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Agar – a plant-based substitute for gelatin.  Agar is made from sea vegetables, usually red algae (Gelatin is made from animal bones).  Used similarly to gelatin, it is best to blend agar into cold liquid prior to bringing to a boil, and then add additional ingredients quickly, rather than waiting as with gelatin.  Agar (sometimes called agar-agar) comes in flakes and powder.  The powder is easier to use and more concentrated than the flakes.

Agave (Agave Nectar) – this syrupy sweetener comes from the cactus used to make tequila.  It is sweeter than regular sugar.

Apple Cider Vinegar – a vinegar that is brownish gold in color, it is made from cider or apples.  It may be sold clarified, or unfiltered and unpasteurized.  If unfiltered, it will be cloudy when the bottle is shaken.  Apple cider vinegar is used in dressing, sauces, soups, and baking.

Arame – a type of sea vegetable that is quite mild, small, thin, and black.  It is often used in salads.  Try it mixed with corn, red bell pepper, sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil dressing.

Arrowroot Powder – used instead of cornstarch or flour as a thickening agent, it produces a clearer sauce.  Made from tropical plant roots, such as kuzu (or kudzu).  Tapioca from cassava root is sometimes labeled arrowroot.

Baking Powder (aluminum free) – a chemical leavening agent that causes baked goods to rise, increasing the volume and lightening the texture.  Aluminum free versions are available, and preferred by those avoiding ingesting or cooking in aluminum pans.

Barley Malt Syrup – an unrefined sweetener produced from sprouted barley.  It is about half as sweet as refined white sugar.  Although it has a distinctive malty flavor, it does not tend to overpower the flavor or texture of what is being made.

Bragg Liquid Aminos – often used in place of soy sauce.  It contains no MSG, preservatives, alcohol, and is not fermented.  It is made from soybeans.

Brown Rice Syrup – a liquid sweetener made from brown rice.

Bulgur – also known as bulgar or bulghur, it is a wheat cereal grain.  Common is Middle Eastern, South Asian, and some European dishes.

Capers – the bud or berry of the caper bush, capers are frequently used in Mediterranean cuisine.  They are generally found in jars, most often pickled and salted.  Capers are darker green and have a salty taste.

Chia Seeds – rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.  Native to parts of Mexico and Guatemala.

Chickpeas – a legume, also called garbanzo, ceci, chana, etc., depending on the culture.  As with other legumes, they are very high in nutrients and low in fat.   May be used whole, or ground into a paste (as with hummus).  Most often beige in the west, but can be other colors.

Citrus Peel – the peel or rind of citrus fruits, also called the zest.  It is used in cooking and baking.  When “zesting,” it is important to cut the peel only, and not the white pith underneath, or it will be bitter tasting.

Couscous – a grain from North African countries, it is sometimes called semolina (tiny grains of durum wheat).

Flax Seeds – may be brown or golden.  It is important to grind the flax seeds prior to use, or they are likely to pass through the digestive system whole, thus missing the nutritive value.  They are a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids.

Kelp – a group of different types of sea vegetables.  Used as a side dish and to flavor broths and stews.  Derivatives of kelp are used to thicken jellies and other foods, as well as items such as toothpaste.  Sea vegetables are generally very high in iodine.

Kombu – a type of sea vegetable from the kelp family.  Kombu is frequently used in cooking beans to soften them and to convert indigestible sugars in beans, thus reducing the flatulence effect.  It’s also used to flavor soups and stews.

Mirin – a condiment often used in Japanese cuisine, mirin is a type of rice wine similar to sake, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content formed through the fermentation process (not refined sugar).

Miso – a fermented product with a “paste-like” texture, it is used in Japanese cuisine for sauces, seasoning soups and stocks, and more.  It  comes in many colors and intensities including white, yellow, red, and hatcho, the darkest and strongest.  Miso is made from rice, barley, and/or soy beans.  It is high in protein, rich in vitamins and minerals, and usually very salty.

