Before you dive into vegan cooking, I thought I’d share my top ten favorite ingredients to always, and I mean always, have on hand so I can create plant-passionate meals that are nourishing, balanced, and oh, so delicious. Having these essential ingredients that make life in the kitchen without compromise to wellness will always help maximize your chances for success in our busy, over-scheduled lives. Now, more than ever, we need to be strong and vital.
My Top 10 Essential Ingredients for a Vegan Lifestyle:
1. Organic Greens
I know what you’re thinking. Salad? Listen to me. A salad is great and I enjoy them daily but I am talking greens here: kale, collards, bok choy, arugula, escarole, watercress. They don’t take hours to prepare and they provide just about all the nutrients we need to live well…from calcium to protein. Keep a bunch of tasty, dark, salad greens in the fridge and enjoy them daily, steamed, boiled, sautéed, in salads or juiced. For some amazing ideas to use these in your recipes, check out the Succulently Nutrient Full recipe book.
2. Whole Grains
Brown rice, barley, quinoa, millet, and teff are just a few of the powerhouses of nutrition that are the foundation of wellness. These complex carbohydrates give us the energy we need to focus and stay alert in our lives. Their versatility and delicious flavors and textures make them must-haves for soups, stews, salads, casseroles and bangin’ breakfasts. And since 1 cup serves 4 people, you can cook a bit extra to use in more than one recipe.
Cooking dried beans provide us with not only with protein and fiber, both essential to wellness, they are deeply satisfying and can be used in any number of recipes from soup to salad. Lentils cook in a mere 30-minutes while other beans can take as long as an hour. But don’t panic. You can cook up a big pot of beans on a slow day or evening and freeze them in portioned containers for use later.
Or you can use canned organic beans for real convenience. My only advice here would be to rinse them well and add some fresh ingredients to the final dish you create with the canned beans to bring the dish to life, as the saying goes.
4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This heart healthy fat can be used in so many ways that I find it invaluable in my kitchen. From salad dressing to sautéing to yes, baking, extra virgin olive oil is essential in a pantry dedicated to wellness.
From oleocanthal, the powerful anti-inflammatory phenol to antioxidants, extra-virgin olive oil delivers in taste and health.
Take care when buying extra virgin olive oil, though. If the price seems to be too good to be true for what it claims to be, then it is. True extra virgin olive oil will cost you about $17-$20 a bottle and is worth every penny. Those ‘vats’ of oil you see in big box stores claiming to be extra virgin olive oil are simply not. In the case of those oils, you just getting 120 calories a tablespoon with none of the benefits of the real thing.
5. Organic Berries
Fresh in season or frozen when they are not; berries deliver big time for our wellness. The fact that they are delicious is just the cherry on top. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries are full of longevity-producing compounds, rich in fiber and low in calories. They make the greatest, sweetest and most satisfying snacks or desserts. Toss them into breakfast cereals or smoothies, on top of salads, or simply enjoy their lusciousness by the handful. They will satisfy your sweet tooth and keep you from the vending machine!
6. Non-Dairy Milk
Milk is a big one when transitioning to vegan eating. So many people just adore milk; what are we to do? While different in flavor and richness, fortified almond, coconut, hemp, oat or soy milk can have all the calcium and vitamin D of dairy milk with great flavor, fewer calories and no congestion in your pretty sinuses. Non-dairy milks don’t contribute to inflammation and weight gain the way dairy milk can. Used in baking, soups, smoothies, milk shakes, on cereal or ice cold in a glass with cookies, non-dairy kinds of milk can satisfy just as well as dairy milk, with no downsides to your wellness.
With salt finding its way back to our cooking, based on the latest research saying we should not be so quick to ditch this valuable seasoning, it’s important to look at the quality of the salt you use. Natural, unrefined sea salt, while the same sodium chloride as table salt is easier on your blood pressure because there are no additives or other chemicals added that inhibit how your body processes the salt. Used in cooking (never at the table), sea salt enhances the flavor of the food you cook, creating delicious, satisfying dishes. And as you transition to plant-passionate eating, it’s important to create great flavor so you’ll fall in love with the food easily. Just take care to use salt wisely. Remember that its job is to enhance flavor; you don’t want your food to taste salty. Its job is to help ingredients to shine.
8. Herbs and Spices
Use of herbs and spices can turn a simple vegetable dish into a gourmet feast. Used to influence the flavors of any ingredient, spices and herbs are the icing on the cake of cooking. Can you imagine pumpkin pie without cinnamon? Tomatoes without basil? Black beans without hot pepper flakes or cumin? A curry dish without curry. Buy small amounts of a variety of herbs and spices and experiment with various flavors to see what you like. And remember, dried herbs and spices lose their potent flavors after several months, so only buy what you’ll use.
9. Organic Lemon
You’ve cooked a dish and as you taste it, you think it needs something; Lemon to the rescue. There’s always a bowl of fresh lemons on my kitchen counter. From salad dressings to sauces to desserts to that fresh squeeze of tart, fresh flavor that brings any dish to life, lemons are essential to delicious cooking, vegan or not.
Why organic? If I choose to use the zest, which I often do, I’d rather not be grating pesticides into my delicious dish.
10. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate can save the day. Just a few squares can satisfy your sweet tooth big time. And since dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants and heart-healthy compounds, you can feel good about this vegan treat. I’ve found the creamy richness of dark chocolate keeps me from being tempted by other sweet treats that might not serve wellness as well. There are calories in dark chocolate though (sorry) so you must be a bit mindful when indulging.
One last thing… keep your fridge stocked with fresh or frozen veggies and fruit so you can pull a meal together no matter how crazy your day. A stir-fry dish takes just minutes and serves your health so much better than take-out, even vegan take-out.
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