Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tip #11: Discover new ingredients

When you decide to start eating healthier, sometimes you get stuck because you just don't know what to cook, or even how to cook. How am I going to make my wonderful carbonara sauce without dairy or bacon? How can I substitute my commercial salad dressing (full of unhealthy oils)?

I remember that, after reading The China Study, being totally convinced not to use animal products any more in my house, I felt like my dishes were bland, boring and not great at all. I have to admit I was extremely embarrassed to invite people over, as I really felt that 1) my food choices were "weird" to begin with, and 2) nothing I made could be liked that much. Yes, it was edible, and yes, probably very healthy, but that was it. I realize now that I definitely had a complex then, don't ask me why.

Little by little, I started finding great recipe blogs and books (I'll talk more about them in another post), and  begun enjoying what I was cooking. I feel my family did too. (My husband will say, though, that he always liked what I made and it's true. My kids I think would agree with me that now things are tastier).

But one thing that I really think made a big difference was to overcome the fear of new ingredients. You read any vegan cookbook and you start seeing mentions of nutritional yeast. What the heck was that? It sounded weird and it looked weird (in the pictures that I found online about it, because no grocery stores near me had it, to begin with). So, one day I just decided to order it from Amazon and now it is one of my basic ingredients that I love using.

So, I'm just going to tell you about four things that maybe you're not familiar with, but that have helped me make my dishes much tastier and maybe even healthier.

1) Nutritional Yeast. Like I've already said, I found this ingredient puzzling at first. But it is a good source of B vitamins, folic acid, selenium, zinc, and protein and it gives a slight cheesy taste to most everything. In this blog post from one of my favorite food bloggers, you can learn everything about it. I now buy it at a Whole Foods that just opened near my home. Just remember not to confuse it with brewer's yeast or other yeasts. Sometimes, when you ask in a store, they may not know the difference themselves. I use it to make vegan macaroni and "cheese," scrambled tofu and many sauces, soups and dressings.

2) Spanish Paprika. I'm sure many of you are already familiar and use papikra but I'm talking here about the paprika that comes from Spain. It is sometimes called smoked paprika. I recommend you always buy the one from Spain. There are at least three variations, either hot or mild (sometimes called sweet) and it is what gives chorizo sausage its wonderful flavor and red color. You can now find it at Whole Foods, or you can also get it at I find that just a little bit goes a long way. I love using it in soups and salad dressings for an extra chorizo flavor without the guilt. And for information about the powerful health benefits of paprika, including anti-inflammation, you can read this post.

3) Miso Paste. Although I have had miso soup in restaurants for a long while now, this is another ingredient that I was afraid of. It just looked mysterious and strange and I really thought it was only used in soups. Well, again, it took a bit to even find it (Whole Foods again), but I now love using it, sometimes instead of salt in some of my dishes. It is also full of health benefits, including the fact that it is a fermented food (the kind you definitely should be eating everyday) with probiotic properties. To know more about it, here's 20 benefits and uses of miso.

4) Cashews. OK, I know you already knew about this one, but what I have discovered is that cashews can be extremely versatile and now I use them often to make my dishes creamier or when I want to replace dairy in recipes. For example I cannot make the same carbonara sauce I used to make for spaghetti, so rich with heavy cream and cheese, but I now use cashews, water, garlic, a raw tomato and nutritional yeast, all blended in the Vitamix and, granted, it is not the same, but it is very, very good and extremely creamy. By the way, if you don't have a Vitamix, you can still use cashews as cream in a regular blender, but you need to soak them in water at least four hours before hand. Also, I use raw cashews for this use. I don't know if you would get the creaminess with roasted ones. Cashews are also very healthy, as you can read here.

And let me finish with one of my favorite recipes which combines all these ingredients and it is of my own creation. Four years ago I could not have dreamed of one day posting a recipe of my own on a public blog.
I have come a long way. :)

Pink Salad Dressing

1 and 1/2 cup water
1/2 cup raw cashews
1 Tablespoon packed sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
1 Tablespoon miso (not white) paste
1 Tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 garlic clove (or more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon Spanish Paprika

Blend everything in a Vitamix or regular blender (soak cashews for 4 hours beforehand) for about 1 minute.

What other ingredients do you recommend I try next? Thanks for letting me know!


  1. Ho, Pilar, you inspire!!! I barely ever cook these days, but if I did I would like to be cooking healthfully - so you inspire on both counts. Your inquisitiveness and creativity are so cool. And I do LOVE the concept of eating optimally for health and happiness.

    Do you know Annemarie Colbin (hey, is it possible to hyperlink in a comment?) and The Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC? I just went to her book which I love (from 1979), The Book of Whole Meals, because I wanted to tell you about a "magical" sauce recipe that I used to get a kick out of... but it's not in that book as I always thought it was! Anyway, you reminded me of this book (and Institute) so I'll pass it along.


    SIGNED: Jean! (inside joke)

    1. Thanks, Jean. No, I've never heard of her! Here's the link to her book. It sounds like a great book and maybe I saw it in your house? I think I remember that.

      To add hyperlinks inside a blog comment, it's a bit complicated (would love to know why). Here's how to do it.

  2. Great info Pilar - I'm on a mission to find these ingredients. Hey, maybe you could print up some of your favorite new recipes and bring them with you in May - You could do a mini class on Healthy cooking.....I know I need some pointers. Holly

    1. Thanks, Holly. I definitely can do that! Looking forward to May.