I try not to use anything too off-the-wall. My biggest pet peeve with vegetarian (especially vegan) cookbooks is that they frequently call for really strange stuff, or at least stuff you can’t get at the average neighborhood grocery store. Even when I moved to New York City from the country town I grew up in, I resisted the idea that I to go to every single specialized grocery store in town to make a good meal. Too time-consuming for my busy self! This is especially true now that I’m in Pittsburgh, land of the few and far-between grocery stores.
That said, there are a few things that are worth taking the time and effort to find, especially for a good price.
- Good quality low-sodium soy sauce: Currently I’m using a lot of tamari. Its flavor is more complex than cheapo soy sauce, and has the added bonus of being gluten-free, which is important to me since half the people I know can’t eat wheat. Another good option, especially for my small-town friends, is Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. It’s not quite as salty as soy sauce, wheatless, and you can order it online here.
Confession: I’m not really sure where you should buy this. Somehow I’ve always been lucky enough to simply acquire it through roommates or thoughtful family members.You should be able to find this at a well-stocked grocery store. In Brooklyn, I got it at Associated, in Pittsburgh I find it at Giant Eagle. There are also several good Middle Eastern stores in The Strip and in Oakland if you want to go that route. It might be cheaper, but I haven’t really compared. I don’t have a favorite brand at the moment, but I’ve never gotten one that’s bad.
- Miso and seaweed: I use the miso paste more than the seaweed, so don’t worry if you can’t find the latter. I used to get these at small fruit and vegetable shops run by little old Asian ladies who I think are Korean but never actually asked. Runs me about $5 for either item, and lasts for ages. Miso is a great way to add savory flavor to soups and casseroles, as well as being delicious in its own right. In Pittsburgh now, I either go to the Strip District, or to a Japanese store in Shadyside.
- Nutritional Yeast: Good source of B12 and super yum on popcorn. Lots of creamy sauce recipes use it to mimic a cheesy flavor. Order it online at veganessentials.com, under the section for cheese substitutes. Start small and if you like it a lot (it’s strangely addictive) get the giant bucket for the best price per ounce.
- Slap Ya Mama: I’ve been questioned about this one more than once now. All it is is Cajun seasoning: salt, red pepper, black pepper, garlic powder. I used to travel to Louisiana a lot, and I’d pick it up there. Since I don’t do that anymore, I no longer use the seasoning. I’ve been converted into a Sriracha fiend! You can get Sriracha any decent grocery store.
A note on grains: I get things like amaranth and millet from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. They are shockingly cheap there! For quinoa and brown rice I usually turn to Trader Joe’s, as they typically have the best prices. I prefer jasmine rice over the regular store brand stuff from Giant Eagle; it’s more flavorful, and if I go to TJ’s it’s the same price.
So that’s it! I’m pretty sure that’s the extent of the unusual ingredients I use. Everything else should be pretty run-of-the-mill. Please don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything you’re not sure about what it is, where to get it, or what to substitute if you can’t find it.