Monday, February 1, 2010

Big Flavors In Little Packages

As the outdoor temperatures continue to send us into the confinement of our cozy and comfortable homes, many of us take the post-holiday, pre-spring months to plan and organize. This can include making home improvement project plans, designing the upcoming garden, going through closets and drawers to sort and organize accumulated clutter, and just sweeping through the whole house throwing away old junk to replace with new, refreshing things to brighten those winter gray days. As I was going through my own pantry recently, several little bottles and jars that I keep on hand beckoned me to write about them and sing their praises as to why you too should stock them in your kitchen ingredient repertoire.

Cooking and baking does not need to be complicated; a dish does not need to have an ingredient list as long as a child's wish list to Santa Claus. While there are some ethnicities which use a lengthy variety of spices and other ingredients to season their entrees, most dishes that you make regularly need only one or two extra-special epicurean delicacies to give the offering that big finish and to enhance the flavor to it's fullest potential. When preparing vegetables, for instance, so many people make the mistake of adding some of this and some of that and oh-let's throw that in too. What they are left with is a side dish heavy on the additional ingredients with a little vegetable. That vegetable doesn't really get to shine in its best light, it's masked with too many other flavors. While making the occasional complex veggie side dish is fine and even fun, sometimes, less really is more. The best way to prepare vegetables simply is using three ingredients that no kitchen should ever be without: a high quality extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper - buy a pepper mill and fill it with whole black peppercorns - and salt, preferably sea salt. Prepare the vegetable of choice for cooking; that is, peel those which need to be peeled, such as butternut squash, and cut into chunks those which are large specimens, such as eggplants. Place the vegetables into a roasting pan, and toss with the three abovementioned ingredients. Roast in a 450-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, depending on the vegetable, or until the cut edges caramelize. This can be done with any vegetable: eggplant, summer squashes, winter squashes, fennel, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, parsnips, turnips, rutebegas, baby carrots, etc. On the occasion when I want to add just one more flavor to the pan, that's when I'll toss in a handful of garlic cloves, either whole or sliced, before roasting.

When serving baby potatoes or fingerling potatoes, I will occasionally add one more ingredient to the olive oil, salt and pepper combination: a fresh herb. Potatoes can be a little bland, but when combined with some fresh rosemary, parsley, thyme, dill or sage - the choice is yours - the herb enhances the earthiness of the potato. Try to always keep some fresh herbs on hand, whichever ones you like. If you are fortunate enough to have a kitchen window with a wide, sunny windowsill, planting a few herbs in pots along the windowsill will be rewarding to your palate all year and be economical on your wallet as well. Something else I like to roast with the olive oil-salt-pepper-herb lineup is onion. I cut two yellow or white onions and two red onions into eight wedges each and toss with these ingredients. After they have roasted to the point of being almost completely caramelized, I'll drizzle them with a little balsamic vinegar before serving, another little bottled ingredient that gives big payback in flavor boosting. A light drizzle of a good high quality balsamic vinegar can be a nice finishing touch to many dishes, including soups, roasted vegetables and meaty stews. An ideal combination choice for drizzling on roasted sweet potatoes is maple syrup and melted butter; this also marries well with butternut squash.

Another oil to keep on hand for the occasional change of pace is white truffle oil. Last week I made some homemade mashed potatoes and used some truffle oil in place of butter when whipping them. It imparted an earthy yet elegant flavor, without the price tag of purchasing whole truffles. To purchase truffles for one meal can set you back a paycheck. However you can serve up a taste of luxe for less than twenty dollars by keeping a bottle of that truffle oil in your pantry, just that one ingredient can make a huge impact on the flavor of your dish. It is also nice drizzled on a salad. Plate some mesclun greens or baby spinach, top with thin slices of Brie or Camembert cheese, and finish that salad with a drizzle of truffle oil and a sprinkle of black pepper. For an occasional treat, pick up a little tub of white truffle butter next time you want to prepare a simple pasta side dish to accompany your meat entree. Simply stir the truffle butter and a little cream into your cooked pasta, sprinkle the finished pasta with freshly cracked black pepper and a little chopped parsley and you're done: a luxurious pasta side dish using a total of five ingredients.

Saffron is another jewel that should grace your spice rack. When preparing a rice dish, such as a paella, or any Mediterranean entree, using just this one spice will impart the sunny flavor of the region. Saffron is what gives those dishes that golden hue. Saffron is sold in jars, usually in thread form. Some recipes call for soaking the threads in either hot water or lemon juice before adding to the pot; others simply call for crushing the threads into the pot. Either way, it is a must-have in my kitchen.

