I think everyone has an ingredient (or two, or three…) that they use all the time and rely upon to either enhance the flavor of a dish or just give it that extra something special. The most obvious ingredients in this category are salt, butter, and herbs. If something seems lacking in your sauce, stew, or salad dressing, most likely one of those three can fix it.
But I also have a few others which are not crazy or exotic (have you seen the price of fennel pollen?) but are always there in a pinch to make everything better. So, here’s my list of secret ingredients, starting with anchovies.
A food world darling to be sure, I love to stock them in my pantry (salt and oil packed) and put blend them in a quick summer tomato sauce or blend with red wine vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil, an egg yolk and parmesan cheese to make a caesar salad dressing. You might think you hate these little guys (especially when they’re luxuriating whole on top of your salad), but minced and melted into a sauce they will convert you. And some of the marinated Spanish white anchovies are more mild and amazing eaten whole on a cracker).I use lemon on practically everything. It is the ultimate flavor agent: squeezed on sauteed fish, in salad dressings, as the finishing touch to a pot of lentil soup or pasta primavera. And then there’s the zest that can be added to pancake batter or risotto. I use lemon constantly. It’s magic.
Another no-brainer: pecorino cheese. Less chere than parmigiana-reggiano, this hard Italian sheep’s milk cheese still adds a delicious nutty richness to pasta sauce, sprinkled on a bowl of soup, and tossed with roasted vegetables. When I’m making pasta on a weeknight for the family I add about a cup of grated pecorino directly onto the drained pasta (leaving some of the pasta cooking water to linger on the noodles); I then toss the pasta so the cheese melts and binds to the pasta and then add some grape tomatoes that I sauteed in butter and a few torn basil leaves. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and maybe a bit of the following…Remember when balsamic vinegar was the IT ingredient? I feel like sometime between grunge and Friends, balsamic came on the scene and we started drizzling it on everything. I loved it. I actually carried a bottle of the stuff around Italy with me when I was traveling in my twenties with my cousin. Most of our meals were fruit along with bread, cheese, and prosciutto we’d purchase separately then assemble into sandwiches and eat while sitting like two happy hobos in a town square, or verdant hill or rocky beach. From Lucca to Cinque Terre to Naples, a bottle of balsamic went wherever we did. But as I got older the stuff seemed like overly sweet dreck, which unfortunately a lot of it is. So I forgot all about it and threw my adoration into the arms of sherry vinegar. But then the other day I was in a fancy food market and saw this gorgeous little bottle of balsamic, the good stuff, aged for 12 years (you can get EVEN more aged varieties but that costs a small fortune or a sugar daddy). I splurged. We were having a dinner party and I wanted to use it for a salad of spring lettuces (from Stone Barns!), toasted walnuts, and pecorino. One bite and I remembered why I used to love the stuff. Just a bit of that balsamic with olive oil, sea salt, and ground pepper and it was like being back in a street square in Italy, a happy hobo. So I guess what I’m saying is, if you can, maybe splurge on a small bottle of the real deal, keep it for a special salad or a special sandwich.
Home bread crumbs and croutons. I can go on and on about the benefits of big bag of homemade breadcrumbs in the freezer for putting on everything or breading chicken cutlets; or a bag of croutons from leftover stale bread waiting in the cupboard for a quick salad. I made the croutons above when a craving for caesar salad hit one afternoon. I had about 1/2 a loaf of Granddaisy Bakery rustic Italian bread. I cut the cubes into about 1 inch cubes, tossed with salt, pepper, olive oil, spread on a baking sheet and baked at 350 for about 12 minutes, tossing once in the middle so they’d brown evenly. I used a handful for my salad and the rest for later. Grapeseed oil is getting easier to find and I love it for salad dressing, particularly when dressing a rice or quinoa salad. The taste is cleaner than canola oil and lighter than olive oil, allowing all of the flavors of the grains and vegetables to shine through. It’s also great for making homemade mayonnaise with herbs.
Greek yogurt is also a given on this list. It has so much to offer beyond breakfast, particularly in sauces. I use it to thicken chicken curry and also to make make my turkey burgers moist (just add some yogurt along with salt, pepper, sauteed onions, and diced apples to the ground turkey and combine). I also love it in place of cream when making a pan sauce (say chicken cutlets with shallots, capers, wine and lemon juice), it just needs to be at least 2%–you need a little fat in there!Last but not least, yellow miso. At this point I am just at the beginning stages of my appreciation for this unique ingredient (and I welcome any and all suggestions for using it from you miso experts out there!) but swirled into chicken stock for soup or used for a dip it’s amazing. I made fish fingers with mahi mahi the other day (mahi mahi fillets cut into fingers and then dipped in: flour, then two eggs beaten with a splash of milk and a tablespoon of soy sauce, then rolled in panko crumbs and fried in large saute pan with about a 1/2 inch of canola oil until golden brown on all sides). Here’s a recipe for the sauce, I promise it’s so good you might eat it up on its own; and you can dip anything in it, from steamed vegetable to chicken cutlets. Enjoy! And please share your own “secret weapons”!
Miso Mayo Dipping Sauce
In a small food processor or with a mortar and pestle combine the following: 1/4 cup yellow miso; 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar; one large garlic clove, chopped; 1/2 cup mayonnaise; 1 tablespoon honey. Blend to combine until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve on the side with fish fingers or whatever you’d like.