cashew nuts in a bowl

Six or seven years ago I became a dreaded ‘flexitarian’.

Not fully my choice, really – like Jules in Pulp Fiction, my partner went veggie so I pretty much had to as well. I somewhat resented the hassle at first, but in the ensuing years I’ve found that the maxim ‘constraints breed creativity’ can be applied to cooking, too. And it’s followed that I’ve gone on to think of cooking not just as a means to produce edible food, but an entire creative pursuit in itself, with the same rewards and frustrations as any other.

I suppose the first step to reconfiguring how I thought about cooking was to approach it as a battle against blandness. If you’re cutting out a sizeable part of your diet, what’s left needs to be appealing and satisfying. So I thought I’d make a list of things that have helped me fight that battle. Will the war ever be won? ‘Tis not for me to say. All I can do is remain resolute, put my faith in capers, and try to endure.

Because, to a historical meat-eater, a bowl of rice and vegetables sounds like a flavourless, joyless punishment. What can be done to combat that? This dish alone can benefit from several of the things I mention in my list below, and in many cases they’re items you can buy once and leave in the cupboard/fridge for quite a while.

A word here for some books I’ve found useful. All of Anna Jones’ books do a terrific job of illustrating how to create flavourful, meat-free meals. Some of the recipes have intimidating lists of ingredients, it’s true, but there are also loads of simpler ones. 

I also love the way she creates easy-to-follow charts that mean you have lots of flexibility to create delicious meals – check out this ‘How to make a great salad’ chart from The Modern Cook’s Year, for example. 

Another book I’ve found inspiring is The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, which I was lucky to find in a charity shop. If you find yourself with an ingredient and no idea what to do with it, this book will furnish you with some ideas. 

On to my list. Each has fought valiantly, and I thank them for their service.

1. Roasted nuts and seeds

It annoys me when I see dietary advice that refers to nuts and seeds while omitting the vital step of roasting the buggers.

Cashew nuts become approximately 349% more flavourful once roasted. The same goes for sesame seeds. The flavour uptick isn’t quite the same for almonds but their texture becomes more satisfying, I find. Roast a load of nuts and seeds, put them in jars and sprinkle them over pretty much anything. 

Also, cashews become a little crumbly when roasted, which means if you’re adding them for flavour you can make them go further – even four or five roasted cashews crumbled over a dish will make a difference. Stir them through couscous and – what do you know? – couscous actually starts to taste of something.

2. Miso paste

It is a culinary crime that most of us associate miso with watery, underwhelming soup. It has so much more to offer! Its salty, umami vibes can be combined with other things in a multitude of ways to transform recipes. 

To take just one combination: combine miso paste with honey, soy sauce and toasted sesame oil to create a delicious sweet & sour marinade or dressing. You can toss vegetables in it before roasting them (love that caramelisation); drizzle it over a dish that might otherwise lack a little zing; or use it as a sauce in a stir fry. 

I like the brown/red stuff – it’s so punchy that one tub lasts for ages in the fridge. It’s easier to work with when warmed up a bit, or at room temperature.

3. Dressings

I’d previously associated dressings with salads, bottles of vinaigrette etc. But really, they can work with anything – they’re just another way of adding more flavour. 

For example, I have been guiltily obsessed with shop-bought balsamic glaze for a few years, but you can make your own by mixing balsamic vinegar with honey, or syrup.

With dressings I try to combine something sharp and acidic with something sweet and something a bit mellower to smooth it out – e.g. soy sauce (sharp), peanut butter (sweet), coconut oil (softened in some water). For more savoury-ness you can add garlic, spices, herbs, etc. 

A secret weapon in the dressings arena is tahini. It tends to be a bit claggy and one-dimensional straight from the jar, so you need to get used to combining it with things (e.g. stir some water, salt, lemon juice and maple syrup into it to thin it out and add more flavour). It’s worth the effort, and it goes a long way.

4. Parmesan cheese

I don’t claim to be an expert on cheese, so I’m using ‘Parmesan’ here to refer to good quality hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Pecorino, etc. Depending on what you buy it can add a salty, creamy, nutty dimension. There’s not much a grating of Parmesan doesn’t improve, and like a few things I’ve mentioned it lasts for a good while (which helps offset the pain you feel when you see how much it can cost).

One thing, if you’re in the US: don’t buy the pre-grated stuff, even if it says it’s Parmesan, because it usually ain’t.

5. Miscellaneous flavour bombs

Capers. Spring onions (so much easier to work with than ‘normal’ onions). Olives. Lemon zest. Cornichons. Spicy roasted chickpeas. Grapes. Flaked salt (especially smoked!). Maple syrup. Jars of ‘lazy’ lemongrass, ginger, garlic (oh, and garlic powder, too).

If flavour is a weapon, these are, um, bullets? They’re small but effective ways of helping you wage the battle against bleurgh. I’m always on the lookout for more…

I made this! Vegetarian ramen, April 2020.

6. Fresh herbs

For a long time I didn’t appreciate the difference fresh herbs make to cooking, or even how to use them properly. I think for a long time I even thought they were pretty interchangeable – like, if a recipe calls for a few leaves of basil I can just use this sprig of thyme, no?

The funny thing is that in a pinch, they can be somewhat interchangeable – I would cautiously claim that a dish with the ‘wrong’ herbs would still taste better than a dish with none at all. 

Anyway, I’ve been trying without much success to grow a sustainable supply of herbs for ages, because I get through loads of them. Those I use most often are coriander (e.g. in soups and stir fries), basil (in couscous or with cheese), rosemary (when roasting vegetables) and dill (any salad that feels summery or Scandinavian) .

Yes, I end up throwing out unused, wilted leaves that fester in the fridge drawer, but I think I’ve become better at using them by thinking of them as the foundation of a meal rather than an optional extra.

Also – frozen herbs from the supermarket can be surprisingly effective.

I’ve undoubtedly become a better cook as a result of the change in my diet. And I enjoy the learning process around cooking much more now – as in other areas of life, once you meet a few challenges you feel more confident to further test yourself.

If you were making a list like this, what would be on it?