One ingredient that I believe no kitchen lacks is vanilla extract. The type you use is important and makes a difference. Avoid buying a product whose label says "imitation vanilla extract". Imitations of anything in life are rarely as good as the real thing. My vanilla of choice reads "Madagascar Burbon Pure Vanilla Extract", and you can tell the difference. It has more of that pure, smooth vanilla taste and less of that harsh alcoholic flavor. Another way to impart some intense vanilla flavor into your custard or ice cream recipe is to add vanilla beans. The pods are sold in jars. All it takes is one pod. Slit the pod lengthwise with a sharp knive and then scrape out the "beans" - more like seeds in appearance - and stir them into your ingredients.

One exciting aspect in the culinary world is the introduction to what I'll call "fad" ingredients, for lack of a better term. Some ingredient, whether it be a particular vegetable or a spice or even a whole ethnicity of cuisine, receives a lot of attention in the latest cooking shows and magazines and those of us who love to cook are all over it, embracing all of the charms that this showcased star has to offer. Recently, Pernod has been one of those ingredients. When I came across six recipes in a span of two months calling for Pernod in the ingredient list, I visited my local liquor store. Sure enough, this one liquor adds and enhances flavors nicely. It is an anise-flavored liquour from the Provence region of France. When a dish calls for using fennel (also called anise), a vegetable with a similar flavor, adding a small amount of Pernod enhances that flavor to the next level. Between Brian and I, I think we've used it in about five dishes already and I only bought the bottle last month!

There are other flavor-boosters from the bar, particularly useful in baking. Everyone loves the combination of chocolate and raspberries. Chambord, a raspberry-flavored liquour, tastes divine when mixed into the batter of a chocolate cake which I make every Valentine's Day. Khalua, a coffee-flavored liquour, is also nice in any chocolate dessert recipe, because coffee takes the flavor of chocolate to the next level. The two flavors are the perfect marriage as they compliment and bring out the best of each other.

When life gives you lemons ... well, grate them over a dish before serving. A light sprinkling of grated lemon zest over the asparagus or brussels sprouts brightens the dish, makes a brighter presentation and adds another dimension of flavor. When combined with minced garlic, chopped rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil, you have a perfect topping to roast on pork, chicken, lamb or duck.

Every good Italian knows that the ultimate finishing ingredient is some freshly grated cheese. Whether using Pecorino Romano or Parmagiano, be sure to only buy imported. A more economical approach, and better tasting as well, is to purchase a whole block of the cheese and grate it yourself at home as you need it, rather than buying the tub of already grated cheese which costs more and will not be as fresh. The cheese is not just for topping pasta anymore, it can be used to finish plating soups, it can be lightly sprinkled over asparagus for the last five minutes of roasting, and it can be tossed with roasted potatoes for a nice breakfast companion to your scrambled eggs.

When sauteeing vegetables, such as spinach or broccoli rabe, lightly toss some pignoli nuts separately in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they turn golden brown, then sprinkle the toasted pignolis over the sauteed veggie before serving. They add a nice little extra to both the flavor and texture of the dish.

I leave you with one of my finishing tricks for pies, the last two ingredients to stock up your shelf with. Whenever I bake a pie, I brush the top crust with an egg wash before baking. The egg wash is simply a beaten egg with a little water, used by bakers primarily for giving pies that glossy golden glow. I use it for one additional purpose, however: so that my topping sticks to the crust without rolling off. The toppings? When making savory pies, such as a pot pie, I like to lightly sprinkle the top with sea salt crystals before baking. Sea salt crystals are also useful when added to a pot of boiling water for pasta, and in soups. When finishing a sweet dessert pie, I christen the top with turbinado (raw sugar) crystals before presenting it to the oven. Both variations give the pies an attractive sparkle, plus an added facet of flavor and a delicate crunch in every bite. The turbinado sugar achieves the same nice effect when sprinkled over muffins or breads before baking as well.

So as you go through your kitchen to sort and organize, or when you draw up your next grocery shopping list, pick up some of these ingredients. They allow for simple and quick solutions to bring out more flavor from your food, basic cooking with a kick. Big flavors come in little packages, and can boost the flavor of your next meal to the next level with little cost or effort on your part, leaving you more time to clean out your next closet.