Spice it Up!

herbs and spices in vegan cooking

I have to admit that before going veggie I was one of those people that had a fully stocked spice cabinet that housed expired herbs and spices that I had hardly ever used. I had always been a fan of fresh herbs (and still are), but spices were intimidating and they smelled so strongly to me that I chose to leave them behind for many years. As you already know from my many stories, everything changed in my kitchen after going veggie. Creativity went through the roof, I was suddenly experimenting with flavors and textures I had never tried before, the kitchen became my little sanctuary of incredible and natural foods. I suddenly found myself daring to look the spices in the eye, and ever since, I’ve been buying those little jars constantly because we simply keep running out! I’m not sure if this is the experience everyone goes through when they go vegan, but all of those colors and endless options that before weren’t even on my radar were now inspiring me to create delicious dishes. I could be the fact that cooking suddenly became simpler and more grounded for me. No more checking to see if the roast was already cooked in the center, or if the grilled chicken wasn’t raw and didn’t dry out either. Having to remember to defrost a steak the night before went out the window, and so did the unpleasant activity of washing things like chicken breasts and turkey thighs which always made me very uneasy. Everything was suddenly so simple and down to Earth. I had hundreds of options other than the steak, potatoes and salad trio I kept redoing before, I was suddenly inspired by all the colors and shapes, all the flavours and textures. Herbs and spices were a huge part of taking my vegan cooking to the next level, so today, I’m giving you a simple yummy guide to dried herbs and spices to help you open your spice cabinet and know what to do with what’s in there!

Spices have been known to have enormous health benefits, can help keep cravings at bay and can help you avoid using too much salt in your cooking. They have long been part of many delicious cuisines like Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian cuisine, and many others. They’re at the base of Ayurvedic Indian traditions of healing, and they have the amazing quality of not spoiling for a very long time! These are definitely your little friends in the kitchen, and I hope to guide you through some of them today. We will focus only on dried herbs and spices in this post and soon we’ll be talking about one of my favorite things in life, fresh herbs. This is only a brief list of my favorites (in their dried form) and some great pairings for them. There are literally hundreds, so feel free to include some of your favorites in the comment section below and tell us your favorite pairings for them. Are you ready? Here we go!

Cumin: By far one of my favorites, I add it regularly to bean dishes, especially when making black beans for tacos or fajitas. It’s also a basic ingredient for making hummus and other bean spreads, the reason probably being that chickpeas and cumin are a match made in heaven! I love using cumin in salad dressings to top salads with chickpeas, like my spinach, chickpea and fennel salad with cumin vinaigrette you’ll be seeing soon in the blog.

Smoked paprika: Great for beans and adding to Mexican style dishes, and fabulous for topping fries or roasted potatoes. I also love it as a light sprinkle on top of a crostini or bruschetta topped with any kind of bean spread (it especially goes great with white bean spreads).

Cayenne pepper: Here’s a spicy one! A little goes a long way so easy does it! I love cayenne on beans and Mexican dishes, and I sometimes add a dash to a lentil soup or stew to add a little kick to it.

Black pepper: Here’s one we’ve all used before right?! Bright flavor, and a beautiful peppery aroma and taste, it goes great on practically anything! How about a super twist to a pairing, to give you a non traditional idea? Black pepper goes great on pineapple slices drizzled with agave or maple syrup and then grilled on the barbecue. Go figure?!

White pepper: Offers a great peppery taste without changing the color of white sauces or white bean dips, and some people prefer the taste to that of black pepper.

Mixed peppercorns: If you’ve never tried a mix of black, white, red and pink peppercorns you’re in for a real treat. It’s miles away from your simple black pepper and has amazing levels of flavor! For some dishes though, I still use the basic black or white pepper if I don’t want it to overpower the dish. How about using your mixed peppercorns, adding some fresh green peppercorns (sold in a jar in some kind of liquid near the spices or in the olive section), and making a yummy seitan ‘au poivre’ with a delicious sauce and some mashed potatoes to go with it (recipe coming soon).

Chilli powder: Great on beans, Mexican dishes, and to give some spice to things like creamy soups and stews, and of course, making a heart warming bowl of vegan chilli!

Cardamom: I’m still getting to know these little fragrant pods, but I love using them along with other spices as a base for making my own chai tea. So fragrant and yummy, it will transport you to a Middle Eastern spice market.

Curry powder: Although there is nothing like using a high quality curry paste or making curry from scratch for your tempeh masala in coconut sauce, or your chickpea curry with eggplant, having a jar of run of the mill curry powder in your cupboard will save you on a rainy day. I often use it when I’ve run out of the good stuff and I love it on my eggplant and tempeh coconut curry, as well as on a chana masala, and I make a delicious coconut and curry rice and not to mention curried quinoa, in which a powdered form of curry is mandatory. If you have an Indian spice market near you, go ahead and spring for the good stuff. Curry is one of the most used spices in my house and it’s so versatile!

Coriander seeds: Coriander seeds are the seeds of a plant you know well, the beautiful and delicious herb we all know as cilantro! These little seeds are great for making your own pickles. You can pop them in oil on the stove (more on that later) and add an amazing flavor to many dishes, or make your own curry blends with it. It’s also a handy helper to add whole to beans as they’re cooking as they help reduce the gas that can sometimes be caused my beans.

Fennel seeds: Delicious and very fragrant, these are a yummy addition if you’re making your own veggie sausages and want that traditional Italian sausage flavor.

Thyme: This is the one I need to buy with the most frequency as I simply love dried thyme! I use it while cooking beans, especially black eyed peas and puy lentils. My main use for them though, is to rub it on potatoes or sweet potatoes with a little oil, and some other spices and herbs and then roast these gorgeous spuds in the oven. In minutes your home will be filled with the most delicious thyme aroma and your potatoes will have amazing depth of flavor.

