The Topic: Stocking your pantry with vegan essentials with Associate Editor Jennifer Chen
The Dish: At the end of a long work day, cooking dinner is one of my favorite ways to relax. Lately, I've been really into making my own beans and seitan, and stocking up my pantry so that during the week most of the prep is already done. Here are my suggestions for keeping your vegan pantry ready to go for effortless weekday meals on the cheap.
Beans. I used to buy canned beans for convenience, but lately, I've been prepping my own beans. I personally love chickpeas and black beans, which are both so versatile in the kitchen. By buying dried beans in bulk, I can make cups and cups of beans versus one canned container. Soak your favorite beans overnight in two to three inches of water. Cook over low heat for an hour-and-a-half or longer, depending on the bean. Approximately one cup of dried beans will give you three cups cooked. If you have a copy of Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Appetite for Reduction cookbook, she has a great chart of bean cooking times. And if you love chickpeas, you have to try her Chickpea Piccata.
Seitan. At first, I was intimidated to make my own seitan until I tried Robin Robertson's recipe for basic seitan from 1,000 Vegan Recipes. It's so easy! Really. The main ingredient is vital wheat gluten, which you can find in the bulk section of a health food store or online from Bob's Red Mill. You can flavor it with anything you like. I stick to Robertson's simple additions of nutritional yeast and tamari for a juicy seitan "steak." I make about four pieces of seitan and freeze half for recipes to make later. Here's a basic homemade seitan recipe from Isa.
Tofu. I grew up eating plain tofu with a little bit of soy sauce on it so I love tofu in all forms. If you can get freshly made tofu, I urge you to buy it (such as local brands Hodo Soy and Tofu Yu)—the taste is entirely different. But if you can't, here are my tips for getting the most tofu for your buck. For vegan desserts such as Chocolate Mousse, buy silken tofu in Tetra Paks from a local Asian market. I bought 6 packs for 79 cents each since they have a long shelf life. For firm or extra-firm tofu, buy the packaged kind with two bricks of tofu in one pack so you can use one and save the other.
Rice and grains. I always buy a huge bag of brown rice from Ranch 99, my local Asian grocery store. And by huge, I mean, it looks like a bag of dog food. While I don't eat rice at every meal, a large bag can cost about $20 and last me at least six months. For grains such as quinoa or millet, I frequent the bulk bins. Quinoa is actually a seed, and this little powerhouse packs protein like nobody's business and magnesium, which helps alleviate headaches by relaxing blood vessels. This little tidbit is especially helpful for someone like me who is deadly allergic to aspirin, or anyone who suffers from migraines.
Nuts. The bulk bin is the best bet for stocking up on almonds, walnuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts. It's certainly not cheap to buy macadamia nuts ($17 a pound!), but for select recipes such as the Luscious Lasagna (Veganize It! November+December 2011), which calls for a macadamia-nut ricotta, the bulk bin is your friend. I've spent ample time buying nuts from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and here are my top choices. Buy pine nuts from Trader Joe's rather than in bulk at Whole Foods since it's at least a dollar or two cheaper. The pre-packaged almonds and walnuts from the Whole Foods generic brand are cheaper than the bulk bin prices. Lastly, store your nuts in the freezer so they can last longer. The oils from nuts can turn rancid if left on a cabinet shelf, so your freezer is your best bet for fresh nuts.
The Final Word: By making some of your own ingredients and stocking up on vegan essentials, you can save big on your final grocery bill. The time and effort to make your own beans or seitan may outweigh the convenience of already prepared goods, but sometimes a splatter of elbow grease and DIY pluck can help you enjoy your home cooking just a little more.