My father was a kitchen terrorist. A Sookie St. James cooking cyclone who pored over cookbooks, hunted out things like chili threads and quail eggs and constructed intricate and mind boggling dinners that required the use of every bowl, pot, pan and utensil we owned.
His meals were either epic wins or legendary fails, most notably the night he attempted a salt encrusted fish, only to be asked by one of my friends, “Dr. Blum… isn’t rock salt poisonous?” “Hrmph. Sigh. Yes, Corey, I believe you’re right.” and promptly started over, averting the Great Unintentional Dinner Guest Homicide of ‘88.
The finished product, a fish baked into a mountain of kosher salt, was impenetrable by modern warfare or construction equipment. Somewhere in a landfill, a salmon is enjoying preservation until the end of time. Do not go softly into that good salt lick, my friend.
On the other hand, my mother never considered herself a true chef, but she possessed a quiet talent with simple recipes like tomato sauce, chicken soup and veal parmesan, and had a mean OCD streak about keeping the kitchen clean, so bless her economy of mess. On the other hand, she routinely fed me tongue before I knew what it was, so it's a wash.
Because of them, layering flavors is in my kitchen DNA. Often, it is a very simple thing that will take a recipe from “meh” to “PUT THAT IN MY MOUTH AND THAT *IS* WHAT SHE SAID. LIKE RIGHT NOW”. Here are some of my favorite ways to kick a normal recipe in the balls and take it to a 12.
Replace Water with Stock
It's really simple: when a savory recipe calls for you to add water, add pretty much anything else. My go-to is stock, and trust me, I know most people aren't producing homemade stock like the second coming of Martha. So I like bouillon, which I can use as I need (and buying cartons of liquid stock is expensive and they go bad).
I like this brand- their veggie stock is more flavorful than anything I can make and my veggie friends love it. Making rice? Beans? Use chicken stock instead of water. Making tomato sauce? Add some beef stock to make it richer. Making cous cous or quinoa? Stock it up. I can occasionally find porcini stock, when you do. GRAB IT.
Espresso In Your Chocolate
As if chocolate couldn’t be better, it can TOTALLY BE BETTER. I find coffee brings out the taste of chocolate in this wonderful way. So, anytime I use chocolate, I offset a bit of whatever liquid is called for with espresso. Or strongly brewed coffee. I don’t keep that powdered shit around, just make some coffee and reduce it.
Chocolate chip cookies? YES. Chocolate cake? YES. Brownies? Ice cream? Pecan chocolate tart? YES. Adding a few tbsp of espresso to chocolate as its melting to dip berries in, to make chocolate covered strawberries? Take my money and stick it in my mouth already.
Soda Water in Batter
Usually, batter of any kind requires water. Sometimes people add beer, and that’s great for deep frying, but what about waffles and pancakes? Soda water has those tiny cheerful bubbles that ensure everything comes out super light and crispy. I even substitute soda water for regular water in matzo balls to take “floaters” to another dimension (another post for another time, my chickadees).
I love it so much I *WOULD* marry it. Pom juice just seems to go with everything - it can be savory or sweet, it marries flavors together. Add it to a splash of balsamic and its a beautiful salad dressing. Add it to orange juice and marinate absolutely anything in it.
My fav application is simmering it with an equal amount of red wine until it is literally a syrup. Glaze chicken or even veggies like carrots with it. Or just simmer it enough to bring it together, 20 minutes or so and then add pan drippings and chicken stock to make the world's most amazeballs gravy. Gravy you will want to bathe in and do terrible, dirty, regrettable things to.
Brown Sugar & Salt
Flavor basics 101: there is sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory. What I like is matching them up and my favorite is a bit of sweet and a bit of salt in my savory.
What does that look like? Toss sliced red cabbage in a fry pan with brown sugar and salt (three to one) and some olive oil. Continue tossing and adding until you get this great mix of the sweet and salty in the cooked down cabbage.
Use the same formula on sliced red onions or halved tomatillos or tomatoes or sweet potatoes or squash on a baking pan in the oven. Combine the two with a bit of cayenne and you’ve got one hell of a dry rub for ribs.
But now, allow me to blow your minds: Husk your corn cobs, and then place on a sheet of tin foil. Throw some hot sauce, brown sugar, salt and butter in there and roll it up in the foil. Grill or bake for 30 minutes, turning every 5 min or so. Unwrap and die happy: you’ll end up with a caramelized, spicy, buttery and sweet mess. Can’t.even.
Honey & Citrus
Sweet and salty is good, sweet and sour is Nom Bomb. Combine any citrus and honey for an end run to #mouthhappy. Lemon, lime and honey is a great start - an obvious marinade, dressing or sauce.
But think bigger: grilled lemonade sweetened with honey - just grill halved lemons dipped in sugar and then juice them, and sweeten the whole shebang with honey and some mint.
Grapefruit, honey and pepper is a mysterious but seductive mistress. I’ve made sorbet with it, but its just a great salad - supreme grapefruit, throw in some blue cheese, drizzle with honey and some black pepper for a salad that’ll knock your socks off (BTW, blue cheese and honey? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE).
Umami - it just sounds good on your tongue. It sounds like it tastes; it's the Japanese word for mouth orgasm. Ok, just savory yumminess, but same idea. A lot of flavors can create umami, but fermentation is usually involved. Worcestershire comes with all its own umami-ness due to everything in it (it's a fermented mix of a slew of items). I throw some in almost any marinade I make, and it's just fab on its own, on a steak, on chops, even on shrimp, salmon and swordfish. Definitely add it to meatballs, meatloaf, burgers or in bloody mary mix.
Oyster sauce and soy sauce are others I reach for with great frequency: oyster sauce has this richness to it, but a slightly sour taste that makes it the most amazing match for pork you can imagine. Broccoli or green beans don’t need a single other thing other than oyster sauce, but any stir fry will be made amazing with it. My favorite new thing is to make an asian slaw with it: shred cabbage, carrots and green onions, toss with sesame oil and oyster sauce lightly. Deeeelicious.
People tend to be of one camp or another - experimenters or religiously reci-pious. You don’t have to go completely gonzo to pump up the flavor in what comes out of your kitchen. Pay attention to the five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory, and challenge yourself to mix and match.
Go out on a small limb and try some cayenne on your ice cream, or raspberries with your bitter greens or sour beer with your manchego. Just try to remember, rock salt for the driveway, table salt for the dinner table, friends don’t let friends eat tongue without telling them ahead of time, and he who cooks is not excused from cleaning if he cannot contain himself to using less than 5 whisks.