New American Vegan
By Vincent J. Guihan
PM Press Copyright © 2011 PM Press
All rights reserved.
Terms, Techniques & Tools: A Brief Field Guide to What You Need & What You Need to Know
This book is organized mostly around building complete meals with a main dish and a couple of sides. The recipes will be useful for coursed dinners or when you just want some salad, a bowl of soup, or some breakfast, but the main focus is on building successful meals with a complete set of flavors. To that end, you'll notice that each of the recipes is coded for its level of difficulty, its time to prepare and the overall time it will take to complete, and what the major flavors are.
Flavor and texture
Theories of flavor vary a bit, but for the purposes of this book I've used eight terms to describe the flavors of the dishes: sweet, sour, salty, green, rich or fatty, savory, spicy, and fermented. You have taste buds that can distinguish the first four. There is reasonable debate about and scientific evidence to support the view that people can also distinguish the next two, fatty and savory, as they eat. The last two, spicy and fermented, are really just shorthands to help you understand what a dish will taste like before you cook it. Nevertheless, you may still be surprised by how some of the flavors of these dishes are described. And so I've provided a couple of explanatory notes.
What is a sweet flavor? Sweet is that delicious flavor that makes you feel relaxed and comforted. That's your blood sugar spiking! Carrots, other vegetables, and definitely fruits, are typically sweet, although some are both sweet and sour in combination. I could have split out starchy flavors separately, but I think eight flavors is enough. So, starchy flavors are listed as sweet in this book (e.g., potatoes, wheat bread, and other carbohydrates). In part, this is a matter more of chemistry than of flavor specifically. Mono- and disaccharides are simple sugars. They taste sweet immediately. But when you chew a complex sugar molecule (e.g., a polysaccharide or oligosaccharide) you break it up into mono- and disaccharides. You can establish this by chewing a cracker for a minute or two. It will become sweeter in your mouth. In short, polysaccharides and oligosaccharides don't necessarily taste sweet, but they are in terms of their chemistry.
What is a sour flavor? Sour is that wonderful flavor that makes your tongue contract and your face to pucker up! Pomegranate, lemon juice, vinegar, and other acidic ingredients are typically sour.
What is a salty flavor? Almost every dish in this book has a slightly salty flavor, in part because salt is added to most of the dishes. I doubt there will be very much debate about what is salty. As a flavor, salt is hard to describe, but you know it when you taste it. If you're interested in learning more about the food chemistry of salt, read the note on salt on page 10.
What is a green flavor? Green refers to the wonderful bitter taste of coffee and a number of green vegetables that you can taste toward the back of your tongue. Sometimes you'll see this flavor referred to as pungent. I've never liked the use of "pungent" to describe these flavors, since pungent is abstract. Green is pretty straightforward. Not everything green in color has a green flavor, of course, and some things that aren't green in color are bitter. No term is perfect, but to keep it simple, green refers to bitter flavors in this book.
What is a fatty flavor? There is some evidence that people can differentiate the amount of fat in a given dish, which has led some food scientists to argue that there is a fatty flavor. More commonly, what you'll read is that fat add to the "mouth feel" of a given dish. This seems pretty true. If you swallow a tablespoon of olive oil and then a half tablespoon of olive oil mixed with water, you can really tell the difference and it's not purely in the way that the tablespoon of liquid tastes. Sometimes you're in the mood for something rich and heavy and sometimes you're not, so I've identified fatty flavors.
What is a savory flavor? For the purposes of this book, savory specifically refers to umami, a Japanese term for the flavor of protein that is distinguishable from fatty and salty. It's actually not clear scientifically how well human beings can taste proteins. Certainly, they can't taste amino acids with the same expertise that the average household cat can. But savory has long a common concept in Asian theories of flavor, and an increasingly accepted concept in Western cooking. Moreover, I think it's a useful way to understand a lot of the flavors that are common to the American table.
What is a spicy flavor? Spicy describes a number of possibilities in terms of food chemistry. The most common kind of spicy flavor is when the sour element of a dish is really high (e.g., jalapeño peppers has an acidity that is similar in kind but different in degree to lemon juice and other sour flavors). But some spicy flavors (e.g., wasabi, horseradish, and to a certain degree, ginger) affect your mouth differently. This kind of spicy typically goes straight up through your nose. Some people like it hot, and others not so much, so I've identified spicy flavors.
