Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kitchen basics: the flavor has it

A few years back, I had to spend some time in the hospital. In the circumstances, is was offered nourishment, which they referred to as "food" but I called it "crap." Because I was refusing their terrible offerings, they assumed that I was refusing to eat and was starving myself; so they stuffed a feeding tube straight to my stomach and fed me the bare minimum to make sure I'd live, just enough to try to make me hungry enough to eat their porridge.

Its failed miserably, because they worked on a false premise: I wasn't refusing to eat food, I was refusing to eat those meals that they were serving me as food. Because, while they may have been nutritionally whole, they were the blandest, most depressing collections of foodstuff one can be forced to consume. I eventually managed to talk to the nutritionist and striker a deal: stop that gruel crap and let me feed myself, then decide if I'm starving. Given that within twenty-four hours I had consumed more calories than they were injecting me with eventually broke them down and they took the tube out.

The secret was in the flavors, something that they didn't concern themselves with.

In this edition of kitchen basics, we'll be looking at those flavor elements that are oh, so important for your pantry, as they are the springs of magic that turn a bland pita bread into a delicious delicacy and make salads come to life.

What exactly do I mean by flavors then? We are talking about the basic foodstuffs that bring life to the party, can be combined to turn good into great and will define the dish you are trying to create: vinegars, oils, herbs, spices and other simple flavor elements that bring a much greater punch than their size could indicate.


One should always have some vinegar around. While plain old white vinegar has some pretty limited uses, it is useful as a chemical reactor when combined with baking soda.

The one important flavor agent is balsamic; you should have a jar or two of balsamic vinegar around, as they really stand out form the rest. For the affictionato, it is the only vinegar that changes as it ages. Have a bottle of young (3-6 years old) for salad dressing and the likes, and a jar of older (9 year old) for those time that you want both punch and sweetness. If you feel like being fancy, you could do a reduction, where you simmer it until it has reduced to half it quantity, which will make it thicker and sweeter.

Depending on your ethnic palate, you may want to have rice wine vinegar, for the Asian repertoire; white wine vinegar, for a different base for your salad dressing or mayonnaise; and cider vinegar, again, a different variant on flavors. One bottle can last quite a long time, so you can never really say that you have too many, unless of course you have too many.


I have talked about cooking fats before and some of those will definitely cross-task with flavor agents. One difference here is that they are to be used not so much for their heat properties as for their taste. Top of the list here is a good olive oil, extra-virgin and cold-pressed. This is a case here where you'll probably want a fruitier variant, as it will shine through the preparation.

Other oils to look out for as flavor include sesame (for Asian kick), nuts (excellent for salads) and a large variety of flavored oils, again for salads, but also to add some finishing flavors to pasta, pizza and certain sautes.


Herbs are the old school way to flavor a dish. While it is true that fresh is always better, its not always possible, as it can be difficult to use the entire amount that you are forced to buy by the time that they go bad, unless you start growing them yourself; its a bit of an investment, but you'll save in the long run, and you'll always have your green friends ready and at hand in manageable quantities.

First off, one of your reliable sidekick is oregano; its usable in many different cuisines and it'll probably be the first one you'll run out of.

Basil is one of those herbs, like parsley that should only ever be bought and used fresh. There is a certain variety depending on the region of origin, but sticking of good old sweet basil should get you through most of your needs. Its a simple and delicious way to flavor up a salad or a simple summer soup.

Chives is another great standby, for the subtle touch of onion without being overpowering.  

Rosemary is a great match for both fish and lamb, so its a great friend for anything Mediterranean.  

Parsley and coriander serve the same purpose for different cuisines. While it might imply that they are interchangeable, they are not, as their flavor and impact differ strongly enough to ruin the dish.  

Bay leaf is a misunderstood, yet essential add-on to any stock, stew or ragout that will involve fatty meats, Its job is to cut the impact of the fats and it does the job wonderfully; just take it out before you serve.

Mint is another lamb friend, and it a great way to flavor rice or couscous.

Thyme is a base flavoring for stocks, meat dishes and for your pickled eggs.


I refer to spices both the powders and seeds that are used to build wonderful aromas and delightful sauces.

One of my most important spice in cumin, a wonderful additive for any meat dish, as well as Eastern European and Indian concoctions. It is available both in powder and seed form, to be used in different contexts.

Paprika is the one spice that most American pantries had after the war, along with black pepper and salt; it was used mostly as a color element, when you felt like being daring and fancy. Its is the all-important base for goulash, and can also be used in a variety of ways for sauces and other concoctions, adding dept and color to the mix. It originates from either Spain or Hungary, and while we mostly see it as either mild or hot, there are more possible varieties, available according to your local suppliers.

Peppercorn comes in several variety: black, white, green, pink, Szechuan; in reality, they are, in order: whole, skinned, unripe, bud and the aromatic fruit pod of a different plant. While as  much as possible you should buy only whole corns and grind them on the spot for maximum flavor, it is also possible to buy it pre-ground, tho not exactly recommended, due to the possibility of it being cut with peanut shells and other fillers. You can also obtain both the green and pink variety in brine, which are used for sauces primarily.

Turmeric is a ginger relative and widely used in Middle Eastern and South East Asian cuisine, both for color and flavor. You could well use it in the same way as you would paprika; it is an essential component to curry mixes and several Persian dishes. It has reputed health benefits that are under investigation, but its good stuff anyways that could be added in to any spice mix where a bit of yellow would not cause any trouble.

Cinnamon comes both in powder and stick form, but even more importantly, comes both in genuine and stand-in, the stand-in being the most common. Cinnamon is stronger and looks like thin, crumbly sheets, while cassia is the milder, tough sticks that we are used to. It is a great way to flavor drinks and stocks, as well as several sorts of baked goods.

