Photo: Chloe Coscarelli
Although cooking more plant-based meals is good for your health, for many people, eating more plants turns into boring salads or bland tofu. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re eating, chances are you’ll go right back to the steak and chicken tenders.
Luckily there are a ton of flavors, textures, and colors to be discovered in plant-based cooking—you simply have to shift your focus. “Cooking vegan is not about what ingredients you can’t use; it’s about the abundance of foods you can use,” says vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli, author of Chloe Flavor. “Open your eyes to all the ingredients you might have overlooked before. You can make ‘sausage’ out of farro, ‘cheese’ from macadamia nuts, and ‘bacon’ out of shiitake mushrooms.”
Coscarelli, who will be cooking at two New York Wine and Food Festival Events this month: Super Is Served and Broadway Tastes, shared the most common mistakes she sees people making when they cook plant-based meals. Use her pro tips to be sure your dishes are delicious and impressive every time.
1. You forget to season and garnish.
Yes, tofu is boring if you don’t flavor it. But chicken breast would also be boring if you didn’t marinate it or add a sauce. “Meat is simply a vehicle people use to carry flavor, and you can use those same exciting sauces, spices, and herbs on plant-based foods, as well as techniques like charring that create that smoky flavor we associate with meat,” says Coscarelli. “So make sure your food is just as saucy and flavorful as you would make it if it wasn’t vegan.” (Related: What’s the Difference Between a Plant-Based Diet and a Vegan Diet?)
Similarly, “while you might throw a steak on a grill with some salt and pepper and call it a day, in vegan cooking, the finishing details go a long way to make the dish,” says Coscarelli. She recommends topping pasta or hummus with smoked paprika to give a finishing smoky flavor and garnishing Asian dishes with chopped scallions or black sesame. “Adding that last pop of color or flavor can go a long way in making your meal truly unforgettable, both visually and taste-wise,” she adds.
2. You try to do it all yourself.
You can find a lot of plant-based recipes that call for time-consuming techniques like soaking cashews or rice-ing cauliflower or sweating eggplant. “Don’t be so uptight,” says Coscarelli. “These steps are great if you have the time and patience, but don’t be afraid to go off-recipe, use your own palate and intuition, and take little risks and shortcuts to fit your schedule.”
Also, remember that you don’t need to make everything from scratch. Many premade sauces like barbecue and peanut are often vegan, allow you to be creative with your recipes, and save time. (Related: Plant-Based Recipes Perfect for Vegan Athletes)
3. You think it needs to be perfect.
“My friend Lisa once made the most delicious carrot cake trifle,” says Coscarelli. “When I asked her how she thought of such a novel dessert, she said it started when she tried to make a regular carrot cake, and it came out looking hideous and falling apart, so she decided to cut it up into cubes, layer it with the frosting, add some berries, and turn it into a ‘trifle’ Brilliant!” So if things start literally falling apart, reconstruct. It’ll still taste amazing.
Another trick if something goes wrong? Just change the name, Coscarelli suggests. If you burn the cookies, call them chocolate chip cookie crisps. If you underbake the pie, it becomes pumpkin pie pudding. (See also: 10 Creative Ways to Use Canned Pumpkin In All Your Recipes) If the cake doesn’t set, you just made chocolate fudge cake. “Once my mom and I underbaked a batch of vegan brownies for a family party, and she taught me to rename them to be chocolate souffle squares. Everyone loved them and begged for the recipe, but my mom told them it was a family secret,” says Coscarelli.