24 May 2008

Sauce interview, Pt 4

Awesome, thanks!

I hear you on Mexican food. It's like asking how to make music sound Mexican. Are we talking mariachi, tejano, ranchera, or norteno? I'm also with you on corn tortillas. But not asparagus. :) Thanks also for introducing the versatility of coconut milk into the discussion.

Next set of questions has to do with spices that most U.S. households are likely to have accumulated over the years, for one reason or another, even if no one does much cooking. I want to ask you if you have any simple ideas for using these spices. Again, just to limit the scope, I'd like to focus on vegetables primarily and fruits and grains secondarily, but if there is a "you must know about this" tip you'd like to share that doesn't fit into those categories, don't hold back!

Cayenne pepper or similar
Chile powder
Cinnamon
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Oregano
Parsley

Not quite as ubiquitous, but still very common:
Basil
Bay leaf
Cumin
Dill

We should probably include sauces that are found in most refrigerators, as well, eh?
BBQ sauce
Soy sauce
Szechuan sauce or similar
Tabasco sauce or similar

Let's do it.

Cayenne pepper or similar
Ever seen that lovely film called Chocolat? If not, go rent it now. The next time you make a cup of hot chocolate or coffee, throw in just a pinch of cayenne. You'll never be able to go back to the sickeningly sweet stuff that passes for good hot chocolate nowadays.

Barring that, there is no Chile recipe that would do without at least a pinch of cayenne. You need it for the fiery Southeast Asian cuisines of Thailand. In fact, to be honest, I find that cayenne is just a lovely addition to any sweet-and-sour combo, to offset the sweet. Say for instance, you're starting off with a mess of stir-fry vegetables, right? Suppose you start with some screaming hot peanut oil in a skillet, and add carrots, onions, peppers, bamboo shoots (from the tin; who has time to bother with fresh!?), scallions, sprouts, cabbage, and whatever other vegetable stirs (haha) your imagination. Suppose you add a healthy splash of tamari, or soy sauce. Suppose then, to offset the salty taste, you add in a healthy splash of orange juice. Then, to offset the sweetness, you add a very generous splash of lemon juice. When all is said and done, you're talking basic, yummy, and vibrantly coloured food. However, there are those of us who like a bit of adventure when we're eating stuff that we've probably had before.

Enter the cayenne.

Just a light sprinkle of cayenne, along with some crushed peanuts, will transport your stodgy stir-fry from back-alley fast food into an orgy of flavour. If you can possibly imagine a fiery edge to the next batch of stir-fry you pick up from your local Chinese fast food place (which typically runs on the sweeter and saltier side), you're sure to do like my mother does, and carry a batch of hot chilly powder with you anywhere you go.

Chile powder
There is the spice blend that contains (amongst other spices): cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, coriander, some tiny trace of ground chilly, and other spices. This is usually what I think of when I hear "Chile Powder". It's the stuff you use when making ... well ... a Chile! Starting with about a kilo of onions, a kilo of carrots, and 1/2 kilo of bell peppers, and a head of garlic is the perfect beginning to a good, strong Chile. In the largest pot you have, heat up a few tablespoons of oil. You might need up to 1/4 of a cup of oil. Use a neutral flavoured oil, like Canola, peanut, or safflower oil.

When the oil is hot, add the onions, carrots, peppers, and garlic. Drop down the flame to as medium, and allow the vegetable combination to cook for as long as it takes to get medium brown. You want the onions, garlic, and peppers chopped into a rough chop, and the garlic to be whole (for a milder garlic flavour), or minced (for a stronger garlic flavour). When the whole lot is the colour you desire, pitch in about 1 1/2 kilos of tinned, diced tomatoes, and a good handful of Chile powder. Turn up the heat to as high as it will go, and allow most of the water from the tomato tin to evaporate. Once you're down to about 1/4 of the original liquid from the tin, add a healthy slurp of tequila or dark rum. This step is optional. Add in about 3 kilos of cooked beans (as in, they weigh three kilos when you're done cooking them; start with about 1 1/2 kilos of dry beans to get to this level, or use tinned; both are equally fine). You can use all of one bean, like pinto, black, kidney, or pink beans, or combine them in any way you deem fit. You can omit the liquid from the tin, or add it in. It depends on your preference for how thick you like your Chile.

