Toppings That Transform

When we first started eating plant-rich, one of the first changes was to our fridge door and spice cabinet. Up until this point we had the usual suspects – ketchup, mayo, dijon, Tabasco, Worcestershire, maybe a jar of grocery store chutney. There was oregano, thyme, curry powder. Toppings and flavorings were simply an afterthought.

But if you’re trying to eat fewer animal products and more plants, toppings take on an even more important role in eating well. Sauces, herbs, spices, and many of our Essentials are the jewelry of food, elevating a dish above basic and bringing flavors together. Sure, there are plenty of dishes that need no gilding, but for the most part, dishes are transformed – both in flavor and appearance – by toppings.

We will often make a pot of rice and a pot of simple beans. Sometimes we have the energy to turn that into something extraordinary like a black bean soup or a vegetable fried rice, but sometimes it’s noon and we’re hungry so we just get out a bowl and put rice and beans in it. And there are some days where that is enough for me – it tastes good, comforting, and simple. But often, I want more. And fortunately, wanting “more” doesn’t mean more work. I simply add Quick Pickled Pink Onions, Roasted Smoky Pepitas, fresh cilantro, and a zig-zag of hot sauce, and suddenly we go from rice and beans to fiesta-on-my-plate rice and beans – flavor, crunch, heat – and it takes virtually no time or effort to add.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that when I top my food with things that feel extra, I feel great about how I’m treating myself (and my family) We eat with our eyes. Adding these toppings not only adds flavor and texture, they also create a dish that makes you feel like, “Dang I am eating well!”

I also enjoy finding new brands because I like supporting small businesses and makers. And the quality is usually just BETTER. So challenge yourself to up your topping game this week!

A few of our favorite toppings

1 / Bagel Chips – I would also include tortilla chips in this category. We love to add crispy, crunchy things to our salads so we’ve always got a bag of these in the pantry.

2 / Aleppo Pepper – We love using Aleppo Pepper to enhance a dish’s flavor and to add slow-building, mild heat. They’re not as hot as chili flakes and the taste is more complex. We put it on everything from pizza to salads, even Vegetable Pesto Pasta.

3 / Sriracha – I am not opening anyone’s eyes to this cult favorite, but no topping list would be complete without this Southeast Asian hot sauce. My other favorite is Cholula’s Green Pepper sauce which adds bright tang without heat. My husband, Andy, has a collection of artisan hot sauces – some he has received as Christmas gifts, others he has picked up in specialty shops. It’s fun to have a revolving cast of hot sauce characters in the fridge.

4 / Za’atar – This Middle Eastern spice blend is generally some combination of dried oregano, thyme, marjoram, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. Every blend is different. Like Aleppo Pepper, this spice adds subtle but important flavor – I love it on our 15-Minute White Bean Stew with Dill.

5 / Chili Crisp – Chili Crisp is a recent revelation. Despite its name, it has virtually no heat but just a couple teaspoons adds an addictive salty, crunchy savoriness to the entire dish. When I shared our Everyday Stir-Fry recipe with our testers, I strongly recommended they check out Chili Crisp – many did. One responded in the feedback:

My life shall forever be divided thusly:
September 1990 to February 2021: the dark years
February 2021 to Present: the years of the Chili Crisp

6 / Toasted Sesame Seeds – These seeds don’t add tons of flavor to a dish, but they add a subtle nutty richness and an enormous amount of visual appeal. And if we eat with our eyes, looks are important! I always feel extra when I add a few generous shakes to my Hearty Ramen Soup, Everyday Stir-Fry, or simple rice dishes. You can get sesame seeds almost anywhere, but we get a big container from Costco.

7 / Chutney – I top anything with garam masala or curry powder with a dollop of coconut (or plain Greek) yogurt and a couple tablespoons of chutney. I LOVE the flavor foil of bright and tangy chutney with deep, earthy overtones of Indian dishes. I make this 15-Minute Curried Chickpea Stew almost every week just to have chutney with it. I recently discovered this brand, Brooklyn Delhi, which I love and order online. And there’s always Patak’s Mango Chutney, which is great, and you can buy it at most grocery stores.

8 / Sesame Oil – I think the flavor and taste of sesame oil is one of my favorites. Just a drizzle adds a delicious, savory grounding to so many of our favorite Asian dishes.

Not Pictured – We always have fresh herbs in the fridge, always cilantro and often parsley and dill, as well as scallions. These are, perhaps, the most high impact flavor-boosters of them all!

Your challenge this week, should you choose to accept it – is to up your toppings game with one or two new items – and see how they transform your Planetarian plate.

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