Once you start to cook for yourself, or your family and friends, it’s pretty easy to come up with a few ideas for putting good food on the table.  The trick, however, especially when making plant-based recipes, is creating fabulous flavor and moving toward something you would call great.  Lots of things matter: How fresh your food is to start with, whether you can sear or grill it for an extra punch, what herbs you choose, what sauces come into play.

My favorite trick is to add a game changing topping. There are so many interesting ways to wake up even a routine meal and add taste, texture, and color to whatever you’re making.  It’s well worth spending a little time thinking about toppings when you plan a meal, since many of the best ones require a little prep time.  Here are a few recipes to get you started.

Lentil and Pepita Topping
Next time you make asparagus soup, make this delicious topping as well.  Play around with different vegetables in place of the asparagus tips to complement other kinds of soup.  Recipe from Green Kitchen Stories.

Reserved raw tips from about 1 pound of asparagus
1 large bunch flat leaf parsley
1 cup cooked puy lentils (½ cup uncooked, boiled in water for 18 minutes)
½ cup dry-toasted and salted pumpkin seeds / pepitas
½ green chili, finely chopped (optional)

Finely chop the asparagus tips and the parsley and place in a bowl together with the boiled lentils and the toasted pumpkin seeds. Add the chili if you prefer a spicy mixture. Spoon onto hot soup.

Salsa de Semillas (Dry Salsa)
Make a big batch of this crumbly, smoky topping and keep it in your freezer. There are countless ways to use it to top stir frys, soups, and dips. Recipe from Vegetarian for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff.

8 dried guajillo chilies
4 dried arbol chilies
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup sesame seeds
½ cup raw pepitas
¾ cup raw cashews or unsalted peanuts

Wipe the chilies with a damp paper towel. Break off and discard the stems, then tear or break the chilies into several large pieces and shake out and discard as many seeds as you can.

In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add half of the chilies and, using a metal spatula, press down on them to flatten them onto the hot surface of the pan. When they blacken slightly and become fragrant (or you start coughing from the fumes!), turn them over and sear the other sides. Cook the chilies for about 2 minutes total, then transfer them to a mini food processor or blender. Repeat with the remaining chilies, using the oil remaining in the pan. (Let them sit while you proceed with the recipe.)

Lower the heat to medium and add the sesame seeds to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. Scrape into a medium bowl. Put the pepitas in the pan and cook until they’re lightly browned and popping, 30 to 60 seconds. Scrape them into the bowl with the sesame seeds but don’t stir. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in the pan and add the cashews. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute, then scrape the cashews into the bowl. Let everything cool for at least 15 minutes.

Pulse the chilies, scraping down the sides as needed, until they are finely ground – they’ll make a loose paste.  Spoon in most of the browned pepitas and cashews (hold back most of the sesame seeds in the bowl) and add about ¾ teaspoon salt.  Pulse to combine and grind. Add the remaining pepitas, cashews, and sesame seeds and pulse just a couple of times; the salsa should be dry and crumbly, with some larger chunks of seeds and nuts remaining. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Serve immediately at room temperature, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 weeks.

Use a delicious, crumbly mixture of seeds and nuts as a topping for roasted vegetables, pasta, or salads.  Experiment with using different kinds of nuts. Try toasted almonds and/or toasted hazelnuts. Recipe from Claudia Roden, The Oldways Table.

1 cup sesame seeds
1 ¾ cups coriander seeds
⅔ cup blanched hazelnuts, skinned
½ cup cumin seeds
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Put each variety of seeds and nuts on a separate tray or in a shallow oven dish and roast them all for 10 to 20 minutes, until they just begin to color and give off a slight aroma. As they take different times, you must keep an eye on them so that they do not become too brown, and take out each as it is ready. Alternatively, toast them in a large dry frying pan, stirring constantly.

Put the nuts and seeds together in the food processor with salt and pepper and grind them until they are finely crushed but not pulverized. Be careful not to over blend, or the oil from the too-finely ground seeds and nuts will form a paste. Dukkah should be a crushed dry mixture, not a paste. Taste and add salt if needed.

Browned Butter Nuts
Oldways recently had the good fortune to join Maria Speck at a lunch promoting her new book, Simply Ancient Grains. This topping, which she served on her Oatmeal Butternut Pancakes, had the whole room buzzing.  We made a very simple vegan version of this topping by omitting the butter and just tossing together all the ingredients to bring another dimension to morning oatmeal.

¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds
1 tablespoon golden or black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon nigella seeds or more sesame seeds
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Fine sea salt

Add the butter to a 10-inch skillet or medium saucepan, preferably stainless steel, and melt over medium heat. Cook, watching attentively, until the color turns golden brown, the butter smells deeply nutty, and the bottom of the pan fills with brown specks, 3 to 5 minutes.  Add the pecans, almonds, sesame seeds. Nigella seeds, Aleppo pepper, and cayenne and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Immediately transfer the buttered nuts to a small serving bowl and sprinkle with salt to taste.


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