Today I wanted to touch on a secret weapon in the vegan and veg cooking arsenal. And that is smoke. In my book and classes, I often talk about using umami to give meatless foods a sensation of meatiness. Umami is abundant in animal proteins, but it can also be found in mushrooms, fermented soy, eggplant, ripe tomatoes, wine, and a host of plant based foods. Well, one of the most intriguing ways to get umami is through the flavor of smoke. It’s not really a food, but the taste and smell of woodsmoke send signals to your brain that it is enjoying something meaty and satisfying.
So, now that it’s wintertime, and your grill is probably either stored away or covered in snow, how do we get smoke into our plant’ based delights?
Easy, with a few smoky ingredients, you can add instant smoky complexity. In fact, you may want to make a few of these simple tastings just to see what smoke does to food. I started with my smoky ingredients. For smoke with no chile heat, I have some fabulous smoked salt from Spain. There are smoky salts from all over the world, and all are unique, so taste what you buy. Most are artisanal salts, which start with a distinctive, regional salt, then smoke it over a flavorful wood, so you may find applewood, mesquite, cherry, or whatever the creatives had to work with. For pure and intense smoke, I have liquid smoke, which is super concentrated, so just use a drop if you give that a try.
Another tasty source of smoke is the chipotle pepper, available in cans in adobe sauce, dried whole chiles, or ground powder. Of course, they add chile heat as well as smoke. You can also get smoked paprika from Spain. If you are not so into hot stuff, the paprika may be for you, as it is milder and sweeter.
For my tasting, I slowly caramelized some onions in coconut spread and served them on a whole wheat roll with a sprinkle of smoked salt. The simple sweet earthiness of the onions, one of my favorite flavors anyway, was instantly enlivened by the smoke and salt. As soon as I took the picture, I ate it all.
I also boiled some potatoes and beets, and cut up cauliflower and baby carrots, and served them with a simple vegan may with chipotle powder stirred in. Addictive. This is an old trick of mine, adding chipotle to creamy dressings is always a hit, whether its a mayo, a sour cream style dip, or a creamy white sauce.
I boiled some lacinato kale until just tender, then stirred some canned chipotle and adobo with olive oil and tossed it with the kale. It was amazing.I knew there was a reason they always cooked kale with a hunk of smoky pork-the smokiness brings out the sweetness of the greens, and adds depth.
For more sweet and smoke, I cubed a sweet potato and roasted it with whole garlic cloves and olive oil, covered, for about half an hour, then served it sprinkled with smoked salt. This could be a great bruschetta topping, tossed with pasta, or just served like this. I loved it.
Any simple salad will come alive with smoked salt, just sprinkle the crunchy grains on just before serving. Any pot of beans will seem heartier with a few chipotles-or you can keep going until it’s chili.
So give smoke a try, and see if it gives you a more satisfying dish. I think you will love it, and its so EASY.