By Dilip Barman
Seasonings, in general, are the supporting cast that you can add to a dish to give it greater appeal. One specific kind of seasoning is a spice, which comes directly from plant matter like leaves and seeds. Many — but not all — seasonings are plant-based.
Before we start, let’s ask the obvious question — why seasonings? One of the main draws for many cooks — one might say the seasoned cook — is the flavor. Seasoning can make the difference between a good dish and an outstanding one. Well-chosen seasonings can enhance and draw out flavors in the rest of the dish or complement and elevate it with new flavors. By experimenting, you can discover combinations that you find pleasing.
Seasonings can take the everyday and make it uniquely delicious. How about a citrus salad with a little bit of fine fleur de sel salt and chopped herbs? Season the vegetables with citrus for a fresh zing – and not just lime or lemon, but Meyer lemon or even tangerine. How about cinnamon – either a small amount to lend a subtle flavor, or more to create a fun new flavor profile — mixed into a green or fruit smoothie. The spice will also help spread out and slow blood sugar rise. Similarly, fruit sprinkled with a bit of chili powder is refreshing yet attention-grabbing.
Seasonings’ Health Benefits
Seasonings confer many health benefits, some of which are understood and some not, which is a reason why some choose a plant-based diet that doesn’t require clearcutting forest areas, such as in the Amazon, where plants with healing properties may await discovery. Some well-known seasonings that benefit health include cinnamon (reduces blood sugar levels), turmeric (an anti-inflammatory and also great as a topical ointment to aid wound healing), ginger (enhances digestion and reduces nausea; can help reduce the bloating some experience when consuming beans), garlic (immunity and heart health), fenugreek (can stimulate lactation in new mothers), and rosemary (can help with allergies). Many spices also have healthy antioxidant characteristics.
Some of my Favorite Seasonings
I love many different seasonings. Here are some of my favorites.
- Indian spices in general. If you have an Indian grocery store near you, consider picking up a spice dhiba or stainless-steel-covered container with little bowls for different spices seen in the photo above. If you enjoy Indian or Indian-inspired cooking, it’s best to have a set of Indian spices handy. I suggest turmeric, ground and/or whole cumin, a curry powder, garam masala, whole cloves, whole cardamom pods, and kala namak (black salt that is actually pink in color). Turmeric goes well with many foods, though you have to watch out for staining. I love cumin with beans and with quinoa. Cardamom pods add a nice contrast to fruity flavors and sauces.
- Jerk seasoning. The local company Pluto’s makes a good jerk seasoning (plutosinc.com) but it’s easy to make your own spicy Caribbean mix by combining a tablespoon of garlic powder with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and two teaspoons each of these dried seasonings: allspice, thyme, and ginger. I’ve included references to my signature lime marinated jerk seitan above. I demonstrated this dish in our November Thanksgiving show.
- Nutritional yeast. This is not brewer’s yeast but, rather, is grown to be used in food. Some describe it as having a cheesy flavor, and it does make a creamy and tasty “cheese” sauce when blended with a few nuts and water, plus garlic powder and salt and roasted red bell pepper for color. It’s great mixed in with bean dishes and sprinkled on pasta. Most nutritional yeast sold is fortified and that’s what I recommend – it is a good source of B vitamins and is a complete protein, including all nine essential amino acids that human bodies can’t make.
- Lemon pepper. I am a citrus fiend and really enjoy lemon pepper, a readily found spice mixture made with lemon zest and black pepper (and often salt). I much prefer freshly ground black pepper with its strong flavor and aroma but enjoy it pre-ground in this form.
- Peppercorns and a pepper grinder.
- Chili powder and paprika, which is not as hot. Many cooks love smoked paprika, with which I’ve lately been experimenting.
- I love cinnamon’s earthy, sweet flavor. Surprisingly, though it does taste sweet, it actually significantly reduces the glycemic load of food, reducing the increase in blood sugar levels. Though some connoisseurs strongly prefer Ceylon (never mind the colonial name!) cinnamon from Sri Lanka, I also like Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon, as well as the “standard” one common in the United States, Korintje cinnamon.
