I can trace my recent improvements on the vegetarian cooking front to one insight in particular (thanks to the stir fry section in Heidi Swanson‘s book, credited/linked below): that almost every stove-top vegetarian dish is vastly enhanced with vegetable stock cubes.
Stock cubes are magical, easy-to-apply, highly compressed morsels of savoury goodness. They can add flavour and balance to almost any vegetable stir fry, sauce/gravy or pasta dish. They can elevate what would otherwise just be a side dish of bland-ish veggies to a surprising little main event.
My cooking now routinely includes quickly preparing a coffee mug full of dense vegetable stock. I let one or two cubes dissolve while I prep the vegetables, and it’s ready to go when I need it to keep things moist, after the initial sautéeing/browning. If I want to add some extra flavour (say, for a little Indian spice or Chinese sweetness), the hot broth is a perfect delivery vehicle for curry powder, vegetarian oyster sauce, black bean sauce, and the like. Just dissolve the other spices or sauces in it before applying.
In practical terms, here are a few ideas where stock cubes can make or break a dish:
- Green asparagus, in season right now (or maybe just out of season…), quickly sautéed with some onion, then cooked in veggie stock for 5-8 minutes at medium heat until soft-ish.
- The same thing, only with green beans (they require slightly less time – 3-5 minutes – and should still be slightly crunchy when served).
- Any vegetable stir fry, flash fried, then cooked in half a cup of vegetable stock with a table spoon of Indonesian yellow curry powder over brown rice.
- Vegetable fried rice cooked in a cup of vegetable broth in which some black bean sauce has been dissolved.
- The delicious veggie bake previously described (which, incidentally, also benefits tremendously from asparagus tips).
In the higher heat stir fries, the vegetable stock will reduce while cooking, become slightly thick and form a kind of sauce. You can certainly add salt, pepper and other spices or herbs, but be cautious with the salt because stock cubes can be quite salty. When in doubt, skip the additional salt. Another word of caution is for fried rice dishes – adding too much stock too late in the process results in a soggy mess that might taste delicious but whose appearance and mouth feel are more like a strange risotto.
Heidi Swanson’s book unfortunately seems to be more or less out of print, but it’s a fabulous work – sort of a ‘structuralist’ approach to preparing vegetarian dishes. In it, instead of presenting recipes in the traditional way, she finds structural similarities between similar dishes, establishes the ‘archetype’ and helps you understand the concept behind what you’re making rather than letting you puzzle out the mysteries of each preparation style yourself. It’s a very empowering read for those of us who gain confidence from intellectually understanding something, and worth any amount of money you can find it for.