I’m not vegan. Nor am I vegetarian, gluten free, paleo or anything. Nor do I like to preach about what to eat or not.
While I generally subscribe to the Michael Pollan school, I will for sure indulge in a half bag of mainstream, name brand chips regularly.
That is why this post is kind of strange. I’m recommending a few pantry foods with if you’re going to attempt a healthier/restrictive diet but not willing to forego the highly flavourful variety of dishes you’re used to putting on your table. I haven’t recommended vegetables and fruits: these are a must in any healthy kitchen. I’ve also strayed away from obvious staples / carbohydrate bases like brown rice and quinoa. I just want to mention a few unsung heros of the healthy kitchen pantry.
Tahini is plain and simple crushed sesame seeds. With the texture of peanut butter, it can provide bolstering structure to sauces & dressings. Its good fat content will emulsify beautifully with acids. Astringency plays strongly in its flavour profile, complementing wild greens and rounding out natural sweeteners. When whipped with water, it takes on a glossy smooth craime fraiche texture, which in a dairy-free scenario, is a rare element. Tahini became a cornerstone of a dish we started to call TQK… tahini quinoa kale (this is a holy trinity that can be the template for many dishes – and one of the many fantastic ways to eat kale).
One of the most utilitarian of all nuts, almonds offer a massive spectrum of flavour profiles. Depending on their genus and preparation method, this Prunus family member offers flavours ranging from buttery vanilla sweetness, to bergamot orange, to grassy vegetal, to roasted cacao astringency. The fact that it happens to be a natural and whole food makes it a journeyman ingredient for many restrictive diets while keeping flavour profiles interesting. When you’re missing the crunch of bread on the side or on a salad, toasted almonds can nobly stand in. As an added bonus, almonds produce an amazing milk that you can prepare in 10min with the proper blender. (It’s the only non-diary milk I’d ever use with coffee).
One of the foods to avoid that most health professionals can agree upon is refined sugar. The problem is, so many good foods depend on refined sugars for texture and sweetness. Dates can help. The flavour of dates is a close match to the clean sweetness we look for in a refined sugar. Date sugar is becoming widely available and is a near-direct substitute in recipes where granulated sugar is called for. More useful however is dates in their dried form. They can provide a sticky, taffy like texture that’s hard to get without using tons of dairy and refined sugar. As a bonus this texture can help bolster and add a caramel note to sauces. Plus they complement acidity well (try the traditional Italian method of adding dates to a sour tomato sauce).
If you’ve been to the grocery store in the last 3 months you cannot avoid the absolute proliferation of coconut products. This is testament to the humble coconut’s health benefits and complex physical structure. Almost every part of the coconut is edible (and tasty) – Meat, cream, manna, milk, oil, and water are just a few of the raw forms. (not to mention the husks are useful too – just not for eating).
Its this diversity combined with health benefits like electrolytes, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that will make coconut a pinch hitter in your restrictive diet. What’s more is that the flavour of coconut takes a back seat when you use it in its fattier forms – making it suitable in situations you might use butter or dairy.
If you’re allowed soy in your diet, I need to mention miso. It’s worthy of note that non-GMO miso is available in the US (and more rarily so in Canada). Miso is an absolute uppercut of umami when meat is not available. It usually comes in dense paste form (much like refried beans), so you pick the thickness that works best your recipe. My uses of miso paste so far have been as a basis of a rich stir fry or fish glaze. However it would dress up poultry or salad dressings fantastically.