Let the whole mess come to a full, rolling boil, and let it cook for about 10 more minutes. Add one ounce or so of unsweetened chocolate, or an ounce of cocoa powder (unsweetened). Let the whole lot cook for about 10 more minutes, and eat!

Barring that, Chile powder is wonderful when sprinkled onto yams, yucca, sweet potatoes, squash, eggplant, chickpeas, potatoes, or any other hearty vegetable that you fancy. To prepare, simply mix 1 tablespoon of Chile powder with 1 tablespoon of oil. Toss about 1 pound of your vegetable (or chickpeas, if you're feeling adventurous!) in the spice and oil mixture. Throw it in the microwave for about 10 - 15 minutes, or in the oven at 350ยบ F for about 30 - 45 minutes. If it's a tough veggie, let it cook longer. You now have a quick and delicious entree to dump onto bread, rice, or pasta, or eat by itself.

Cinnamon
The reason that apples and cinnamon are a cliche is because the two of them work so well together. Barring that, the next time you make the Chile recipe I mentioned, feel free to pitch in a teaspoon or so of cinnamon with the Chile powder. Also, any time you do sweet potatoes with maple syrup, you have to add a healthy dose of cinnamon for the taste to come out clearly. My morning oatmeal would be incomplete without cinnamon, as would my coffee, and hot chocolate.

Garlic powder
I tend to reserve garlic powder for when I want to punch up a jarred pasta sauce. I'll throw some olive oil into a skillet, throw in the jarred pasta sauce, throw in a few shakes of garlic powder, and let the mess come together in about five minutes. When it's done, I'll dump in the fresh pasta, and the taste is just as if I've been slaving over a hot stove. Additionally, whenever I am sauteeing onions for a recipe, and the recipe doesn't call for garlic, I'll throw some garlic powder into the sautee, to punch up the overall taste. Ditto this on whenever I make a cocoanut cream sauce. I'll start with the traditional roux (1 TB of oil, 1 TB of flour, heat over low heat until light blond, then pitch in 1 cup of cocoanut milk, then add a pinch of nutmeg and garlic powder), and do my magic when the sauce forms.

Onion powder
Ew. Wait, people actually BUY this stuff? Ew. Just. Ew. The flavour is far inferior to garlic powder, and onions are cheap and readily available enough that this travesty of the spice world should really go crawl into some corner and die.

Oregano
Remember the pasta sauce example? Same here. Throw in some oregano to punch it up. Same with the Chile powder example, where I mention adding 1 TB Chile powder to 1 TB oil? Try throwing in oregano with those veggies. Also, any Chile recipe will be complemented extremely well by oregano. Simply add it with the onions and garlic and peppers. Any recipe that calls for tomatoes will do well with oregano. Any recipe with root vegetables, but not a lot else will do well with oregano. The next time you make corn chowder, try some oregano in it; your tongue will thank you. Any bean recipe will love oregano. Crumble the dry leaves in your palm before you add it to your pot, so that you release the maximum flavour.

Parsley
Any time I have a sautee going, with onions, garlic, and/or other aromatics (carrots, peppers, etc), I add lots and lots of dried parsley if I have it. Just like oregano, crumble it in your palm before adding it in. Come to think of it, pretty darn near any savoury dish does well with a healthy (and I do mean healthy!) dose of dry parsley. I find that I need about a handful or so for the impact to come through in a pot of food meant for 4 - 6 people.


Not quite as ubiquitous, but still very common:

Basil
Always use wherever there are tomatoes present. Use generously in Thai food, or any other recipe which calls for hot ingredients, or creamy ingredients (like cocoanut or cocoanut milk).

Bay leaf
Never let a soup happen without some bay leaf in it. Ever. Bear in mind, however, that bay leaves are not digestible, and need to be removed before you serve the food. Also remember that bay leaves take some serious time to impart their flavours, so use it mainly in long-cooking curries, or soups, rather than quickie foods. Will do extremely well in my Chile recipe, if you add it with the sauteeing aromatics.