- Italian herbs. I used to have a huge rosemary plant and used the needles often. It eventually died so, until I plant another one, I buy dried needles. I also routinely use oregano (and its close cousin, the sweeter marjoram) and basil. I like sage especially with grains and seitan.
- Fresh citrus. I almost always add fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice or even tangerine juice to dishes. If you can get organic Meyer lemons, they’re awesome, and are a bit sweet.
- Coconut aminos. Soy sauce seems universal but is very high in sodium. I like coconut aminos, which taste very similar but are much lower — but still high — in sodium; a bit helps flavors blend.
- Hot sauce. My preferences for heat have changed over time, but I have always liked a little bit of heat to bring out flavors and tantalize the tongue.
- Ume plum vinegar. I didn’t grow up with vinegar, so I don’t use it much in my cuisine, but I like the fruity flavor of ume plum vinegar. It’s particularly good with simple cubed salads; for example, tomato, avocado, and cucumber with ume plum vinegar and a bit of salt, freshly ground black pepper, and lemon juice.
- Vanilla extract.
- Curry paste. I occasionally teach Thai vegan cooking and demonstrate how to make pastes with a mortar and pestle. For convenience, however, consider purchasing premade small bottles of pastes. Make sure that they are vegan and have no fish sauce.
- Alcohol. While I’m not a fan of drinking alcohol, I find that it is a good flavor exponent and deglazes a pan after cooking nicely.
- Salt. Yes, salt is a seasoning. It has developed a reputation of not being healthful and, indeed, if you have high blood pressure (which a healthy plant-based diet can address!) or certain other conditions, you may want to avoid salt. For a number of years, I stopped salting my food. As with any dietary change, one should always check with one’s health-care provider, but my family and I have found that, because we don’t consume many processed foods (which have high sodium), a little bit of salt to season our food enhances flavor without the downsides associated with processed foods. Indeed, it is important for the thyroid to get iodine, and iodized salt is a good source of it. There are nice, exotic salts like Himalayan pink salt, Hawaiian black salt, and, as mentioned above, kala namak, which have nice flavor profiles and are useful on occasion, but it’s important to also have good old-fashioned iodized salt on hand to use as the primary salt in one’s cooking.
Nutritional Yeast and Jerk Seasoning: Air Fried Tofu or Vegetables
I love both nutritional yeast and jerk seasoning. Here is a recipe for a simple, tasty, and nutritious dish, air fried tofu, shown in picture above. Vegetables like eggplant, okra, and cubed squash can work, as well. If you don’t have an air fryer, try baking in a conventional or convection oven, but don’t expect the same crispiness.
Here is the basic idea (you can customize it to your liking): In a shallow bowl or small plate, mix nutritional yeast, jerk seasoning, panko bread crumbs, and a touch of salt. Sesame seeds are great, as is cornmeal. You can simplify things and just use nutritional yeast with a bit of salt and dried oregano or make some other combination.
Open a package of extra firm tofu; drain and gently press it. Don’t worry about getting all of the water out. You can also — or instead — use eggplant (try ¾” cubes or ¾” slices), fresh okra slit open so some seasonings will penetrate, or 1” cubes of cooked squash. If using a vegetable, you might first quickly dip it into a favorite plant-based milk to more readily coat with seasoning. Seitan, but not tempeh, works well, too.
Simply dredge the tofu or vegetable in the seasonings and air fry. I find that 375°F for 5-6 minutes works well; if you want more crispiness, turn up the heat to 425°F for an additional 2-4 minutes, watching to avoid over browning. Air fried (or pan cooked) tofu seasoned this way is a great main or side dish.
I have over 1700 recipes on my blog dilipdinner.blogspot.com and most of my dish descriptions include seasoning; feel free to explore to try more ideas in your kitchen. Enjoy!
Dilip Barman has been involved with plant-based eating for decades. In addition to being a Food for Life instructor, he hosts, through the Triangle Vegetarian Society, the United States’ largest vegetarian (all vegan) Thanksgiving. He is Nutrition Education Director of a local charter school and blogs about his plant-based creations at dilipdinner.blogspot.com.