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The Power Vegetables Pantry

The 12 ingredients that will supercharge your vegetable cooking.

This is excerpted from Power Vegetables!, our forthcoming cookbook of meat-free cooking that even carnivores can get behind.

BREAD CRUMBS

The power of bread crumbs is not to be underestimated. Think about how much has gone into making them! Flour and water have been married and fermented and baked and the results have probably largely been eaten, except for the hard husk or two that gets air-dried (aka “carelessly left out on the counter”) and then ground and stored, waiting to ennoble a dish. All those processes add to the understated flavor and underheralded textural contributions they give to a dish. And the Power Vegetables! cook should not turn his or her or its nose up at some of the store brands of bread crumbs, like Progresso. I know the image isn’t as artisanal as you might want it to be, but the fact that they season those things with milk powder and MSG is only going to make your foods more delicious.

CHILI CRISP (AND OTHER CHINESE GROCERY-STORE CONDIMENTS)

Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp is a jarred “hot sauce” that’s a mix of dried chilies, fried to a crisp, along with crunchy little dry soybeans in an oniony, spicy, ma la, sugar-spiked oil that is probably the greatest thing sold in a jar anywhere on the planet. (If you’re an MSG Truther who refuses to believe the countless double-blind studies published showing that MSG is not any worse for you than salt or sugar, you’ll wanna avoid this stuff!) Like its grocery-store sisters oyster sauce and hoisin sauce, chili crisp + a bowl of rice + a plain steamed vegetable becomes an eating experience. We only call for it in one recipe in Power Vegetables!, but I am so comforted by its presence in my refrigerator I would be remiss not to enshrine it in this pantheon of power. 

CAPERS

Who figured out that picking the unripe berries—the flower buds—of thorny little bushes that grow in the rocks around the Mediterranean was a good idea, but only after the aborted berries were salted or pickled into submission? Good on them, and good for us: Capers are a distinctively delicious ingredient that add an animalish umami to anything they’re in. (One of the key flavorants in a caper is capric acid, whose name alludes to the aroma of goats—capre in Italiano—not to capers themselves.) I have cultivated a sense of caper perversion for years. I originally sought out nonpareil capers in brine as the older, Francophilic cookbooks that informed my early curiosity told me to. Capers are sorted by size, and nonpareil are the smallest and, reputedly, the best. Changes in fashion, reference literature, and my taste later led me to Italian markets, where I’d buy salt-packed capers that had been picked on the hillsides of Sicily. I started buying larger and larger capers, never noticing any drop-off in or deleterious effects on their flavor.

And over the years, the Fergus Salad has been a Christmas Eve standby at my house. My friend Mark Ibold is always in charge of it, and every year we end up so concerned about whether or not we’ll be able to find chervil. We don’t talk about the caper situation, so sometimes we end up with unfancy, jarred, pickled capers from the crappy grocery store nearest my house. And you know what? The salad never noticeably suffers for it. So my rule with capers is that they’re cheap enough and last forever, so if you have the means to seek out some exotically pedigreed specimen, that’s okay by me. But if you can’t have the one you love, know that you can love the one you’re with and the end results will be just about as good. 

 

CURRY LEAVES

Curry leaves make only one appearance in this book in a dead-simple carrot salad. I had never cooked with them before trying that dish, and they really make it sparkle in an unsubstitutable-for fashion. Then I thought, “Oh man, I gotta learn something about curry leaves so I can sound smart in the cookbook!” Fortunately, I am an editor of Lucky Peach And there is a writer named Michael Snyder who has filed a number of wonderful stories for the magazine and the website, and one of the latter was a tour of the sorts of things one encounters at an Indian greengrocery. Here’s what he had to say: The name of this small, pointed green leaf comes from the Tamil word kariveppilai, which basically means “sauce leaf” (kari for sauce, pilai for leaf). Used across southern India and the western coast, curry leaves impart a citrusy and resinous aroma and flavor that’s pretty much incomparable to any other herb. Most often, the leaves are used whole and added to hot oil along with mustard and/or cumin seeds and chilies. This either happens at the beginning of a recipe, in a process known as tempering, or at the end, when the flavored oil, known as a tadka, is poured over a finished dish (a particularly delicious example of this is in South Indian curd rice, which is both extremely simple and extremely delicious on hot summer mornings). 

