Accessories for Your Recipes

Posted by    |  March 24, 2010  |  Filed under: Home, Technique

I apologize in advance to all of the loggers, crabfishermen, and construction tradesmen who might be among our readers.  This article is probably only going to make any sense to women and those men among us who’ve got the “queer eye.”  I love this analogy, though and think it might really help many of the folks who can relate.

I’ve never been much of a fashionista.  I’ve always played it safe with clothes- doing great versions of the classics and dodging the trendy stuff.  I’ve never spent much time thinking about accessories- belts, scarves, jewelry, shoes.  That takes a bit more talent than I have or care to have.

Having four babies in five years made my body look and feel pretty bad.  I’ve spent the last 2 ½ years turning that around.  I’ve lost a lot of weight and am feeling pretty good about how I look again.  Don’t get me wrong.  The PTA moms aren’t exactly whispering “Do you think she eats?” behind my back.  But I can rock a pair of skinny jeans now.  Suddenly, fashion is a bit more interesting to me as I float through my mommy world trying to look as good on the outside as I feel on the inside.

I’ve suddenly discovered the genius of accessories.  I can stick with my risk-free staples that will transcend trends and seasons.  I can buy the simple fabrics off of which I can easily wash marinara and tempera paint.  It’s the blingy belt, chunky statement necklace or sex-kitten heels (Thank God those Swedish shoe makers make these things comfortable now!) that make the outfit.  There’s magic to how I feel when I slip that necklace over my head.  I can’t help but sashay when I’m at the grocery store in those heels.

The food world offers us some amazing accessories like these that take an ordinary meal and turn it into something that bathes your palate in deliciousness.  I want to introduce you to some of these jewels that will take your meals from good to gorgeous.

Fresh herbs
Nothing finishes a dish like herbage.  As food cooks, the flavors mingle and deepen. That’s a good thing.  It is wonderful to balance that depth, however, with a finishing of freshness.  If there’s basil cooked into the dish, a bit of fresh basil on top perfumes the air, foreshadowing the flavors to come.  It’s like having two kinds of basil in one dish.

In the summer, set a couple of terra cotta pots in a sunny spot and grow your own.  You’ll have so much fun playing with their flavors.  I grow cilantro, a few kinds of mint, a few kinds of thyme, dill, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, sage and lavender.  In the winter, I always keep thyme in an unsealed sandwich bag.  Rosemary keeps for a long time the same way.  I often have parsley, cilantro or dill around.  These keep pretty well in a water glass with about 1” of water in the bottom, loosely covered over the top with a plastic bag.  Freshen the water every other day and trim the bottoms every 4 days or so and they’ll keep for a couple of weeks.

Citrus zest and juice
Using citrus to flavor dishes is like infusing a dish with sunshine.  Citrus is used in almost every cuisine- French, Italian, Mediterranean, Asian, African.

Citrus zest is incredibly versatile.  Middle-eastern and North African cuisines commonly use the minced zest of preserved (pickled) lemons. Don’t think of lemon zest as lemony- think of it as the qualities it imparts- brightness, sunniness, liveliness.  That will encourage you to use it with dishes in which it isn’t traditional.  I had a student who bravely put orange zest in with caramelized onions and sage.  Genius!  It brought brightness to the combination of herbal, sweet and savory flavors.

Likewise, a fresh squeeze of citrus is a perfect way to give an acidic finish to a dish- even to deglaze a little fond so that you can add it to the flavors of the dish.  Kyle usually adds a squeeze of citrus juice to greens dishes.  I always crave a splash of limejuice in just about any Mexican dish I do.  It just tastes right.

Spices commingle and deepen as they cook in stews, soups and simmered dishes.  That’s why the flavors of these kinds of dishes benefit from an overnight rest.  They develop their harmony this way.  But a freshly ground bit of spice is the lyric soprano in this experience.  There is a ticklish warmth to the experience of freshly ground spices on the tongue that sends the shivers up your spine.

Extending my accessory metaphor, salt is the well-fitted bra of your dish.  It all starts there.  In spite of the advice of well-intentioned but misinformed health police, you should always begin your dish with salt- salting your aromatics as they cook, salting your veggies when they’re added, salting your meat before you cook it.  To really bring out the flavors of your ingredients, you must salt throughout the cooking process.  However, you must always taste for saltiness before you serve.  The difference between a dish properly finished with salt and one without is the difference between something that tastes like dishwater and something that tastes like glorious chicken stock.

Sea salt and other finishing salts should be reserved for- you guessed it- finishing.  Their flavor notes- minerals, smoke, seasonings- are meant to be an up-note on which to finish the flavors of the dish.  Their textures are also an important part of the experience:  flaky, granular, powdery.  Its an expensive waste to add them during cooking.  I keep a few of these around to add quick, simple flavor to simply prepared foods:  a salt that’s smoked in old oak chardonnay barrels for green beans, a lavender-infused sea salt for fish.

The trick to using these finishing touches is to use restraint.  A woman in high-heels with a studded belt, multi-layered necklace and sparkly, chandelier earrings is going to look like- well, the kind of woman you don’t want your husband sharing a drink with in a Las Vegas hotel.

Don’t overdo it.  You can’t take back too much pepper any more than you can take back what you said about your mother-in-law when you mistakenly thought she’d left the room.  It won’t kill you to cut a lemon in half and then only use one half.  You aren’t doing the world a favor by making your marinara taste like tomatoey lemonade.  Put it in the fridge or the garbage.

Ina Garten relates her epiphany on this issue in “Back to Basics.”

A friend once mentioned that she had made my Orzo with Roasted Vegetables… and she felt it somehow tasted better when I made it.  Her comment gave me pause because my friend’s a wonderful cook and there’s nothing very tricky about that recipe—it’s eggplant, peppers, lemons, orzo.  So why would hers taste different than mine?

A few months later… I was entertaining a large group of friends and I asked a caterer to cook for us.  My favorite standby was on the menu again:  Orzo with Roasted Vegetables.  And sure enough, when I tried a bite it didn’t have the bright, fresh, edgy flavor that I like; for lack of a better word, there was a kind of flatness to the dish.  I was reminded of my friend’s comment and it really got me thinking.

What I ultimately realized is that not only do I taste things for seasoning along the way, but I also give every dish a final taste to see if it doesn’t need one more jolt of flavor, something to wake it up.  When I make that Orzo… I [usually] feel that it needs an extra splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkling of sea salt.  Just that small last-minute addition gives the dish a fresh and- I would say- “bright” flavor.  There’s a lot of lemon juice in the dish already, but it’s the last splash of lemon that hits your tongue first.  You’ll be surprised how small adjustments like these made right before serving really boost the flavor of your cooking.

And butter is a 3-carat diamond ring…

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