Cumin
Always use cumin in Chile, to punch up the "mexican" flavour. Use with refried beans to /give/ it flavour; often the stuff in the tin or from the restaurant is fairly boring. Use generously with any root vegetable. Use with any Indian dish.

If you have cumin seeds, you are especially lucky. The next time you make a savoury dish, start like the Indians do. In a large pot, heat up a tablespoon or so of oil. Sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds. Wait about 30 seconds or so, and your house will fill with the mouth-watering smell of cumin. The seeds will begin to jump and pop. Add about 2 cups of uncooked, long grain rice (or any other vegetable you feel like cooking). Drop down the heat to medium heat, and gently cook the grains of rice (or vegetable) until you smell a nutty aroma (or until the veggie is browned). Add in about 4 cups of water. Increase the heat to high heat, and allow the water to come to a full, rolling boil. Let the water boil for about two or three minutes. Slam on a tight-fitting lid (or aluminum foil, if you don't have the lid), and decrease the heat to as low as it will go. Set a timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, turn off the heat, and remove the pot from the heat. Allow the rice (or vegetable) to rest for about 10 minutes. Uncover the pot, and dig in! It's fabulous. This same technique can be used to make split pea soup. Just add about 3 cups per cup of water, and skip the browning step.

Cumin has anti-gas properties, which is why Indians use the spice so generously whenever they make cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli), or beans.

Dill
To be honest, dill is one of those few herbs that I rarely use when it's dried, because the fresh and dried version are so different, that I tend to avoid the dried. When you have the fresh, it's perfect in salad, and other raw applications. Throw some onto sliced cucumbers, with a dash of lemon, for the best summer treat ever. Combine it with hummos for an unusual flavour combo. Have it with tomatoes, parsley, and lemon, and you'll never want cooked tomato again!

Dry dill, on the other hand, is a lot more sober, and subdued. I'd use it in any application where dry parsley is appropriate.

BBQ sauce
Use for dipping French cut fries, or slices of baked potato or baked sweet potato. Slather onto mature plantain, and bake in the oven for a smoky, sweet treat. Rub onto slices of eggplant, and grill. Use as a marinade for portabello mushrooms, and grill.

Soy sauce/Tamari
Use in place of salt in recipes calling for salt. Switch to Tamari, if you're gluten free. Switch to low sodium, and see if you can really tell that much of a difference (why eat the extra salt if you don't have to!). Combine with various fruit juices, citrus, and/or spices to create your own marinades for various vegetables. When making tomato sauce, use a capful of soy sauce to counteract the tinny flavour of tinned tomato. When making a vegetable stock, add a few shakes to give the stock a much deeper, richer colour. Use for dipping of steamed vegetables.

Szechuan sauce or similar
It reminds me too much of snot to take it seriously. ::shudder::

Tabasco sauce or similar
Sriracha, Tabasco, and other fiery sauces should be on hand for those who like a bit of a kick with their food. Any time you do sweet-and-sour applications, have a touch of heat to offset the cloying sweetness that is so typical of the sweet and sour craze. Always have hot sauce on hand to combine with ketchup (and, in my house, freshly minced raw garlic) for a fabulous dipping sauce for French cut fries, and tater tots. (Yes, tater tots and other fried foods aren't healthy, but if you're having them, you might as well enjoy them, right!?) Add a fiery kick to your Chile by adding a bit of hot sauce at the table, before you dig in to eat. If you're like my husband, you'll like to have it on pretty close to everything.

Coriander powder:
For those who dislike, or are allergic to cumin, coriander powder is an ideal substitute. It's got the same smoky aroma, but a much more subtle flavour.

Sesame Seeds:
I would never let my kitchen exist without sesame seeds. I add them to hot oil before adding my aromatics (when I sautee aromatics). I add them to hot oil along with cumin seeds to release the flavour of both spices into the oil, before cooking vegetables. If I'm making (cooked) garbanzo beans, I /always/ add a good dose of sesame seeds, paprika, and olive oil, before pitching the lot into the oven for 15 minutes (at 350 F). I could never dream of a soup, stew, or bean dish without some bit of sesame seeds. Because they're high in Iron, I don't even feel guilty about the negligible extra fat they add.


As a note, there are three different varieties of sesame seeds. For the purposes I mention here, any of the three will work just fine.