Taste is a funny thing; part biology part learned and always infused with expectations. We expect certain flavors to meld. An expectation many cooks fail to meet! A great example is in an interview excerpt shown in Forks Over Knives, The Extended Interviews. In it Doug Lisle tells a story about trying to get his father to switch to a whole food plant-based diet. After one meal, his Father stated that if he had to eat like that for the rest of his life he would rather die of a heart attack. I just started laughing! Not exactly funny, but very often a too common story. Some of worst tasting food ever created is passed off as vegetarian, vegan or “healthy!” Lots of people, for good reason, think healthy food and think bland, tasteless and/or ill-conceived.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are some of the worst offenders, followed very closely by plant-based nutrition cookbook writers and editors. At one extreme is food that is over-mixed and over-spiced using strange ingredients and even stranger spice combinations. Exemplified in a recipe for Stuffed Green Peppers that a friend of mine sent me. She loves Stuffed Green Peppers and decided to try a new recipe. She was incredibly disappointed and evaluated the resulting food as “barely edible.” She wanted to know what I thought the problem was. One look and I just shook my head. The recipe call for ginger and balsamic vinegar as seasonings. Ugh!!!
At the other extreme is food so bland, you wonder why anyone would eat it. Certainly there is more to life than a bunch of steamed vegetables with some plain unseasoned, unsalted brown rice and a little soy sauce if you are lucky. There has to be more to life than a bunch of boiled beans over more brown rice with Bragg’s amino acids as seasoning!
Being a good whole food plant-based cook requires that you know your herbs and spices. Used correctly they can brighten up almost any dish and take if from just OK to mouth-watering. The trick is understanding how to use them. The first rule is to match the herbs and spices with the type of cuisine you are creating.
Case in point, the Stuffed Green Peppers mentioned above. The first thing is to identify the type of cuisine. When I see a recipe with peppers, garlic, onions, corn, rice, tomatoes I immediately think: Southwestern/Mexican food. These foods use some very specific herbs and spices:
- Bell Peppers
- Coriander Seeds
- Cumin Seeds
For stuffed green peppers you want to stick with the theme suggested by the corn, tomatoes and rice and use the traditional flavors like:
- Spices: chiles (Ortega’s for people who like mild and Jalapeños if you like it a little spicier)
- Herbs – oregano and lime for sure and possibly a small amount of cilantro and a touch of ground cumin added to the rice
All of the sudden the dish goes from a mixed metaphor to a flavorful and harmonious taste treat. You notice that ginger and balsamic vinegar are no where on the list of traditional herbs and spices for this kind of cuisine.
Whenever you read a recipe (before you even begin cooking) take a minute to think about the kind of cuisine you are trying to create. If you have eaten it or something like it before think back to how it tasted. See if you can remember what combinations were used. Then read the recipe to see if the foods used and the herbs and spices are congruent with the type of cuisine you ate before and are creating now. If they are, you are good to go. If they are not, you might want to keep looking for another recipe. When you think about food start with the traditional flavors. I have found that “surprise” ingredients seldom create a sensational new taste experience.
The thing to remember is that the goal is to make healthy and tasty food: not to bore or even dazzle. And with whole food plant-based foods this is actually pretty easy since fresh plant-based foods start out delicious and need very little enhancement. And yet, the right herbs and spices will elevate a simple zucchini into a meal fit for a king.