Oregano: Great on pasta sauces, especially when making spaghetti and “meatballs” or a spin on bolognese with some veggie meats. It’s also great on pizza and it’s part of my rub for the roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes I mentioned above.

Bay leaves: Great to put into any kind of stew and almost all beans while they’re cooking, especially black eyed peas and lentils. Remember to remove the leaf after cooking as it is too hard and chewy to eat. These leaves are magical and take your dishes from zero to hero with a simple adding of a leaf to the pot. It’s also great when adding to mushroom gravies and serving that with some yummy pan fried seitan.

Parsley: Although I prefer this little guy in his fresh form, I often keep it in my pantry for my potato rub, or for adding to dressings and other veggie dishes.

Garlic powder: Another favorite of mine. I use it when making my black bean picadillo (recipe coming soon), on my crispy oven fries or on my infamous potato rub, not to mention as my basic flavoring (next to salt) when making beans and especially whole grains. I add it to the water in the beginning of the process when cooking brown rice, millet, quinoa and sometimes bulgur. It comes out with an amazing nutty and garlicky flavor you’ll love.

Onion powder: Used in a similar way to garlic powder, great as a flavoring for cooking whole grains or flavoring things like croutons  for a yummy vegan Ceasar salad.

Saffron: Great for Spanish dishes like paella, and amazing on risottos.

Red pepper flakes: Again, a little goes a long way! I love adding these to Asian stir fries for a kick, and sometimes to roasted vegetables for a more intense flavor.

Ground cloves: One of my favorites for sweet desserts and teas. Just to smell it means being transported to Christmas which I always love! Great for making your own chai tea, and especially delicious in desserts like apple pie and pumpkin pie, or making a super rich and delicious pumpkin cheesecake!

Nutmeg: Also great for desserts like apple or pumpkin pie (always use small amounts of nutmeg), and great as a sprinkle on a vegan bechamel sauce for lasagna or stuffed cannelloni or shells.

Cinnamon: We’re all friends with cinnamon at this point right? Did you know it’s great for stabilizing blood sugar levels as well as a myriad of other health benefits? I always have cinnamon in my coffee or chai tea, and I love it on desserts like apple and pumpkin pie, not to mention as a perfect addition to a healthier dessert like baked apples with walnuts or poached pears. It’s also fabulus for savory dishes as well! Especially when combined with any citrus vinaigrette or citrus sauce, and it’s great in a spicy chickpea and vegan chorizo stew I’ll be sharing with you very soon.

Turmeric: The spice that intimidated me the most in the beginning due to its very strong and somewhat odd smell. The reason for me turning up my nose at it was that this is one of those spices that really changes when you toast it (more on toasting spices below). To enjoy its wonderful aroma and taste, cooking it is a must, and although I do at it raw on some dishes like my tofu egg salad sandwiches, once I started toasting it, I got to know the hundreds of possibilities this spice offers. My favorite pairing for turmeric? Definitely tofu, especially in a yummy veggie and tofu scramble.

Wasabi: This is the spice that’s at the base of that green dollop of fiery goodness you get served at Japanese restaurants. I always keep wasabi paste in my fridge for making Asian dishes, but recently I discovered Wasabi powder and it’s so versatile and delicious! I especially love to use it for making wasabi mayonnaise and using it as a spread for a roasted vegetable sandwich. Wasabi based dressings are also delicious.

Spice mixes: Some spice mixes are really yummy, others are overpowering. My current favorite is a grinder that carries lemon, thyme, sea salt, and bay leaves. I’m also a big fan of the fiery spice packets for making barbecue sauces, which I add to marinades for tempeh, tofu or seitan that will then go on the grill, or for making my own barbecue sauce or vegan “meat loaf” sauce topping. These usually include different types of chilli powders and peppers, smoked paprika, other herbs, and the ingredient that makes it shine, smoked sea salt! Some people love ready made blends of Italian seasonings or herbs de Provence, but I prefer to make these myself with my own combinations. Mexican spice packets are sometimes a quick way to add flavor to beans for Mexican dishes, just make sure that the ingredients are all natural (as with all other blends).

There are many others I didn’t even mention, the options are just endless! Here are some herbs that I prefer much more in their fresh form, and which we’ll be talking about in our fresh herb post: rosemary, basil, cilantro, culantro, dill, parsley, lemongrass, sage, tarragon, dill, fennel, garlic chives and mint. Many people do prefer to buy these in their dried form because of a prolonged shelf life, so if this is your case, by all means go for it, but I believe that these in particular shine even more when used fresh.

One important trick regarding spices

The Indian tradition of popping spices in a pan (cooking them on a pan without burning, sometimes with the help of high heat resistant oils), is really the best way to get the most out of your seeds and powders. In many cases, raw spices are miles away from cooked ones because the cooking process releases the amazing fragrances they have. This can be done in a pan on the stove while you’re adding them to your dishes, or by adding a high heat resistant oil to a pan (like coconut or vegetable oil, preferably not olive oil or sesame seed oil), adding your spices, and tossing and cooking them until they start to pop (in the case of using whole seeds like coriander or mustard seeds) and become fragrant. Then use that oil with spices on your favorite dishes.

I hope you’re ready to take the mystery out of your spice cabinet and spice it up! I went from having expired jars to a cabinet I keep refilling and have trouble closing the door of! I hope you have a yummy spicy Sunday! Hubby and I are going through our closets today to get ready for the cold weather, and I’m heading off to the kitchen and my spice cabinet to make some yummy lentils for lunch today. Have a great cozy Sunday everyone!

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