What is a fermented flavor? For the purposes of this book, I've identified foods that specifically have a fermented flavor. Fermented is usually a combination of sweet, salty, and sour but it's also a flavor of bacteria. I've separated it out in part because, although almost all cultures have fermented foods, they're usually very much acquired tastes. It's usually not a big deal to eat adapt your palette to the sweet, sour, spicy, savory (umami), fatty, or green (bitter) flavors of another culture's cuisine, but if you grow up eating cheese and you try miso or natto (or vice versa), you'll probably experience some culinary culture shock.
Preparing your ingredients
Most of these recipes call for mirepoix (diced vegetables, typically carrot, celery, and onion), as well as garlic, ginger, peppers, other vegetables, rice, and legumes. If you're not familiar with how to prepare these vegetables, some simple instructions are below for common ingredients. Specific recipes may have specific instructions, however. Always remember to wash your fruits and vegetables (and your hands!) thoroughly first. Sensibilities about how to pick and prepare a given ingredient may vary quite a bit across locale and tradition. You may be accustomed to preparing a vegetable in a particular way, and that's fine. The points below are simplifications for people not used to working with the ingredients listed.
Two additional notes, however, are appropriate. First, always try to use fresh, whole food once you get the hang of and taste for a particular recipe. Go to your local health food store (HFS) and get your peanut butter fresh ground before your eyes. If you can, don't use a single dried herb. Buy fresh and do the conversions. Buy dried beans instead of canned. Why? Fresh foods typically have better nutritional value and, frankly, they taste better. Second, keep in mind that you may not like the taste of a given ingredient the first time around. In fact, new foods often take six or eight tries before we develop a taste for them. If you're a new vegan, it will take about six to eight weeks for your body and tastes to adjust. But broadening your palette is like any other kind of education. There may be a little culinary culture shock, but that's good for your palette. Having said that, don't force yourself to eat things you really don't like. What's most important about the dietary elements of veganism is that you eat foods you like that provide you with the right nutritional balance for you. Consult a physician or a nutritionist to find out what the right nutritional balance for you is.
But the great thing about veganism from a food perspective is that you have an incredible variety of foods from which to choose, all with different flavors, textures and colors, which also vary further by the style of preparation and in combinations with other foods. In fact, it's these plant-based ingredients and techniques of preparation that make most animal-focused foods taste good. But we already know this intuitively. Most meat (and most animal products in general) provides a basically a bland, often colorless palette and some texture (a dead body, after all), that is recreated into a "meal" by the skill of the cook, with the addition of many plant-based flavors.
It's the bun, catsup, pickles, salt, fat, fermentation, onions, mustard, sliced tomato, crisp lettuce, and all of the other plant- based foods, as well as the skill with and knowledge of preparation techniques (is it cooked over charcoal, propane, or wood, grilled, fried, or broiled?) that makes the burger great, not the animal who died to make it. Of course, some ingredients do taste better than others, but when we make the meal about individual ingredients and not the skills of the chef, we surfeit, if only unintentionally, the dedication of people who devote their lives to cooking.
A note on salt: Salt is both a flavoring and a catalyst in terms of food chemistry, and this note will cover both aspects of this ubiquitous condiment.
In terms of its chemistry, salt (as in sodium chloride) does a number of things. First, it helps preserve food by slowing the oxidization process. It also has antibacterial properties, and in part that's why salt is often used as part of a preservative process historically. Second, and more important to this book, salt also helps to cook food by chewing up the proteins in the cell walls of plants. What that means, in effect, is that the moment you add salt to anything, a cooking process of sorts has begun. The result is that cell walls burst, and typically that releases the ingredient's internal water. Almost all foods have some sort of water. Of course, that water isn't just plain water. It's water that has important chemical additive from the food itself. Frequently it's what ends up as juice if you juice a fruit or a vegetable, which means that it's water with a lot of flavor and often sugars. It's the release of those flavors and the sugars that bring the flavor out of the fruit or vegetable you're cooking out into the pan where it can mix with other flavors, while also allowing flavors to mix and penetrate the other ingredients of the pan. Imagine a number of floodgates to different reservoirs being opened all at once and all the resulting waters mingling. That's the chemical magic of salt. You will not be able to achieve similar results with equally salty but chemically different additives. As a process, cooking involves the heating and, frequently, the release of that water and the denaturation (the breaking apart) of protein chains, although that's not always the case. For example, you're typically adding water to grains. dried beans, etc. But in any case, salt is an important part of the cooking process. In part, this is why salt has been an important part of virtually all cuisines for a long, long time.