Nutritional Yeast – available as yellow flakes or powder, it is generally found in the bulk aisle of most natural food stores.  A vegan product, it is used to provide a cheesy taste to pastas, soups, stews, potatoes, popcorn, tofu, and more. It absorbs liquid, so more liquid may be needed when used in cooking.  Referred to by various names, depending on the country – nooch (USA), Brufax (New Zealand), savory yeast flakes (Australia), and yeshi (Ethiopia).  Nutritional yeast is not the same as brewer’s yeast, or baker’s yeast, and they may not be used interchangeably.  Nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins and some brands are fortified with B12.

Quinoa – a grain-like seed that is a pseudo cereal, rather than a true grain.  As a chenopod, it is related to species such as spinach, beets, and tumbleweeds.  It originated in the Andean regions of Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru.  Quinoa is cooked similarly to rice, although the total cooking time is approximately 15-20 minutes, depending on elevation.  It is a small, round seed that has a bit of a “tail” once it is cooked.  There are white and red varieties.  It is important to rinse quinoa prior to cooking; otherwise it may taste bitter.  Quinoa is very nutritious and is very high in protein.

Rice vinegar – common in Asian cuisine, it is available in white (pale yellow), red, and black varieties.

Seitan – also called wheat gluten, wheat meat, mock meat, seitan is made from gluten, the main protein of wheat.    It is used as an alternative to meats, and has various textures and flavors that resemble chicken, duck, beef, and other types of meat.  Originally developed in China, it is used frequently in vegetarian, Asian and Buddhist cuisines.  For a recipe to make seitan see Slow Cooker Seitan

Sea Salt – a type of salt produced by evaporating salt water.  Some prefer its taste and texture to regular table salt.

Shoyu – a Japanese condiment very similar to soy sauce.  There are different types of shoyu sauce, with somewhat varying flavors.

Tahini – ground sesame seed paste.  Tahini has the consistency of thick peanut butter or other nut butter.  It is used in Middle Eastern, Turkish, Greek and North African cuisines.  It is a component of hummus, baba ghanoush, and halva.

Tamari – a condiment very similar to soy sauce, tamari is the original Japanese form of soy sauce.  Most tamari is wheat and gluten free (read the label).

Tofu – originating in China, tofu is made by coagulating soy milk.  Tofu is low in calories, high in protein, and contains little fat.  It is high in iron and depending on the coagulant used in manufacturing, may also be high in calcium and/or magnesium.

Chinese tofu is also called water packed tofu, and may be found in soft, firm and extra firm textures.  Typically, it has a relatively short shelf life, marked on the package.  It is used most often where the tofu needs to retain its shape in the dish (such as in stir fries).

Japanese tofu, also called silken tofu, is generally aseptically packaged, and thus has a long shelf life (marked on the package).  It is found in soft, firm and extra firm textures.  It is most often used in sauces, desserts, dressings, and instances where the tofu does not need to retain its shape, and when a smooth texture is desired.

Both forms of tofu may be frozen, and the Chinese/water packed version is often purposely frozen in order to give it a “chewier” texture for stews and other applications.  It may be frozen in its original packaging, but will take much longer to thaw.  It is best to pour the water out, press excess water, and wrap in freezer wrap.  Chinese tofu may also be “pressed” to remove excess water, and allow it to absorb marinades and other flavorings.  Press tofu by placing it between two cutting boards or plates, putting a weight on top (such as a can or two of beans), tilt it a bit to allow excess water to drain, and leave it for an hour. For more information go to http://greaterdc.wholefoodsmarketcooking.com/blog/7686_from_scratch_all_about_tofu or http://www.veggiebelly.com/2011/04/how-to-press-tofu.html

TVP (texturized vegetable protein) – a meat analog, TVP is generally made from high soy protein flour, but can also be made from wheat, oats, or cotton seeds.  It is made in various shapes and sizes, and mimics ground meat, strips of meat, chunks of meat, etc.  As much as 50% protein when dry, it rehydrates quickly.  It is much less expensive than ground beef.  In its dry form, it has a long shelf life.  It is frequently used in chilis, soups, stews, dips and sauces.

Vital Wheat Gluten – this is the part of wheat that gives bread it elasticity.  Vital wheat gluten can be used to make Seitan (see earlier reference), and is used in bread.

Wakame – a type of sea vegetable, wakame is most often used in soups and salads.