Sticking to my vegan diet feels especially hard right now. I’m also stuck in solo isolation and cooking is one of the last bastions of accessible joy. I’m used to plant-based dietary restrictions, but right now grocery stores are sold out of a lot of staples, and I’m also not supposed to be cruising around my city, spending hours in search of ramps, japanese eggplant, or a decent package of firm tofu. Chef Chad Sarno, co-founder and co-host of Wicked Healthy, an online cooking show found at Arcadia Earth, gave me some unexpected advice on how to make vegan cooking more exciting that will be valuable long after this crisis is over.
It’s not what’s in your cabinet, Sarno says, it’s how you use it. “You can build flavor on the simplest of ingredients,” Sarno tells me. “You may think that you need some new exotic ingredient made, but really you can look into any cupboard and make something great with what’s there.” I love this “it’s not the size of the boat,” style advice. You don’t need to buy anything new to make your diet more interesting, Sarno tells me. You just need to sharpen (or establish) three culinary skills:
Cooking can be stressful instead of relaxing if your kitchen is chaotic. “Getting yourself organized is fucking revolutionary.” In the professional cooking world, they call this mis en place, he explains, which simply means putting things in their places. “Set yourself up for success by having everything out that you’re going to use and cleaning up as you go." Before you turn turn a burner on, he says, make sure everything is set to go into the pan. If you’re rushing around your kitchen trying to find a paring knife, you won’t be relaxed enough to try out new flavors or observe your process.
Inspired meal preparation is also about doing things in a logical order. First, you should start the items that take the longest, like grains, says Sarno. Then, while they’re cooking, you can pull out the other ingredients.
Using different techniques on the same ingredient can make for dramatically different flavors.
After you've them laid out, it’s time to prep your veggies and make a sauce. Veggies and sauces often take more preparation by way of cutting or mixing than cook time, so doing things in this order lets you minimize stress and maximize efficiency in ways that may make you feel more creative. Plus, it means that all the parts of the meal will be done around the same time, so no more whining from the rhetorical backseat.
Do your research
“You need some know-how,” Sarno says. But you don’t have to go to culinary school to get it. There are two kinds of knowledge you need to have to be a better cook, and they are easy enough to come by. You need to have a basic understanding of flavor and you need to know how to use your tools.
What if I told you that using different techniques on the same ingredient can make for dramatically different flavors? I don’t lie.
The basics of cooking science come down to fat, salt, acid, and heat, and it’s important to know how to combine them, depending on the ingredient, to create the flavor you want. “You need to understand that you can build flavor onto the simplest of ingredients by changing the texture and using different cooking techniques," Sarno says. "People hate tofu because it doesn’t have any flavor, but you can learn to work with its texture and imbue it with flavor.”
I know, from experience, that if I toss some tofu in the oven with olive oil, soy sauce, and spices, it will be edible but will lead to vegan-bashing. Instead, if I fry it lightly in a pan, it will come out with a delightfully seasoned crust and a hot springy center and someone will fall in love with me over dinner.
Cabbage, Sarno says, is another great example of a food it's best to get innovative with. “A lot of people have it in their fridge because they needed a little for cole slaw,” but you can also sauté it, grill it, roast it, or make it into kimchi. If you need some help learning how to use staple ingredients, Sarno and his brother have a youtube channel chock full of free and fun instructional cooking videos that cover cupboard staples.
Technique is also important. “You need to know how to hold a knife and how to cook a bean,” Sarno says. These may sound like rudimentary cooking skills, but a lot of us grew up on canned beans and have just sort of guessed when it comes to chopping. Knife skills don’t just keep you from injury or make you a more impressive sous chef, they can also make your food taste better.
Different veggies need to be sliced, chopped, or minced in specific ways in order to bring out their most potent flavors. And as a person who eats chickpeas for two out of three meals a day and hasn’t bought a can in ages, I can tell you that not only are canned beans are more expensive and less environmentally sound, but a lot of flavor is lost in the can. Google a bean, any bean, and you will be surprised to find how unbelievably easy they are to cook.
“Don’t try to recreate the wheel every time you cook,” Sarno tells me. “Make the most of your ingredients.” That means what chefs call, “batch cooking,” or cooking enough to use for more than one meal. If you’re making a rice or a grain, Sarno says, make enough to use in meals for the whole week. You can have it as a hot side one day and a cold salad the next. Having the ingredients already prepared gives you some space to be experimental with them.
Above all, Sarno recommends letting yourself have a good time cooking. “You can throw things together that are stress-free and delicious,” he says.