Mustard comes in either powder or seed form, used in different dishes for different purposes. In powder form, you would use is as part of a dry rub, or to flavor meatballs. As a seed, it would be used in certain Indian preparations, as well as in many Eastern European dishes, like sauerkraut.


The friendly and not-so-friendly pepper family covers the whole gamut from the sweet bell pepper, all the way to pain-inducing bad boys like ghost nagas. Unless you absolutely want to melt your teeth and stomach lining, you'll want to keep a certain variety of peppers at hand for different purposes. One simple rule to stick by when using hot peppers is to keep it flavorful. If you have packed so much heat that its the only thing you notice about your food, all you've made is a frat boy bet, and Texans will backhand you all the way back to the pioneers.

Poblano, also known as ancho or mulato are at the bottom of the heat scale, just above bell peppers. When the ripen and dry they turn very dark, nearly black; their low heat, flavor and color makes them a wonderful component of the more approachable moles. Unless you are in the harvest season, you'll find it dried and will need to be ground.

Jalapeno peppers are at the low curve of the Scoville scale, which means that while you may go a little more wild with this, its also one that can be used in other ways than just as a heat source in your dish. They could be stuffed and grilled or braised, and served as appetizers, for instance. Available fresh and in various preserved forms.

Chipotle are ripe and smoked jalapenos. Most likely you'll find those whole and dried, so you'll have to grind them. Not as hot, but a great way to add a more subtle element to your mix.

Serrano is the most commonly used chili in Mexican cuisine. It rates higher than jalapeno on the scale, but the locals eat it raw.

Cayenne peppers are the next step for commonly used chilies on the scale. They pack a pretty good punch, and can be found whole dried, as well as in powder form. Add in small increments and taste as you go along, so that you don't end up with nothing but burns.

Bird's eye is a very small chili, but don't let the size fool you. This is the variety that is most commonly used in Chinese, as well as certain African cuisines. Its punch is pretty high, just under the old hottest pepper record holder. Use sparingly, and practice caution.

Habanero and Scotch Bonnet are so closely related to be kissing cousins. They were the hottest peppers until some years back, when they found out about the ghost naga. This is pretty much the highest you should go on the heat scale. Easily found, you don't really need to toss several hacked-up peppers into your pot for the heat to come through. You could well just let it simmer in for a time and take it out before serving, unless you hate your guests and enjoy seeing adults cry in pain.


This really requires it own section, as it is not a spice, and is used both as a preservation agent, and as a method to enhance other flavors.

Table salt is the most common type, produced in such a way as to make it really easy to be used; its one to be avoided if possible, only useful for baking, really. It was originally developed for health reason, adding iodine because people didn't get enough of that required element in their diet. With municipal water supplies providing for that need, it is no longer required, but they haven't come around to doing anything about it.

Kosher salt is not Jewish, nor blessed by a rabbi; the name comes from the use of this salt to prepare kosher meat, to draw the blood out. It has several benefits, one of which is purity, devoid of additives. Its shape and structure makes it an excellent kitchen standby, and this is what you should have in your salt pig. You can be more liberal with this type, as it has less saltiness per mass than table salt. While it is more expensive, try it and see the difference. Its worth it.

Coarse or pickling salt is large grains of sea salt that are used for either preservation, as for pickling, brining or to prepare confit; or as a preparation method for certain dishes, like crackles and boeuf au sel. Not an essential basic, but its not expensive and lasts, so not a waste in any way.

Fleur de sel is salt hand harvested from sea water pools and treated to sun exposure. It also refers to certain varieties that originate from salt marshes or ancient salt deposits. It is most definitely a finisher, as a sprinkle on top of the dish before serving can both enhance the flavors and add and extra layer of texture. Expensive, so not an essential, and to be used sparingly.

Other aromatics
There are a few other flavor friends you should keep in mind, and possibly keep around if you use them regularly.

Lemons, while certainly a fridge staple, has so many uses in the kitchen that you should keep some close at hand. The rind can be ground or shredded, the pulp can be crushed to extract the juices, it can be sliced and used in cocktails or other beverages... just have some, and if possible, avoid the bottled stuff. You can also find in confit form, either in salt or in liquid. These are used for Middle Eastern and North African dishes and will take that tagine to a whole different level. Pick it up only if you know you'll use it, or make your own.

Garlic is an essential. And get over your irrational fear, it doesn't mess up your breath if used properly. Get whole cloves and use liberally, teaming it with onions, shallots or chives. While you can find in preserved, I prefer to just buy whole heads on them and use as needed. There are also very useful tubes, in the same veins as toothpaste, that will dispense crushed garlic paste, allowing you to use small amounts of it and keeping the rest safe for later use.

Ginger is another friend that can be used fresh, over the powder form. A few slices in chai, soup or stock will give things a whole different dimension. A necessity for anyone that wants to do stir fries and curries from scratch. While it keeps well in the fridge, the best method to preserve it is to bury it in a container filled with potting soil.

This obviously only covers a limited range of flavor agents. The purpose here is to give you a good idea of what is out there, and what to spend your hard-earned cash on. In full disclosure, when I moved into my first apartment, I bought a lot of spices and herbs, most of which remained unused for years. I simply didn't know what I was doing, so I didn't use them. Eventually, I just tossed most of it out (they do have a certain shelf life) and only bought what I used.

When you start with a more limited, but functional range, you are more likely to learn to use it, and use it properly. The whole purpose of aromatics is to take a staple like plain white rice, and by adding a few pinches of this and that, end up with a royal grade pilaf or risotto. That's what cooking is all about; making the ordinary, extraordinary.

Its a little bit of magic.

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