Explainers

Seven shopping list staples you need to create a vegetarian pantry

Brent Savage, chef at Sydney’s trailblazing vegetarian fine-diner Yellow, lets us in on his secret ingredients that make whipping up vegetarian dishes a breeze.

By Brent Savage
Brent Savage

If there's anyone who can help supercharge your vegetarian cooking, Brent Savage, the head chef of Yellow, is up to the task. Whether you're a full-time vegetarian or just trying it on for size, Savage has plenty of tips and tricks you can experiment with to wring every bit of flavour out of your favourite members of the plant kingdom.

The chef's dishes at Yellow, Sydney's first fine-diner to go 100 per cent vegetarian and one of four restaurants Savage co-owns with Nick Hildebrandt, are full of multiple layers of texture and flavour, seen in such thoughtful combinations as celeriac, nettle, hazelnut milk and black garlic. Savage will cook that dish and three others at a masterclass this Saturday at Carriageworks in Sydney, titled 100% Vegetarian.

For those playing along at home, we asked Savage to share what he believes are the building blocks of a pantry geared to vegetarian cooking, whether you've got 15 minutes or five hours to spend on dinner.

Kombu and other seaweeds

Great to make stock bases, sauces and seasonings

What does seaweed bring to a dish?
I like it for its umami quality. I think you need more umami in vegetable broths and seasonings than when you're cooking with proteins.
What dishes would you use this in?
I use kombu to make sauce bases and stock bases. From that stock base, you might make a broth with it and that becomes a soup or you might use it as a stock in the risotto to give it the umami flavour. You can also use kombu dried as a seasoning. Grate it or put it in the spice grinder and then scatter it on top of some sautéed snow-peas or a vegetable stir-fry.
Any tips for preparing it?
Soak it first in cold water, then boil it.
Any favourite brands or types?
I use Japanese salted kombu a lot.
Where can people find it?
Asian grocers or specialist Japanese supermarkets such as Fuji Mart.
How do you store it?
Store it dry in an airtight plastic container and it'll last for months.

Grains

Quinoa, amaranth and bulghur wheat give volume to salads and are a tasty alternative to rice

What do they bring to a dish?
When you're cooking vegetarian food, some people will say they don't feel full. Grains really bring that to vegetarian food. I see those grains as superfoods as well, especially amaranth. Another grain I like to use is black rice because I think it has far more flavour than brown or white rice.
What dishes would you use this in?
I like to add them to salads but I also substitute them for rice in risotto-style dishes. You can even make a porridge out of the grains and then fold through some pumpkin purée. A favourite salad at the moment involves quinoa with eggplant that I've quickly sautéed or lightly roasted, some pickled onion, lots of parsley and mint and a harissa-based dressing. The more grains you use, the heavier the salad will be so play around with ratios depending on what type of dish you're after: a side dish or a main meal.
Any tips on preparing grains?
I give them all a quick rinse before I use them.
Any favourite brands or types?
I always use Australian products.
How do you store them?
Store grains in an airtight jar and they'll last for about six months.

Nuts, seeds and nut oils

Use these to create texture and depth of flavour in vegetarian dishes

What oils and nuts are we talking about here?
I use a lot of almonds and hazelnuts, as well as hazelnut oil and almond oil. They're really easy to find. Macadamia nuts are also a classic Australian nut.
What do they bring to a dish?
With the nut oils, they keep that nuttiness and intensify the flavour.
How do you use them?
You can make dressings with the nut oils. Or if I've used nuts in a dish, I'll finish the dish with a bit of the same nut oil to amplify that flavour. If you're roasting pumpkin, for example, you could roast it in pumpkin seed oil and achieve the same effect. In a simple radish salad, I'll add some roasted and roughly chopped hazelnuts or you can finish some grilled or sautéed broccolini with a scattering of nuts.
Do they need any special preparation?
I usually dry roast nuts and seeds in the oven at 170˚C for a few minutes before I use them. If you can afford yourself the time to peel whole nuts, it's always worth the effort.
How do you store nuts?
Nuts do go rancid so try and use the freshest you possibly can. Buy only what you need.

Mustard, horseradish and wasabi

Great options to use in the base of your salad dressings or to give a kick to your roasted vegetable dishes.

What does it bring to a dish?
I feel like these ingredients don't get used as often as they should in vegetarian cooking. To me, they have as much significance to vegetables as any other dish (steak, for example). It's a nice way to give a dish a bit of heat that wouldn't usually be there.
What dishes would you use this in?
Mustard is obviously great in salad dressings: sherry vinegar with Dijon mustard and olive oil is a classic and always so tasty. You could also use some wasabi in salad dressings the same way you would mustard. Try grating some horseradish over goat's curd served alongside roasted cauliflower to add a different flavour to that dish. If you don't have fresh horseradish, just fold the stuff from the jar through the goat's curd.
Any favourite brands or types?
It's worth spending money on a good-quality mustard. Dijon is a good all-rounder but I also really like hot English mustard. I prefer things hotter so I might even mix Dijon with wasabi to give it a bit more kick.
How do you store it?
Wasabi in the tube is great; it's just a good staple to have in the fridge. With all these things, you can keep them for three months or so. Fresh, whole horseradish keeps for a few weeks in the fridge; cut pieces should be used immediately.

Pickles

A great way to preserve any leftover vegetables at the end of the week and to make pre-dinner snacks.

What dishes would you use pickles in?
If you go to make a salad and you've got pickled cucumber or pickled onions already in the fridge, half the work's already done. Or you might have pickled radishes that you can add to an iceberg salad. Then you've got something really tasty.
What's your tip on seasonings and pickling liquid?
I generally make a salt and vinegar pickle. Peppercorn, bay leaf and thyme is always a good mix and then you can add to that if you wanted and depending on what you're pickling.
How long do you store it?
Most pickles last about three months in the fridge if you've sterilised your jars properly.

Miso paste

Ideal to use in soups but also to season root vegetables for roasting.

What does it bring to a dish?
Miso brings a big hit of umami to vegetarian dishes.
What dishes would you use this in?
In winter, I love seasoning celeriac by rubbing it with miso, throwing it in the oven whole and letting it roast. It makes a fantastic main event. Or you can make a glaze with the miso and brush it on parsnips, the same way that you would with a honey-glazed carrot for example. For the glaze, mix the miso with some sort of sweet element (I like mirin the best) and a bit of salt, then you're good to go.
What's your favourite type to use?
I like the darker red miso. If I was going to use a white miso, lately I've gone for a chickpea miso made by Tasmanian company Meru Miso, which is super tasty.
Any favourite brands?
Choose a brand that you know have done a long ferment. The longer miso's been fermented, the more flavour it has.
How do you store it?
In the jar, in the fridge. Miso will keep for about three months generally.

Stock cubes

A good cheat for stock.

What dishes would you use these in?
Risotto, soups or anywhere else you would use stock. You can even use stock to cook your vegetables. My general rule when I cook vegetables is to never cook them just in water. That's a big no-no for me. My preference is to roast or keep them away from water. If you do need to steam or blanch them, use stock. Then use some of that stock and mix it with a bit of butter or olive oil to glaze your vegetables. I really like this method with green vegetables.
What's your favourite brand?
Vegeta is actually tasty.
Where can people find it?
Pretty much every major supermarket.

100% Vegetarian Masterclass with Brent Savage, Saturday 22 September, noon-2pm, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, NSW. Tickets $40, carriageworks.com.au