What follows is a handy-dandy list of items and ingredients that I can’t do without (and so appear in lots of my recipes). I imagine that this list might come in handy for a parent whose vegan kid is coming home for the weekend or if you’re a new vegan who’s just starting to spread your culinary wings.
If you’re worried that your local store doesn’t carry any of these products, I’ve found over the years that if you ask for a specific product, provide the contact information (or at least the name of the product and producer) and explain how other customers might also benefit from it (i.e. no trans fats, good for people watching their cholesterol levels, etc.), managers will often start carrying said product. So don’t be shy and exert your power as a consumer!
Without further ado and in no particular order, here’s a list of my favourite staples:
- Music, laughter and companionship: Nothing’s better than cooking with someone else who can help out, provide feedback and/or chit-chat while you’re cooking.
- Any kind of flour you can think of (spelt, kamut, brown rice, unbleached white, whole wheat, almond, etc.) because having them on hand (and in relatively small quantities) gives you the flexibility to experiment with different flavours and textures. You can find the greatest variety of flours at bulk food stores. Just make sure to put EVERY dry good that you buy from a bulk food store in the freezer for at least a week when you come home, since meal moths can quickly spread and wreak havoc.
- Soy, coconut, rice and/or almond milk are available at most super markets now, and many are fortified with all sorts of vitamins and minerals that everyone seems so concerned over (I’m of the opinion that if you’re knowledgeable and eat a wide variety of unprocessed foods, you’ll be fine, but everyone’s nutritional needs are different).
- EarthBalance veggie butter and veggie shortening available at some of the larger grocery stores, at least in Montreal and Ottawa (e.g. IGA Extra and Loblaws).
- Nutritional yeast, available at bulk food stores and at some grocery stores. Make sure to keep it in the freezer – it keeps better. I keep mine in an old sugar-shaker, which makes it really easy to sprinkle over popcorn. If you can only find flakes, don’t sweat it, just grind them up in a spice mill to make a powder. Warning: eating a lot of nutritional yeast will tend to turn your pee bright yellow. Don’t sweat it. Just think of it as a ray of sunshine… *grin*
- Tons of fruits and veggies — the greater the diversity and depth of colour, the better. This applies to everyone. And I’m talking fresh, canned and frozen.
- Vital wheat gluten for making seitan from scratch. You can order a box directly from Bob’s Red Mill if your local grocery store doesn’t carry it.
- Vegetarian oyster sauce for adding a nice flavour to any stir-fry. I’ve generally come across it at Asian grocery stores.
- Roasted sesame oil for adding depth to any Asian dish. I can’t express how much I love this oil. Vegan or not, use this oil!
- Soy sauce or tamari, which is available everywhere. It’s a cheap and effective way to boost flavour while adding a little oomph that regular salt just can’t.
- Silken tofu, y’know, that stuff that comes in a tetra pack that looks kind of like a juice box. It keeps forever and is great in a stir-fry if you don’t mind it breaking up into lil’ bits, in mousses and puddings, and as a binder in baked goods. It’s available in most grocery stores.
- “Regular” tofu, which is available in a wide variety of containers, textures and more recently, flavours! Unless the tofu is silken and thus in an tetra pack on a shelf, tofu will be found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. If it’s not, don’t buy it! Experiment with different textures and firmness to see which type you prefer. I’m partial to softer brands myself – they’re not as spongy. Tofu is one of the most versatile staples at your disposal, so be adventurous and you’ll likely surprise yourself with delicious edibles.
- Wheat germ, available everywhere. I try to sprinkle in a bit whenever I’m baking, no matter what I’m making. It’s a pretty innocuous way to increase the fiber content of any baked good. Just don’t go too crazy with it (i.e. about 1/4 of a cup unless the recipe specifically calls for more), because that might throw the recipe out of whack.
- Vegan chocolate chips. Several brands are what I like to call “accidentally vegan”, which means that it was cheaper to make it without milk products, so the producers made them vegan without really thinking about it. Just read the ingredients and you’re set.
- SPICES! Tons and tons of spices! Tofu and seitan are pretty tasteless on their own, so you’ll need lots of different species to liven things up. Think sage, turmeric, chilies, cayenne pepper, sea salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, marjoram, thyme, thai basil, “regular” basil, oregano, coriander, garam masala (which is a blend of spices you can make at home), allspice, cloves… I could go on and on…
- Beans, lentils and nuts. Beans (e.g. red kidney beans, chickpeas/garbanzo beans, split peas, broad beans, fava beans, black eyed peas, etc.) and lentils (e.g. green, red, brown, black, etc.), when bought dry and in bulk, are incredibly cheap and store really well. They even look quite pretty in glass jars lining the counter. They’re super healthy and packed full of protein and vitamins, so try to use these as much as possible and in many different ways (e.g. in brownies! No, I’m not kidding). Nuts are a little more expensive but are also a great source of protein and a really filling snack. They’re also easy to jazz-up by roasting them in all sorts of wonderful marinades. You can get really good value at bulk food places like Costco.
- Egg replacer comes in many forms, but the one I turn to the most often because it lasts forever and is pretty easy to find is the Kingsmill brand. Essentially egg replacer is just a binder of some kind, either made from arrowroot flour, potato starch or cornstarch. Mix the powder with water and presto, you have an “egg”. You can also use ground flax seeds (1 tsp flax mixed with 2 tbsp warm water) or bananas depending on what you’re baking (bananas have quite a distinctive flavour). There are lots more; see this page all about egg replacers for more info.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include “replacement” items like vegan “cheese” or fake meats. That’s because they’re crazy processed and should, in my humble opinion, only rarely be consumed. Don’t get me wrong, I love them and I think they taste fantastic, but if you’re able to choose between a home-cooked meal full of goodness made from scratch and a microwave dinner, guess which one I think you should choose. In addition, it’s not a good idea to start depending on something that’s difficult to find, lest it becomes MORE difficult to find or disappears altogether. Then where will you be?
I’m sure this list will expand with additions from you wonderful folk or if I think of something after I publish this, so check back every once in a while and please don’t be shy to add your “I can’t live without _________!”