Vegan Secrets Revealed! 5 Magic Foods for Decadent Plant-Based Cooking

Top Secret! (but not really)

Are you celebrating Veganuary? Exploring Meatless Mondays? Just looking for tasty ways to work more plant-based yum into your diet? I’m going to break vegan protocol, and publicly reveal the indulgent plant-based ingredients your mama never told you about.

There’s a whole world of deliciousness out there that most omnivores have never even tasted!

1. Nutritional Yeast

Stop! Before you go any further, go online (or to the bulk bins at your local natural foods store) and buy a big bag of nutritional yeast flakes. I’ll wait!

Ok, got it ordered? Good! Nutritional yeast, also known as ‘nooch,’ is the number-one food I wish someone had told me about when I first started learning to cook. Its flavor may remind you of aged cheddar or parmesan cheese, but it’s a much more versatile ingredient than those things. Especially if you’re going vegan or dairy-free — but even if you’re not– nooch is the best thing since sliced (vegan) bread!

The ways by which nooch brings happiness to the world are almost too numerous to list. It thickens and flavors soup or chili, makes popcorn amazingly delicious, tops toast with beautifully along with vegan butter or avocado, and joins avocado, lemon juice, and sea salt for the perfect salad dressing.

Paired with coarse garlic salt, it’s delicious as a topping for edamame, asparagus, or Brussel’s sprouts. Mix a couple tablespoons of nutritional yeast into your flour to give bread a buttery flavor boost; drizzle stale bread cubes with olive oil, sprinkle with nooch, garlic salt, and dried parsley to toast up some tasty croutons. Type ‘vegan recipe nooch sauce’ into any search engine, and you’ll find about a million scrumptious recipes for vegan mac-and-cheese and cruelty-free melty cheese, for broccoli or baked potatoes.

In short, nutritional yeast is a must-have ingredient for luscious vegan cooking!

2. Raw Cashews

If you’ve only had cashews roasted and salted, just wait until you see all the other things they can do! Raw cashews contain a magical creaminess that you wouldn’t expect a nut to offer. Especially when combined with nutritional yeast, raw cashews make incredible vegan cheese that’s much more delicious (and cost effective) than anything you’ll find pre-made. Use raw cashews to make amazing vegan parmesan, mayonnaise (Vegan On the Cheap’s ‘Make Your Own Mayo’ is excellent!), ricotta, queso dip, butternut Alfredo sauce, whipped cream, or even cream cheese for cheesecake.

Roasting cashews is practically wasteful!

3. Kala Namak

If you’re just starting to explore egg-free cooking, kala namak is another little-known but must-have pantry staple. Also known as Indian black salt, this stuff tastes like more like eggs than eggs! It’s not really black but actually a sort of pinkish gray salt, available at Asian or Indian markets or online. Use it in vegan versions of traditional recipes like deviled eggs, egg salad, or breakfast scrambles. Skip the cholesterol and cruelty, keep the flavor!

Kala namak also boasts a reputation for soothing intestinal woes, in case you overdo it on the beans.

4. Kale

Ok, yes: I know you already know what kale is. For this ingredient, the magic is in what you DO to the kale!

Unlike most greens, kale crisps up into chips when it’s roasted or dried. So you can easily make delicious, delicate, IRRISISTABLY ADDICTIVE snack chips out of raw kale!

A dehydrator  isn’t necessary, but to me it’s the easiest method:

  • wash 1 bunch of kale, de-stem, and tear leaves into 2-3″ pieces
  • toss with 1/2 tablespoon light olive oil or walnut oil (optional, but helps seasonings stick to kale), plus spices to taste (I recommend salt, nooch, cayenne, and a splash of cider vinegar: NOM!)
  • place kale in a single layer on dehydrator trays, and dehydrate for about 4 hours at 140 degrees or until crisp.

Massaged kale is the other unsung magical kale trick, by which a pretty assertive cabbage-y green relaxes into the dreamy role of Best Salad Green Ever. If you haven’t ever tried this, and don’t think you like kale, you might be surprised how quickly it wins you over!

Here’s how you make the magic:

  • wash 1 bunch of kale, de-stem, and tear leaves into bite-sized pieces
  • let air-dry in colander for a bit, or pat dry-ish with a kitchen towel, and transfer to large salad bowl
  • drizzle kale with a little bit of oil, whatever kind you like (optional — if you’d rather omit oil, use slightly more lemon juice or vinegar)
  • drizzle with the juice of 1/2 lemon or lime, or your favorite salad vinegar
  • sprinkle with salt (fine vs. coarse salt works better)
  • rub handfuls of kale between your palms for 1-2 minutes, until leaves are softened
  • add whatever dressing or spices suit your fancy (the world is your oyster mushroom!) and taste, taste, taste, taste, taste to adjust seasonings
  • serve anywhere you’d use mild greens like spinach or lettuce (salads, wraps, sandwiches, whatever), if there’s any still left by the time you’re done tasting!

The magic of massaged kale is that it’s tender and incredibly flavorful, yet sturdy enough not to wilt overnight in dressed salads — so it’s perfect for make-ahead lunches, pot-luck dishes, picnics, or dinner with un-veg-friendly relatives.

Kale chips and massaged kale will revolutionize how you think about leafy greens! (Disclaimer: these are both seriously habit-forming substances, so please: kale responsibly.)

5. Coconut Oil

Like kale, you may already know that coconut oil exists. But do you know about all the cool things it can DO?!

Like butter or margarine, coconut oil is solid at room temperature so it’s great for vegan baking. Coconut oil is also perfect for high-heat stovetop cooking, since it’s smoke point is 360 degrees F. It’s very shelf stable, keeps for ages, and doesn’t soak into your sautĂŠed food the way other oils tend to do. You can use it as a 1:1 substitution for vegan margarine in recipes, if you avoid cooking with palm oil — better yet, why not use it to whip up some easy vegan butter?

Unrefined coconut oil smells like coconuts, and confers a lovely depth of flavor to things like baked desserts, fried plantains, Thai curries, or Caribbean dishes. Refined coconut oil doesn’t smell or taste like coconuts, and can be used in anything without altering its flavor profile at all. Either kind of coconut oil makes delicious vegan chocolate chips!

I’ve noticed that often when folks just start to explore vegan cooking, there’s a tendency to suddenly and drastically reduce dietary fat consumption. Some people arrange that quite deliberately, for the purpose of weight control; but for many people just starting down the vegan path — especially if they have the impression that the only foods they ‘can eat’ are sprouts and raw broccoli — they may encounter a lusciousness deficit at meal time.

It’s not protein that makes a meal ‘stick to your ribs’ — it’s those comfort-food fats. Obviously you don’t want to go overboard, but luckily a little bit goes a long way! Along with avocadoes, nuts, seeds, and nut butters, coconut oil brings that satisfying mmmmmmmmmmm-ness to vegan cooking.

Coconut oil appears to offer some specific health benefits along with its deliciousness. It’s also great for your skin — you can even use it to make chemical free vegan lip balm!

So There You Go!

Now you know the top 5 magic ingredients vegans use to make their dinner guests swoon.


*(Nah, what the heck: share away!)

Image credit: spy photo via Shutterstock.

4 thoughts on “Vegan Secrets Revealed! 5 Magic Foods for Decadent Plant-Based Cooking”

  1. Great post! I’m familiar with all of those items but haven’t used them as widely as you suggested. Nooch on croutons sounds like a great addition.

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