The word curry, used across India to denote any dish prepared with sauce, is derived from the Tamil word that gives this plant its name, and was adopted by the British to refer to the specific mixture of spices that people in the West think of as curry powder. That particular flavor profile has nothing to do with the flavor of curry leaves, or really with anything I’ve encountered in India at all.

Thanks, Michael! And if you, like me, came across his mention of “curd rice” and thought, Hmmmm, what is this?, then you are like me. (Are we both Scorpios? ;) ) Curd is the name for yogurt in India, and the recipe for it follows. It’s simple and a great way to use up curry leaves once you get your hands on them.

(LITTLE) FISH (IN ALL THEIR FORMS)

Here are my complex thoughts on this category of ingredients: LITTLE FISH MAKE THINGS TASTE GOOD. Salted anchovies minced up with fresh greens, herbs, and/or garlic count as one of the most powerful alliances in all of kitchendom, a Mediterranean Voltron. And then there is fish sauce, my sweet, sweet, beloved fish sauce. I think adding it to only five recipes in this book shows me to be a model of restraint and self-control, because the truth is that it can be added to a wide spectrum of dishes in tiny little dashes to boost their deliciousness without overannouncing itself. The fish-sauce vinaigrette heralded in Power Vegetables! is one of the most powerful condiments we know of.

GARLIC

Garlic is a member of the allium family that likes to grow in … psych! I’m not gonna write Garlic 101 here because the chances that you don’t know what garlic is and have made it this far into a cookbook with plasma balls on its cover are close to zilch! My thoughts on garlic are these:

1. Garlic adds power. Use it. Avoid buying prepeeled garlic because it is gross. Farmers’-market garlic from a conscientious and dedicated producer is worth the premium.

2. Two ways to sneak garlic into dishes: (a) The Raw Rub: We prescribe this in the toasts for bruschetta, but if you’re of the mind that a dish could use a little kiss of garlic and you’re serving it with toasted (or grilled) bread, rub that bread with a cut clove of garlic—not so hard that garlic is present, but just like the bread sprayed a cloud of garlic perfume and then walked through it.

3. Or (b), confit it: Peel a head of garlic and put it in a small pot with just enough olive oil to float the cloves. Set over medium heat until bubbles form around the garlic (the oil will be about 185°F). Reduce the heat to low to maintain the temperature and confit the garlic until it is very soft and lightly golden brown, about 20 minutes. Drain the garlic, but reserve the oil. Purée the garlic into sauces; it will not announce itself brashly, but instead offer support from the background. I don’t think you’d guess how much garlic is in the dressing for our buffalo cucumbers, and that’s because it’s been cooked this way. And check out the turnips, garlic, and anchovies recipe in Power Vegetables!, where eighteen cloves of confited garlic add a lot of magic in a behind-the-scenes sort of way.

HING (AKA ASAFETIDA)

Hing is asafetida, the dried and ground resin of a plant that looks like giant fennel and is in the fennel family, a few branches removed. The flavor it adds to food is very umami, very much unlike anything else used anywhere else—it quite literally adds what tastes like another dimension of flavor to a dish. In my experience, you never need to add more than the tiniest bump of it, an unmeasurably small amount like 1/16 teaspoon, which is why we call for it as a + amount, not a measured one.

The smell of hing as an ingredient on the shelf is the stuff of much protestation—too much, I think—and depending on the brand you buy and (I imagine) its freshness or pungency, the power of its aroma can be significant. Also note that this smell is not the same aroma/flavor that comes through when it’s cooked, so don’t be too shy to consummate your relationship with hing after you bring it home just because it smells unusual before you start cooking with it. It is a portal to power that is especially important to vegetable cooking.

KOMBU

Kombu is the Japanese name for kelp, a giant seaweed that is nature’s MSG shaker. It is the backbone of dashi, the foundational broth of Japanese cuisine, and one of the easiest-to-make ways to add flavor and savoriness to a dish that incorporates a broth or liquid. Recipes like Carrot Dashi show how seaweed and simmering turn a juice into a sauce. If you like, you can make a kombu dashi with no cooking at all: combine seaweed and water and leave them out overnight. The next day, it’s kombu dashi! If you’re wondering, Well, what can I do with that?, you can, first off, use it anywhere you’d use water in vegetable cookery for an extra nip of umami. Like let’s say you were gonna simmer up some squash or pumpkin—why not try it in kombu dashi?