Having said all of that, salt is also an important flavor, one of the four basic flavors that you have taste buds built in to taste. Some people like their food saltier than others, and some foods taste fine without added salt. As a flavor, there are both a number of salts with distinct flavors (e.g., grey salt, fleur de sel, and so on), and there are number of salty foods that don't have sodium chloride (e.g., potassium chloride, Bragg's liquid aminos, herb blends sold as salt alternatives, and so on). You'll notice as you work through the recipes in this book that you start with a little salt (1/4 teaspoon) and then add salt at the end of the cooking process. In part, this is because I'm encouraging you to think about salt as both the chemical agent and the flavoring separately.
With that in mind, if you want to finish your dish with something other than fine-grained sea salt, go for it. In fact, I encourage you to experiment with other salty flavors. You can start by using coarse-grained sea salt as a finishing salt. Instead of adding another pinch of fine-grained sea salt to your dish, grind a pinch of coarse- grained salt between your fingers and sprinkle. You'll find coarse- grained salt increases the burst of salty flavor (something lots of people like) while also decreasing the overall amount that you need to use. In short, however, most cooking involves some kind of salt at some point. Use it sparingly. Unlike soups, where you can usually get away with adding a little water, if you add too much salt to sauces, salads and other dishes, especially dressings, they tend to be less forgiving. Start with ¼ teaspoon of fine sea salt with these dishes and add more at the end. Going slow with salt is rarely a bad idea. Many dishes can be rescued if they're too sour, too sweet, or too spicy, but too salty is hard to salvage.
A quick note on oils: I've recommended vegetable oil in many cases in this book. You should use the vegetable oil you like. I use a blend of flax oil and extra virgin olive oil, or canola, for most of my sauté, often a little toasted sesame oil for flavor, and only very infrequently peanut oil (for high-temperature frying, which I almost never do). My preference, when I need to add fat, is to use a nut butter, olives, or avocados instead. The process by which oil is made subtracts most of the nutrition of the whole food. The nut butter, the mashed avocado, the minced olives, etc., retain a good portion of its taste and nutrition. However, like salt, oil is also a chemical agent in your dish. It functions in two ways. First, it creates a water barrier. A number of the recipes involving dough suggest that you brush your crusts with a little oil. In part, that's to keep the extra moisture of a sauce or even whole ingredients that produce a lot of moisture when heated from saturating your dough. Second, it conducts the heat, for lack of a better way to put it, that melts and caramelizes the sugars in certain foods when you sauté, most commonly, or when you roast or grill them. Unlike salt, it can be difficult to add fats at the end of the cooking process rather than at the beginning, but that shouldn't keep you from swapping out oils for whole foods where the former are not being used as a chemical agent as part of the cooking process.
A very quick note on sugars and agave nectar: There are increasing numbers of artificial sweeteners on the market, and stevia (an herbal sweetener) is becoming more popular in North America. Added sugars are typically a flavoring ingredient, but there are times when it is also a chemical agent, in which case it either caramelizes (as in crème brulée) or it is used as food for bacteria (in some slaws, in fermented foods, and in yeast dough, for example). In particular, the agave nectar in this book is often used to avoid cooking a simple syrup (which involves boiling water and sugar together), which is both a pain and because a lot of sugar is processed with animal bone char, I've kept it simple and built the recipes around agave. It's not difficult to find conversions, but not all of the recipes will work with regular granulated sugar.
Basil (and other green herbs): Fresh basil and other herbs come in various ways — and some health food sorts and organic farmers include the plant all the way down to the roots. If the stems of your herb are hard and inflexible (usually the case), remove the leaves and use the leaves only. If your stems are soft, a little stem is good for you. To tell if a stem is soft enough, it should be bendable like the leaf and very thin. If it's thicker than a coffee stirrer, no need to put that in your dish. Try to avoid using ground dried green herbs — rub the larger dried herbs between your thumb and forefinger when you add them to your dish. (Continues...)
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