I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. In addition, for each section, I’m consulting experts in their fields – for this excerpt, it’s Lynne Viera, founder of how2heroes.
An important step in cooking tasty dishes is testing before you serve them, rather than after they are served and sitting on the dining table. Sometimes last minute tweaks can make a huge impact on the final outcome of a meal. Here are a few “secret” ingredients which can lift the taste of a bland or boring dish – while they are cooking and even as last minute additions.
Lemon and salt. Salt – especially as you move beyond the processed Morton’s variety – can add amazing flavor to dishes (more on this topic next week). Just be sure you taste as you go, versus over-salting and ruining a dish. I am also a big fan of lemon and think it’s a nice alternative to adding fat. I squeeze it on top of fish, add it to pasta, and use as a salad dressing, among other things. A bottle of lemon juice doesn’t hold a candle to fresh-squeezed.
Garlic. I find it almost impossible to use too much fresh garlic – in pasta dishes, with vegetables and on top of seafood and poultry. I may be at risk of offending guests and usually keep a nice supply of mouthwash on hand, but the extra flavor is well worth the consequences.
Helpful Hint: To simplify the garlic chopping process, I like to smash it with the side of a chef’s knife or cleaver before peeling. This makes it easier to peel and mince. Though many like using a garlic press, there is debate about the flavor of minced versus pressed garlic when cooking.
Fresh herbs. One of my favorite things about summer is a plentiful supply of herbs in my back yard. But as Lynne points out, “Most herbs are available year round in supermarkets as they are easily grown in greenhouses.” She continues, “They make a world of difference when added to any dish. For example, rosemary and thyme are great for chicken. Tarragon is tremendous with fish or roasts. Basil is lovely as a final addition to a marinara sauce. Experiment and see which you like!”
Parmesan cheese. Another quick and easy pick-me-up is parmesan cheese. It doesn’t take a lot of parm to add depth to soups, pasta or a piece of chicken. However, I am a big advocate of buying a high quality parmesan cheese, with a rich and strong flavor. Even if it is double the price of the less flavorful version, the investment is worthwhile because parmesan cheese lasts a long time in the refrigerator.
Onions. Onions add nice flavor to soups, sauces and other main dishes. Even those who say they don’t like onions might not realize the flavor they’ve gained in eating foods cooked with them. Rob and I like to perfect the home-made pizza, and we both agree that caramelized onions are the perfect accompaniment.
Shallots. Shallots are like onions but a little less strong. In fact, shallots have a fairly mild taste that combines the flavor of a sweet onion and a touch of garlic (they are tapered in shape and grow in clusters). I usually add them to dishes in the place of onions, only I usually use a lesser amount and chop them smaller. I often use them when I am out of onions or garlic, and the resulting dish is always happy with the replacement.
Leeks. Another great vegetable in the onion family is leeks. I didn’t discover leeks until later in life. They taste great in chowders, add flavor to poultry, and are great when sautéed and served as a side-dish. The asparagus, spinach and leek soup on How2Heroes is divine! Jamie Oliver’s leek, potato and chickpea soup is delicious and easy, too. If you have never tried them, give it a shot!
Butter or cream. A splash of cream or dollop of butter will enrich a dish. Contrary to public opinion or Southern tradition, it doesn’t take an entire stick of butter or a cup of cream to do the trick. Sometimes as little as a teaspoon can add some nice flavor.
Heat. Fresh hot peppers (e.g., red peppers, jalapenos) and dried pepper spices and flakes (e.g., cayenne, red pepper flakes) can pick up the pace of a range of dishes, from salsas to sauces to enchiladas.
If you are playing with fire, however, be sure to adjust the heat gradually. Like salt, place part of the recommended amount of diced pepper into a dish you are preparing, then sample it. If it’s not hot enough, add more. Then continue the process until you have it exactly as you’d like it. Remember that the overall heat index will increase slightly as a dish cooks. Also, be sure and wash your hands after you have hit the chopping block or you might rub your eyes and experience a not-so pleasant burning sensation.
Other seasonings. For home-made chili and Mexican dishes like fajitas, I usually dab a bit more cumin, chili powder and paprika than a recipe suggests (unless it’s a really hot chili powder).
Don’t forget, however, that dried spices are more potent than fresh ones. One time I saw Rob preparing a dish and he said to me, “The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons fresh basil but I don’t feel like running to the store. So I am going to add 2 tablespoons of dried basil instead.” Right? Wrong! Also, over time, you’ll start to experiment with new and different flavors by substituting one for another, trying something new or omitting a seasoning altogether if you do not have it on hand.
Helpful hint: One teaspoon of a dried herb is equivalent to about one tablespoon of a fresh one. But don’t forget that dried spices lose their potency over time.
Whether you have years of experience or are just beginning to learn, if you sample dishes along the way and before you serve them, you’ll learn what to add, how to spice them up, or when to leave them be.
Lynne Viera is the Founder of how2heroes, the premiere how-to video cooking website. Lynne combined her expertise in creating websites for major brands like Safeway and National Geographic Channel (as the Founder/CEO of Rival Marketing) and her passion for food to create this world-class website destination for people who really want to learn how to cook. Every video is original and carefully shot so viewers can easily replicate the recipes and techniques being demonstrated in the videos. The site features a combination of master chefs like Ming Tsai, Angelo Sosa (Top Chef) and Jason Santos (Hell’s Kitchen) as well as home cooks, farmers, fishmongers – anyone who has creative cooking ideas to share.