There has never been a better time to be a vegan chef, whether you are an amateur or aspiring professional. Awareness of the environment and a desire to live more sustainably are converging with all kinds of new ingredients and approaches to cooking. This is helping create some truly innovative dishes that nourish, delight and can be consumed without a big helping of ecological guilt.
Best of all, vegan cooking is not just for vegans. Part-time veganism also has a beneficial impact on the planet, and can help you eat more varieties of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, even if you still get your meat on from time to time. As tastes change, some proficiency in vegan cuisine is becoming important for even conventional chefs.
Vegetables, especially when farm fresh, can certainly stand all alone, but other times you want to give them a little help. Without cheese, meat and butter, how do you make nuanced and complex dishes? The secret is umami (Japanese for yummy), a savory flavor profile some are calling the fifth taste. Umami is why we love bacon, grilled meat and searing. It isn't salty, but can be complemented by salt, and can add depth and interest to even simple dishes. Miso, coconut amino and the like give foods an umami boost. But there is one secret ingredient that encapsulates umami yumminess (is that an anti-oxymoron?) like no other, and that ingredient (drum roll please) is nutritional yeast.
What the Heck Is Nutritional Yeast?
Despite its rather clinical and unappetizing name, nutritional yeast has an interesting flavor profile that works well with spicy, sour, sweet and salty tastes, while adding interesting texture to dishes. Known affectionately as "nooch" in some vegan circles, it also packs a healthy wallop of B vitamins and is available in non-gluten formulations. It's golden, flakey and strangely delicious. You can sprinkle it over popcorn, pasta and salads, or use it as a cheese substitute in vegan pesto and sauces. It's actually deactivated yeast -- technically a fungus -- and gets an opposable thumbs up by the Paleo crowd, if you are pleasing primal eaters for dinner.
Nutritional yeast can help your raw desserts firm up and give them depth so they aren't just five kinds of sweet. Add to nut butters to fill chocolate cups, and don't forget to pair with sea salt.
Using blended flax as a binder, toss tofu or vegetables in nutritional yeast and fry up some golden deliciousness. It will blacken more quickly than flour and tends to soak up a bit more oil, so keep a close eye, turn frequently and use several inches of vegan shortening in a deep pan. You can even use it to bread some amazing gluten-free chicken strips, but don't tell your vegan friends.
Lightly steamed, sautéed or even raw vegetable dishes can all be
enhanced by dusting on these golden flakes, enhanced by sea salt. Try to top your soups with it, too, or toss on some breaded tofu for a real treat. It's amazing on kale, zucchini, roasted Brussel sprouts, and shredded beets and red cabbage, especially when the aforementioned is sauteed in toasted sesame oil and served on a bed of fresh arugula. Now that's umami.
Make your own cheese sauce for pasta, dipping or veggies by blending
olive oil, nutritional yeast, broth and mild nuts like cashews or pine nuts. Experiment with different spices and herbs to create a creamy sauce that can pair well with your favorite noodle or to even concoct a tasty vegan risotto.
Although nutritional yeast is often compared to cheese and substituted for it, the most exciting vegan cuisine departs from mere imitation of traditional dishes and stakes new ground. Experiment freely with this vegan staple to create something entirely new. Use it with different spice blends to create flavor profiles that will surprise and delight your guests. Not only is nutritional yeast tasty and packed with minerals and vitamins, it can add to the presentation of a dish and make even a simple meal special.
Happy eating for a healthy planet!