extra long then the sugars in the onions/beans/whatever will start to come out. Your restaurant stir fries absolutely had sugar in them.

Don't be scared of high heat, if you're trying for stir fry styles - I spent years trying to reproduce stir fries using a non-stick pan that couldn't be heated above medium, because I had learned as a kid that you cook onions "low and slow" and I only knew how to use nonstick. My stove is flat top and doesn't work great with a wok but I got a nice cast iron skillet that I can heat on high/medium-high, and now things get that char.
posted by Lady Li at 5:26 PM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Smoked paprika.
posted by the_blizz at 5:45 PM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

As for the beans dish... Cooked a long time with enough salt and some aromatics. Beans come out great for me, consistently, because I put a bunch of salt and a little garlic and black pepper in before I start the pressure cooker.

And a bay leaf, and if I have fennel I'll use fennel, and sometimes I add thyme or fresh oregano if I have some, and -- it really IS a little of this and that because it's not the spices that make the dish "savory and rich", it's the beans starting to break down a bit and enough salt and some fat (I would not assume lard, fwiw, because most home cooks in the US wouldn't have it to hand and beans don't really need it; I use nice olive oil at the end), and a little aromatics helps with balance but it isn't really important which ones.
posted by Lady Li at 6:05 PM on June 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Beans come out great for me, consistently, because I put a bunch of salt and a little garlic and black pepper in before I start the pressure cooker.

I've had really good results in a whole bunch of different genres by adding way too much fresh ground black pepper super early. That way, the sharp spicy notes get mostly cooked off and what you're left with is this subtle but totally delicious warmth that gets in behind the other flavours and gives them all a damn good shove.
posted by flabdablet at 4:07 AM on June 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

a little aromatics helps with balance but it isn't really important which ones

The single best thing you can do for your aromatics is buy and keep them in whole-seed form, and grind them with a stone mortar and pestle only a few minutes at most before throwing them in the pot.

A stone mortar and pestle can also usefully reduce dried herbs to powder, which lets you sneak even quite woody ones into all kinds of things without disturbing the texture much.

I like to grind up a blend of whatever spices I happen to have on hand - always a bit of whole black pepper, maybe some star anise, a bit of cumin, coriander seed if there's any left, a few cloves, a bit of cardamom perhaps, maybe some mustard seed - with a generous shake of mixed dried herbs and a spoonful or two of salt to help the grind get nice and fine. A couple of dried bird's-eye chilis can go in as well if I'm after a bit of heat, and perhaps a little sugar (pretty sure sugar is about eight of the eleven secret herbs and spices in KFC).

While I'm pounding and grinding that, I'll also be running the blender on full belt to turn a cup of raw brown rice into a coarse flour. Add that to the spice and herb mix once it's all looking finely ground enough, stir through a bit of powdered turmeric and maybe some powdered ginger as well, and that's a really nice crust to season anything that's about to go in the frying pan. Works well for thickening sauces too.

Never had much use for wooden mortar and pestle sets. Stone ones grind and clean up way easier.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on June 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

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