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Fresh Herbs
Photo: Danielle Walquist Lynch on Flickr

What makes food good? I mean the kind of good that makes you swear under your breath and crave it at three in morning. You know, food so good it makes you wanna “slap yo mama” for never making anything that good. Yes, that good. I read somewhere that food and sex satisfy the same part of the brain, which would explain why sometimes when you eat some really good food it kinda takes you over; you forget your manners and something primal kicks in and you just become one with the food. It’s rare, but nice when it happens.

A case study: Love them or hate them, but back when McDonald’s started — before it was a processed food clown peddling mega-beat of global capitalism (my words not theirs) — it was first a restaurant and had to survive as a restaurant. Meaning you (the owner/chef) have to create something that the customer can only get at McDonald’s. It was their fries, but they used a secret ingredient for many years to create a taste that was not only good, but a little addictive. This secret ingredient was beef fat. My father used to tell me stories about how he went to the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino from three towns over for… wait for it — the fries.

See, any random cooking show will illustrate how restaurant chefs are crazed with making things taste good. Traditionally, in French-based cooking, the secret ingredient is butter. Most veggies, sauces, soups and meats are prepared with — at the least — butter, salt and pepper.

Beef fat, butter…  one might think fat is the through line. Fats carry flavor, so it defiantly doesn’t hurt. But what happens when you don’t have the aid of animal products, fats or proteins to create the good effect that is oh so familiar to the palate? “Oh I thought it was going to be bland.” That is the comment I get most often when omnivores eat my cooking for the first time. As a restaurant-trained chef, my definition of good is something my father once told me: “Cook food that leaves the guest needing to add nothing but a fork.” Anyone using extra salt is slapping the chef in the face!

In my industry, in vegan cooking, there is a lot of  “fake (insert animal part here).” A lot of people eat this fake meat and claim it is good, but it’s because good food is often related as much to texture as it is to taste. While you can have one without the other, if one is bad it cancels the other out.

There are a few tried and true things I learned to make my food good. Here are my top three ingredient guidelines:

  1. Herbs
    It is essential to use the right balance of herbs, because the same herb can be used to create flavors from three different continents. For example, cilantro can be Mediterranean, Asian and South American, depending on the quantity you use in balance with other herbs. One of my favorite combinations is cumin, cilantro and chili to create a great south-of-the-border flavor
  2. Good Fats
    I use safflower oil, which is a high heat oil with little to no taste. Earth Balance buttery spread is my butter of choice — it is non-GMO and has Omega 3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart. Other high heat oils are vegetable and canola (make up your own mind about canola). Cooking in olive oil is not good because it breaks down the Omega oils and turns them into free radicals (which some studies suggest can lead to cancer).
  3. Organic Produce
    The real reason to buy organic is simply because it tastes better. You get a true flavor, and the more flavor you start with the more flavor you end with.  

You don’t have to be a chef to prepare good food, or a critic to appreciate it. Start with these three basics, and you will be well on your way to creating food so good, it’s addicting. No extra salt or beef fat needed.


Read the previous installment of Feed the Vegan on Food Republic.