The Best Plant-Based “Meat” Might Already Be In Your Kitchen

Pantry and produce staples are the secret to a hearty vegetarian meal.

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Today, plant-based meats have become popular choices for many looking to either eat less meat or no meat. While they are certainly convenient, there are some downsides: long ingredient lists, unpleasant aromas while cooking and a texture that is decidedly neither meat nor vegetable. There is certainly nothing wrong with using these ingredients if you like them, but maybe you don’t want your meatless meal to taste like … well, meat! Never fear, there is a big world of vegetarian and vegan cooking that packs big flavors without specialty ingredients and still satisfies a meat or former meat eater.

For the January/February issue of Food Network Magazine, I wanted to create a vegetarian pasta dish with the same cozy comforting flavors as a meat ragu, but using everyday ingredients — and I wanted it done in under 40 minutes. After a little experimentation, I honed in on using chopped toasted walnuts and chopped mushrooms for a pleasant nubbly texture, and tomato paste and canned tomatoes to build a hearty but not heavy sauce. Along the way I picked up a few essential tips to consider when it comes to creating the same textural and flavor satisfaction as meat in a meatless meal.

You will need a source of umami.

Umami is known as the fifth taste (along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour), and gives that savory, craveable deep flavor to your dish. Many plant-based ingredients are rich in umami including mushrooms, nuts, tomatoes, seaweed and soy sauce. Using some of these ingredients will ensure your dish feels full of flavor and not watery or bland.

Texture is key.

It’s easy to end up with a soft, one-textured dish when cooking with vegetables and beans — there’s a reason that sprinkling crackers on a soup instantly perks it up! Having a mix of textures makes the dish more interesting and holds satisfaction from the first bite to the last. Use a variety of cooking techniques to create new textures: broil, pan fry, boil and/or braise. Consider how you cut your vegetables: a floret of cauliflower will have a different bite than grated on the large holes of a box grater. And when in doubt, a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs, chopped nuts or toasted seeds on a finished dish will go a long way.

Don’t forget the fat — and salt.

There’s a saying among cooks: Fat carries flavor. And it’s true, along with salt. It’s part of the reason that dishes at restaurants seem so much more flavorful. Sometimes home cooks worry that an extra sprinkle of salt will make their dish too salty, but it is more likely that it will heighten flavors and make everything in the dish taste more like itself. Vegetables and grains are more likely to be earthy, mild or watery when left plain. A generous glug of oil and big pinch of salt will be the first building block to a much more flavorful dish.

Armed with these three tips, there is a world of possibilities for the beans, lentils, canned and fresh vegetables and condiments that are most likely already in your pantry. If you are still feeling a little timid, here are a few great chili recipes to get you started.

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