How to make plant-based dishes delicious
Going meatless doesn’t mean giving up on flavour.
In 2001, when celebrated French chef Alain Passard announced that he was dropping meat from the menu of his three-Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant L’Arpege, it sent shockwaves through gastronomic circles. After all, the restaurant was known for slow-cooking proteins to tender and exquisitely flavourful ends. But Passard, who had made a decision to turn vegetarian then, wanted to show diners that vegetables could also be equally enticing and worthy of taking centre stage.
Since then, L’Arpege has charmed diners and critics alike with its fine vegetable-driven cuisine, demonstrating that enchantment in vegetable cookery can be had without having to slaughter an animal.
Indeed, as Passard has shown, going meat-free doesn’t have to be a dull affair. Below, we’ve rounded up some simple ways to bring layers of flavour to vegetable-centric dishes.
Begin with the freshest produce you can find
Vegetables taste their very best when they’re harvested at the height of the season and eaten fresh. In Singapore, where over 90 per cent of our food is imported, it is not uncommon for vegetables to travel for weeks before they end up on your plate. However, for those who want to do their grocery shopping closer to home, you’ll find local producers and farmers growing some beautiful produce right here in Singapore. They include Edible Garden City (which offers weekly vegetable subscription boxes); Sustenir Agriculture, a high-tech farm growing Tuscan Kale and arugula; and Quan Fa Organic Farm, a local outfit growing an array of organic produce. Because local produce doesn’t have to travel far before it reaches the hands of consumers, these farms don’t have to rely on pesticides or preservatives to keep vegetables in top form.
Roast for maximum flavour
A quick way to coax plenty of flavour and sweetness from vegetables is to roast them. The dry heat in the oven caramelises the natural sugars in vegetables, which in turn brings out a depth of flavour unrivalled by other cooking techniques such as steaming or sauteing.
The trick to roasting vegetables is to ensure that they are cut into similar sizes, ideally one-inch chunks, so that they can cook evenly. Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and pumpkins will require a longer roasting time than cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussel sprouts. So if you’re cooking root vegetables, be sure to pop them into the oven before introducing cruciferous vegetables and other produce such as tomatoes or mushrooms at a later stage.
Explore herb and spice combinations from various culinary traditions
When it comes to seasoning vegetables, look beyond familiar herb combinations such as basil, oregano, and rosemary. Ground harissa, a spicy North African mix of red chillies, garlic, caraway seeds, cumin, and coriander, lends a wonderful flavour boost to any dish. If roasting vegetables, simply toss the vegetables in olive oil and ground harissa before placing it in the oven.
Dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice blend featuring cumin, fennel, coriander, sesame, and hazelnuts is a nutty and earthy mix that can be used to flavour stir-fried vegetables. It can also be added to olive oil and used as a flavourful dip for freshly baked bread.
Here in Singapore, we also have access to fresh, desiccated coconut. It is not uncommon to see toasted coconut incorporated in Indonesian or Peranakan cuisine. To add a nutty sweetness to a vegetable dish, simply toast desiccated coconut in a pan until you see the white flesh take on a golden brown hue. It’s a quick way to add flavour and texture.
Stock up on sauces
If you only have time to fix up a quick meal, one easy way to enliven plant-based dishes is to keep a few jars of basil pesto or roasted red pepper pesto in the pantry. As these plant-based sauces are already concentrated with flavour, all you have to do is stir a dollop of it through freshly cooked pasta or a bowl of steamed vegetables.