10 ingredients to fancy up your meals
August 12th, 2010
10:00 AM ET
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Sure, you can follow a recipe and whip up something elaborate when you want to show off. But you don’t do that every day. We don't do that every day. Nobody does that every day.

We all look at what in the stores on the way home, or check out the sagging vegetables in the crisper and improvise. That's what professional chefs do, too – when they don't order take-out. But professional chefs and other food-obsessed folk have some stuff in their pantries that you might not.

Here are 10 things that you can keep around the house to make those dinners you whip up on the fly seem more like restaurant dishes.

Sherry vinegar

Sometime in the '80s, Americans discovered balsamic vinegar, the sweet and syrupy condiment that Italians had been enjoying for centuries. Nothing against it, but it's a little played out, don't you think? (Not to mention the fact that the kind you usually see in supermarkets is a pale imitation of the real stuff, usually tricked out with added sweeteners and caramel color.) Talk to restaurant chefs, and you'll hear that sherry vinegar from Spain is where the real action is. It's aged in oak barrels, like authentic balsamic, but is sharper and more acidic. It makes a great dressing – particularly for things like arugula and other bitter greens – and is also great splashed into any sautéed vegetables. It's not cheap, but it's not super-expensive either. An $8 bottle will go a long way.

Pimentón

Another Spanish import, pimentón is paprika – but not that tasteless, dusty stuff your mother sprinkled all over the chicken. It has a deep, smoky flavor, which comes from drying the peppers for two weeks over oak wood fires. You can get it sweet, hot or in-between; all three are delicious. A pinch stirred into scrambled eggs or used in a rub for steak or pork chops will work magic.

Smoked sea salt

Food geeks are in love with fancy salts: pink sea salt from Hawaiian beaches, hand-gathered grey salt from Brittany. Do they make a difference? Maybe, but not enough of a difference for me to pay the crazy prices this stuff goes for. I do make an exception for Maldon smoked sea salt, though. It comes in crunchy, flaky crystals and has a subtle but definite taste of wood smoke. Use a little bit on boiled potatoes with butter, and suddenly they taste like were cooked on an open flame.

Pancetta

Cured pork makes everything better, and there may be no more useful form than pancetta, which is basically the Italian equivalent of bacon. Unlike American bacon, it isn't smoked, so doesn't dominate dishes in the same way. Keep a piece in the refrigerator (larger chunks can be frozen, more or less forever), and whenever you make a pasta sauce or sautee some vegetables, mince up a little bit, and let it brown and render its fat. You'll thank me.

Shallots

Not to be confused with scallions, these reddish-brown bulbs are still mostly a chef's secret. They're a lot like onions, but sweeter and with a more complicated flavor. They keep for months and months, so buy a bunch whenever you see them, and try swapping them in for onions in whatever you're cooking. If there's an Asian market near you, look for them there; they will be a lot cheaper.

Miso

This thick, salty paste of fermented soybeans is familiar mostly from the miso soup you get at the start of your meal at Japanese restaurants. Trendy chefs, though, are finding other uses for it – and they're pretty easy to copy at home. Like, for instance, you can mix it half-and-half with honey, and spread on a piece of broiled fish for a quick dinner. Hot New York chef David Chang has been combining miso with butter and a using it as a sauce for asparagus; other steamed veggies would work just as well.

Fish sauce

An essential ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, fish sauce might seem a little nasty if you're not used to it. Yeah, it's made from fermented anchovies. Yeah, it sort of smells like dirty laundry. But trust me, sneaking a couple of drops into whatever you're cooking will make a huge difference. Just don’t tell anyone. Add it to a tomato sauce, and you won't taste fish, just a salty, mysteriously addictive extra flavor.

Dried porcini mushrooms

Like miso and fish sauce, wild mushrooms are a prime source of what the Japanese call umami – that savory flavor you get in well-charred beef and parmesan cheese. Those white button mushroom you get in the supermarket don't really have the same intense taste.  Fresh wild mushrooms are super expensive, though. An easy compromise is to keep a small jar of dried porcinis around. Soak them in hot water for about half an hour and then chop them up. Use the soaking liquid, too, but leave the last little dusty bits in the bowl.

Dry vermouth

Wine makes food better. But you don't always have a bottle open to splash into your food – or you'd much rather drink the stuff. And those "cooking wines" are lousy: overly salted and awful tasting. The solution? Buy a bottle of white vermouth. It won't run you more than $5 or $6, and you can keep it in the refrigerator forever.

Shelled walnuts or pistachios

You're probably used to using nuts in cookies and cakes, or for snacking. Have you tried them in savory food? They're perfect for adding crunch and unexpected flavor to salad, pasta sauces and vegetable dishes. Tightly sealed in plastic bags in the freezer, they'll stay fresh for months. For best flavor, roast them in the oven for five minutes or so before using.