And if you’re wondering what you could do with the kombu that you use ever so briefly in dashi making—if that’s the beginning and end of its run—my answer is no: you can make shio kombu! Shio kombu is kelp cooked down in Japanese seasonings, then chopped into a dark-green little relish that is excellent snuck into the center of an onigiri and great with simply cooked vegetables or fish. (Or, as my friend Wylie Dufresne uses it, snuck into hamburgers to give them an impossible-to-place umami note.)

DRIED SHIITAKES

Dried shiitakes are a must-have. I’m gonna give you a vague tip about buying them: Don’t buy the cheapest mushrooms in the store. The more expensive, the better—at least to a point. (You don’t need to make a prestige purchase out of them!) If you’re at a market that has a range of dried mushrooms, compare the high and low ends of the spectrum and you’ll notice better-handled caps in the good stuff—look for plump, full mushrooms. You can certainly work with either, but the fancier ones are nicer, and usually not at too dear of a premium. The “broth” you can make by soaking a few dried mushrooms in boiling hot water for like fifteen minutes is insanely flavorful. They are foundational to Power Vegetables! recipes like Mushroom Mapo Tofu, Rice Porridge With Corn and Miso, and Sichuan Squash Stew. In that last one, you have the option of just simmering the mushrooms in the soup liquid—the normcore application of the mushrooms—or of blitzing them into a powder, as Danny Bowien, the chef from whom the recipe was stolen, does. That isn’t necessary, certainly, but if you do it, grind up some extra ’shrooms and add a pinch to literally almost any Asian-leaning dish you’re cooking at a stage when any sort of liquid will have a chance to drink it up. The end product will not be worse for it.

And howzabout what to do with those steeped-and-strained mushrooms? Or what if you’re saying, “Pete, I love the flavor of these mushrooms! Is there anything I can do so I can just eat gobs of them all the time, with a grilled T-bone steak or just a plain bowl of rice?” I’d say, “Wow, usually only people who have known me for a long time call me Pete! Also, yes, I’ve got the recipe right here. It’s an oldie but a goodie from the Momofuku cookbook, and one of my all-time favorite pickles. It’s great straight out of the jar and, as you asked, with just about anything.”

MISO

It is probably not true that you can add miso to any food and improve it, but … I can’t think of any for which it’s not true. The key to a POWERFUL hummus? Miso. (Idea stolen from Caroline Fidanza from the restaurant Saltie in Brooklyn.) What’s making the vegetarian chili that goes over Ivan Orkin’s tofu “fries” taste so good? Miso. Much like it is on an animal farm, all miso is good, but some miso is better than others. I vastly prefer Japanese-made miso to crunchy upstart versions made in countries that don’t have the Rising Sun on their flag. Buy the best miso your miso supplier (preferably a Japanese or Korean grocery, if you live in the sort of place where that’s a reality) has on their shelves; the extra couple of bucks is well spent.

The two main types of miso we’re concerned with between these covers are white (or shiro) miso and red (or aka) miso. For the most part (and for all the recipes in this book), you don’t need both and you can use them interchangeably; I’ve mainly kept shiro in the fridge over the years. Once you’ve got a tub of miso in the fridge, don’t be shy with it. A smidge added to a vinaigrette is smart; a spoonful stirred into mayonnaise makes mayo, already one of my favorite condiments, that much more powerful. Miso plus butter (the two mixed in equal proportions) plus vegetables is always a good idea: get the vegetables going in a pan in a minimal amount of oil or butter, and when they begin to take on color or get nearish to the kind of doneness you’re hunting for, add the miso-butter combo in as generous an amount as your conscience or nutritionist will allow, then stir and sauté to coat. Delicious.

If you have the kombu called for in this pantry and some miso, you’re not far from a dinner or a breakfast: miso dissolved in dashi = miso soup. If you make that dashi with a shiitake or two thrown in there, all the better. Then, like the soldiers in Stone Soup, you can gather things from around the fridge: any stray vegetables can be pressed into service, simmered to improve the whole. Stir in the miso right at the end, just before serving it. And there’s miso butterscotch to be made! This is an adaptation of a condiment I first ate when Christina Tosi of Milk Bar used it as a sauce for a deep-fried apple pie. I find it to be criminally good just on plain vanilla ice cream. It’s a good use for the end of a dwindling tub of miso and keeps for weeks once it’s made.

