FLAVOR, AND WHERE HE GETS IT
I have two storage stashes for my flavor boosting ingredients, cold and not cold. The supplies that are dry and mostly non-perishable go in the pantry or on the kitchen shelves. A few of them even reside close by the stove. Most of these are things you can buy at the store and you probably keep a few of them around in your own kitchen. Do NOT underestimate the value of these seemingly mundane items.
First and foremost is salt. And not table salt, but yes, I keep that around too; mostly for salting the water of things I blanch or par-cook. I cook with kosher salt and I use sea salt when I want that Bang-Pow salt effect in a particular dish. But back to your table salt for a moment or two. Do you blanch vegetables like green beans or broccoli or carrots until they're just done and then saute them in butter or olive oil just before serving. No? Well I do and they taste better for it.
And they taste better still if you put a heavy dose of salt into your blanching water. In Thomas Keller's world famous restaurants, French Laundry (Napa Valley) and Per Se (Manhattan) he instructs his cooks to blanch their green vegetables in water "as salty as the ocean". Why? Because it brings out FLAVOR.
Next to the salt on the shelf is black pepper and no, not black pepper that you buy pre-ground in a little plastic package or a jar. I use either a pepper grinder in the kitchen or if I am really busy, I pre-grind black peppercorns in a coffee/spice grinder each day and keep them in a cup near the stove. Black pepper is one of the simplest flavor boosters I use, but I never tire of the "bump" it gives to salads, fresh sauteed vegetables, or meat and fish. And if you really want the pepper to have some zing (this is a secret, don't tell) toast the whole peppercorns really lightly in a skillet until the start to give off a peppery scent and then grind them. Zap.
Okay, moving on through the dry goods. I always keep a good (and relatively fresh) bag of red chile flakes around to add little bursts of heat to pasta sauces (specifically tomato). You can buy bulk red chile flakes at places like Whole Foods (gak!) and you can be reasonably sure that they have sufficient turnover so that the chiles are not aged into a second dehydration. Another spice blend that I keep around is packaged curry powder. I use it in a couple of my soups and I slip it into flour mixes that I use for fish or chicken before pan-frying. It is also a principal ingredient in my Chilled Curried Cauliflower Soup. Again, this is not one of those things that you want to try to use after it's been sitting on the back of your pantry shelf for two or three years
Something restaurants have been using for many years (I first started using it at the Elite Cafe in the mid-90's) is Pimenton, or smoked paprika. It has been hard to find, but now commercial spice manufacturers like McCormick are selling it. Paprika is made in Spain and Hungary by drying pimiento chiles (a long sweet/hot red pepper) and grinding it. Most of the commercial paprika on shelves in people's home kitchens is so old it is no longer hot and not even perceptibly sweet. This, like the chile flakes, is something best bought from a wholesale spice seller and used soon after purchase. But, back to the Pimenton, which is those same pimiento chiles, but smoked before being dried and ground. The flavor difference between regular paprika and Pimenton is profound and I love to use it in rice dishes like jambalaya, braised chicken dishes that use roasted tomatoes, any stew I make that includes sausage or pork products and soups. This is a very interesting flavor and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Something I just recently started keeping around and working with is tubs of different flavors of Thai curry pastes. They generally come in red, yellow, green, and massaman. They represent a lot of hard work avoided, if one tries to make them oneself. as is asked for in a number of Thai cookbooks and recipes. Essentially, they are a paste made from fresh and dried chiles, ginger, a number of different dried spices (turmeric, cumin, etc.) and they pack a flavor wallop. I use them in rice, sauteed vegetables and in a couple of the cold soups that I make. I particularly like the flavor boost that a tablespoon or so of Thai curry paste gives to my carrot/beet/ginger soup. But use them judiciously, as a little bit of these goes quite a long way. And yes, they are hot!
The Ticos use a lot of achiote paste to color rice and vegetable mixes and I must admit, I'm not adverse to stirring a spoon or two of it into the vegetables I saute when I make a batch of rice pilaf and I want some color (bright, bright yellow, indeed) from it. Achiote paste is made from grinding annato seeds which used to be used in an old kitchen staple from the 50's and 60's, "Egg Shade", used in shrimp and fritter batters. There isn't a significant flavor in achiote, at least none that I can detect, but it sure does make rice a lovely shade of yellow.
And lastly, one of my secret ingredients is a quasi-Cajun spice blend. I've worked in two restaurants that were New Orleans-oriented and saw my share of blackening spices. If I never see blackened redfish again, it will be too soon. But I still love to use a blend of paprika, cayenne, dried thyme, salt, and black pepper as a seasoning agent. I use it in rice. I use it in flour mixes for frying. I add a healthy whack of it into the sauteed vegetable base I add into my seafood or crab cakes. The cayenne provides heat, yes, but the subtlety of the paprika carries a lot of flavor. And it definitely needs salt to help distribute all the flavors. You certainly can rub it on fish or chicken before you pan-fry it and it works nicely with anything you're about to put on the grill, as well. It will burn and char a bit, but I suppose that's the point of blackened anything. My blend used eight parts paprika, one part cayenne, four parts of salt, two parts black pepper and one part dried thyme. Occasionally I will put mustard powder into it if I'm feeling "that way" and crumbled bay leaves are nice if you're not coating fish or meat with it.