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soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Hallin

    Oyster sauce (the hot version is great)–I'll have to try it with a little fish sauce now.
    Vermouth is a great meat marinade ingredient but i think Marsala wine has better versatility for desserts.
    White pepper can add some heat without the pepper flavors that other peppers add.

    February 16, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  2. Jdizzle McHammerpants

    Smoked Sea Salt? I gotta get me some of that!

    August 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  3. Scarlet PencilPoint

    Something's missing here, Eatocracy proofreaders: "We all look at what in the stores on the way home, or check out the sagging vegetables in the crisper and improvise."

    August 26, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  4. http://pakistanirecipess.blogspot.com/

    http://pakistanirecipess.blogspot.com/

    August 18, 2010 at 10:04 am |
    • Jim Hawk III

      I'm sure Pakistani food is brilliantly good. Unfortunately, I'll never know because your site isn't in English. What is 1/4چمچ لہسن?

      September 17, 2010 at 9:43 pm |
      • Will

        What an awesome way to exlaipn this—now I know everything!

        July 3, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  5. Sarah

    Ranch dressing.

    August 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  6. Alex

    I agree with Dr. Drake about the white truffle oil, and diced pancetta is my go-to in my kitchen.
    I think balsalmic glaze (thicker than a balsalmic reduction) is underutilized and keep a bottle of it in my pantry at all times... =)

    August 16, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  7. Kurkuma

    I like Curry and fresh cherry-tomatoes to fancy up my meals. Just a little pinch of Curry and butter on vegetables, meats, pasta go a very long way. The fresh sweetness of cherry tomatoes (best to buy sun-ripened ones...) work very well with everything bacony. Or put in the still warm pan with a splash of the sweet-thick vinegar you prefer put over some Eggs Sunnyside-up is a very delicious breakfast.
    And never underestimate Butter! It always adds a little bit of extra-mellowness to whatever you cooked. Lentils with just a little dollop of butter just get so much more flavor for example.

    Another important ingredient is everything Herbal – we always have some twigs of rosemary, dried and fresh, at home, as well as some thyme. You can put the hole bunch over/into your pan with meats or potatoes and take it out after cooking, so you dont have all that woody parts between your teeth and everything will still taste so much more intense. We even prepare our own herbal-salt, whenever we cant use the fresh herbs up immediately – just grind them and mix them with some sea-salt, store in the fridge.

    Another live-saver if whipping up something is soy-sauce and coconut milk. It neednot always be something asian, both work very well in soups – as spice and instead of the cream, but you can reduce it to a sauce as well.

    Sorry for my bad english it is not my native tongue.

    August 15, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  8. Jenrose

    Costco currently carries sweet smoked paprika (pimenton), I go through a jar of it every couple months. It works in so many foods, but especially salmon and chicken. I'll second the vote on smoked salts, our favorite in the PNW is Salish Smoked salt, which works well with the smoked paprika. We also get a Durango smoked which has a more rustic flavor.

    For us, the biggest switch has been from buying most of our spices ground to buying more of them whole and grinding them on the spot. Mustard seed, coriander and cumin are completely different freshly ground, with fewer off flavors and far more zing.

    Liquid smoke gives me a raging headache, but smoked salt and smoked paprika serve much the same purpose without the ill consequences.

    I also buy onion and garlic in dried flakes and grind those on the spot with the other spices, rather than buying plain garlic or onion powder already ground.

    I was introduced to smoked paprika at the Salishan Resort on the Oregon coast, they made a lovely orange oil with olive oil and smoked paprika, and served it over lightly sauteed carrots. I've never been so enthused about carrots in my life!

    August 13, 2010 at 2:59 am |
  9. nikanika

    Can't believe no one has mentioned tamarind paste or lemongrass. Anytime you need citrusy sour flavours, they both pack a punch.

    For savory dishes liquid smoke-but a little goes a long way. Don't ever read read a recipe calling for a teaspoon of liquid smoke and misread it as a tablespoon! Lesson learned the hard way.

    For finishing sauces sub muscovado, turbinado or vanilla sugar. People will taste the sweet, but the other finishing flavours are really subtle.

    Aji Mirin-lovely in a glaze. Works well with cooked sauces or as part of a finished sauce.

    August 12, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  10. Dr. Drake

    White Truffle Oil!

    August 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  11. beenz

    So, easy cheese and Funyuns didn't make the list...bummer.

    August 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  12. Davidson

    They forgot the 11th ingredient: Liquid Turd

    August 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      My favorite! Especially the green brand.

      August 26, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
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