SOY SAUCE

There are ten recipes that call for soy sauce in the book, so it deserves a spot up here. My advice about buying it is to head in the direction of Japan, which produces my favorite soy sauces. Do not use low-sodium soy sauce because oxymorons rarely make for excellent condiments. Do not substitute tamari for soy sauce unless you have celiac disease or are trapped cooking in the distant woodland cottage of some sort of seventies-throwback hippie and tracking down a bottle of even grocery store Kikkoman is too much work. While most of the by-products of working with Dave Chang for as long as I have are psychological scars, there is one thing he’s certainly influenced me on foodwise: I use usukuchi soy sauce, which is a lighter-flavored and slightly saltier soy sauce that’s got extra stuff in it—a little sweetener, often mirin, and I think just some plain salt. It is by no means the only soy sauce to use or the “best” by any measure, but it’s got a flavor that just seems right to me now.

My friend JJ Basil, whom I know from his time at wd~50 but who has had a hand in opening all kinds of New York places including Carbone and Superiority Burger, has a house condiment he makes: half soy sauce, half white vinegar, and as much extremely finely julienned ginger as makes sense. It’s a winner and a nice thing to find in the fridge when you’re starving and need a sauce to make anything (plain tofu, simple veggies, etc.) taste good.

VINEGAR

Vinegar is an undersung hero in vegetable cookery: vegetables themselves are almost always devoid of any appreciable “acid” component, and most of the fruits that we (or at least I) think of as vegetables are selected for sweetness and flavor more so than their pucker power. Lemons and limes are great ways to add a splash of sour, but having a robust little family of vinegars on hand—which never go bad, unlike citrus—means you’re ready to power up your vegetables at any time. Vinegars brighten and sharpen flavors—they add a spark to something long-cooked and nudge out the sweetness of something like a carrot. Sherry vinegar has long been my sour of power; it’s a wine vinegar that’s got a touch of barrel-aged mellowness to it. There’s little I won’t add it to; Lucky Peach editor and celebrity chef Dave Chang is the first person I knew to use it in an Asian context, as in the shiitake pickles and the tomato salad herein in Power Vegetables!.

White vinegar is sharp and aggressive and uncouth; it’s the greaser with a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve of the vinegar family. But its unfashionability—wine vinegar is all anybody calls for in recipes anymore—ignores that sometimes you need acid that hits like an uppercut. You’ll see it dotted throughout the book. In becoming so trendy and ubiquitous, balsamic became a meaningless catchall term for a family of syrup-sweetened, colored, crappy vinegars that are, charitably, charmless. But real balsamic, from the area around Modena, is good stuff. I probably would have never reacquainted myself with its pleasures if I wasn’t making the Fergus Salad regularly. And there’s more to vinegar than just splashing it on things: try adding it to a reducing sauce or a melting pile of onions, or using it to season a dish that’s hot to add a high-acid sparkle that’s still gonna shine when the dish reaches a more approachable temperature.

THE POWER TRIANGLE

If vegetables were superheroes, they’d get their power from a mysterious triad: fat, salt, and acid. Whenever you are cooking vegetables from this book, from outside of this book, or for your teething infant, remember the triad. Taste what you’re cooking and literally quiz yourself: Is there enough fat, is there enough acid, is there enough salt? It is rare, or should be, that the answer is: YES, THIS IS PERFECT I AM A GENIUS LET’S EAT. You can do better than that. A glug or two of olive oil over steamed vegetables can be transformative. A splash of acid into a pan of cooked greens can make their inherent flavor sing. Textural salt, like Maldon, can make food more fun to eat—it’s like adding little flakes of flavor! And salt for seasoning is one of those things that home cooks are always reserved about in ways that restaurant cooks aren’t. And while I’m not advocating that you make all your food at home Burger King–salty, if you ask yourself those questions before you bring the food to the table, you have one more chance to make it just a little more delicious—and a little more powerful!

This is excerpted from Power Vegetables!, our cookbook of meat-free cooking that even carnivores can get behind. Order it today and get our instant-download Cornzine and a limited-edition enamel pin.

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