I use dried thyme when I make chicken stock (it is irreplaceable) and beans. Bay leaves go into almost all stocks and long cooked braises. Almost all other dried herbs are a waste of time. Oh go ahead and keep some dried oregano around, as long as it's relatively new to your spice cabinet. Take any of your dried herbs that are over six months old and throw them away.
Oil and vinegar; wet ingredients. And there you have it, but for the fact that there are so many misconceptions about oils, particularly the various kinds of olive oils, and the fact that balsamic vinegar is just so great in everything. Not.
I use one basic oil for cooking; a canola oil blend. I can get it all the way up to smoking hot and it doesn't burn. It it great for pan-frying fish and chicken and I use it frequently. I generally use it once and toss it. Fish cooked in twice used oil is nasty but occasionally you can get away with it for chicken if you strain it right after you use it and keep it in the refrigerator. I also use half canola oil and half olive oil in a lot of my salad dressings and definitely in mayonnaise. The one great thing it has going for it other than a high smoke point is that it has virtually no flavor. And here's where we segue way in to my olive oil rant...
Despite what they may tell you in cookbooks and on those damn cooking shows, you DO NOT NEED to use 100% olive oil in your salad dressings. Good olive oils have enough flavor to overwhelm the most acidic and saltiest of salad dressings. You can save money and taste the other ingredients in your dressings, aiolis and mayonnaises if you use equal parts olive oil and canola oil. Buying a "light" olive oil is a waste of time. Buy good olive oil and mix it. And if you absolutely must cook with olive oil (don't do it, don't do it), buy the damn light stuff. Good olive oil is not for cooking. Period.
I was talking the other day with an old friend (who shall remain nameless) about a recent recipe for mayonnaise that I had posted on this blog and he said, "So I should use extra-virgin olive oil, right? It's the best, isn't it?" Well yes and no. As far as being the best, it's the purest and has the most flavor. Does that make it the best? Everything has its use and you do not use extra-virgin olive oil except for flavor. If you want to put a splash of it in a dressing at the end of making it that's fine and if you'd rather drizzle it into your salad just before tossing, that's better yet. Most high quality extra-virgin olive oils are flavoring agents. They are not for cooking and they will overwhelm any sauce you make with them in which they are the sole oil used.
Please, please, don't misunderstand me. I love, love, love good extra-virgin olive oil. I love the way a tiny bit of it tastes over a piece of hot grilled fish, mixed with a squeeze of lemon. I love the way it tastes when you drizzle it over lovely fresh tomatoes. And I really love it on fresh grilled bread of high quality. Yes, indeed. I do not love it heated too hot and I do not love it when it overwhelms an otherwise delicate sauce.
And that brings us to vinegars. I love vinegars, too. Acid, used correctly, works much like salt in bringing out flavors. This is why we squeeze lemon over our fish and this is why we put vinegar in salad dressings. Years ago when I worked with Mark Miller in Berkeley he taught me a huge lesson by pouring a good splash of high quality red wine vinegar into a soup to finish it, rather than salting it; brought the flavors right up and helped to balance everything. I liked that.
As you may have inferred I am not a huge fan of balsamic vinegar. Most commercial balsamic vinegars have sugar and artificial coloring added to regular vinegar and are a "safety flavor"; mild and inoffensive so that people with timid palates can use them with impunity. Frankly, that's not me. I use commercial balsamic vinegar to pack roasted beets in and to braise red onions. I also toss fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar and tapa dulce, our local cane sugar, to spoon over a Basque almond torte I make. For my palate, there is not enough acid in balsamic vinegar for it to make a decent salad dressing. There are many grades of expensive balsamic vinegars and much like extra-virgin olive oils, they are "finishing vinegars", best used as a final drizzle of flavor over tomatoes or even roasted meats.
My favorite vinegar for dressings and hits of flavor is Sherry Vinegar, or Xeres, if you're buying it in Europe or Costa Rica. It has a nice acidic bite without making your nose tingle and doing that funny thing down your eustacean tubes, and there is a "woodiness" to the flavor of it that blends well with most everything. I use it frequently, along with olive oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper to marinate tomatoes for salads. I use sherry vinegar mixed with a bit of commercial red wine vinegar in salad dressings and have even used it to deglaze the pan after I have roasted chicken breasts.
There are a number of flavored vinegars on the market and they all have their uses. For a white vinegar I like champagne vinegars, as they seem to have a bit of fruit to them, unlike a simple white vinegar. I do keep white vinegar in my kitchen for making "chilero", the famous Costa Rica hot sauce that uses habaneros. Vinegars are a great vehicle for carrying heat which is why Tabasco ferments its chiles in vinegar and vinegar only. I do keep a good quality red wine vinegar on the shelf as it goes into my Caesar salad dressing in equal parts with lemon juice. If you are buying red or white vinegars here in Costa Rica make certain you are not buying something that mentions the word "artificial" on the label. Chemical acids are used here to create vinegars and there is virtually no real flavor in them. Cuidado!
So get in the kitchen and cook with flavor! Mild is not a word in our vocabulary.
Aspiring to mild flavors is like aspiring to senility. Create your own flavor profiles using any or all of these ingredients and remember, Food Is Love.