Thursday, December 4, 2014

Essential Ingredients

Now that the dust has settled in my kitchen after the Thanksgiving frenzy, and the leftovers have dwindled to a pot of soup in the fridge, it’s time to think about December cooking and baking. I’ve written about some holiday favorites before, but lately I’ve been thinking about essential ingredients—what goes into those favorites, what I cannot do without. They break down naturally into the five sensations our tongue’s taste receptors respond to: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For those not familiar with umami, a more recent addition, it’s the Japanese word for “savory deliciousness” and is associated with foods high in glutamate, such as fish, meat, specific vegetables, and fermented and aged foods. Although difficult to define, it’s glaringly obvious when umami is missing. I found it challenging to come up with a list of just ten essentials, but have narrowed it down by limiting it to ingredients I never eat on their own.

Sea salt, preferably coarse: Salt of the earth, grain of salt, worth one’s salt—there’s a reason so many common expressions involve salt and that “salary” is derived from the word. It’s a necessary mineral in the human body, not just an ingredient, and offers sensual satisfaction as well. Unfortunately it’s often applied with an indiscriminate hand, but a judicious amount of salt enhances the flavor of just about anything, and can even be transformative. Think of the difference between plain potatoes and potatoes with a sprinkling of salt…no comparison. 

Freshly ground black pepper: Black peppercorns, especially Tellicherry with their deep complexity, can be just as transformative as salt. They’re not cheap but a little goes a long way, and they’re so far above common pre-ground black pepper that it’s hard to believe they’re in the same spice family. It’s not surprising they’ve long been called the King of Spices. We go through a lot of freshly ground black pepper in our house, and I was happy that Isabel has learned to value its virtues so much that a pepper grinder was one of the first things she bought for her new apartment this past fall. Although I use a lot of spices in my cooking and baking, this is the one I couldn’t do without.

Garlic: Is it an ingredient, or is it a food?  I have to admit I enjoy it on its own, roasted, but I couldn’t not include it on this list because it is so much an essential ingredient in my kitchen that the list would simply be incomplete without it. I add it to just about everything I cook, from a single, subtle clove to lend depth to a sauce, to an overt, generous handful. Fortunately everyone else in my household loves, or at least likes, it too. 

Shallots: Similar to garlic, shallots walk the line between ingredient and food. I have been known to eat them caramelized by the spoonful. Also like garlic, they truly are essential to my cooking, both raw and cooked. When they’re slowly softening on the stove, they fill the house with an incomparably homey aroma. If you’re still puzzling over what umami tastes like, caramelized shallots are an excellent example, as is roasted garlic.

Fresh herbs: It’s impossible to choose just one herb because I use so many of them so frequently in my cooking, plus each one has is its own unique and pleasing flavor. Basil, thyme, sage, savory, marjoram, cilantro, and lavender—I grow all of these right out my back door. Stepping outside in the middle of making dinner to decide which one to snip and throw in the pot is one of life’s simple joys. I also have a special fondness for rosemary because I can grow it on a windowsill all winter long. Fresh herbs are another great example of umami.

Extra virgin olive oil: Butter (the real, all natural kind) is a close second, but if truth be told I cook with olive oil much more than with butter, and I prefer it with bread as well. I lean towards those that are slightly bitter, full bodied, and “pique” in the back of the throat, a description I learned in France when selecting olive oil from a market vendor. An oil that has “pique” possesses a pleasant sharpness on the finish. If you set a dish of full-bodied olive oil down in front of me along with a loaf of crusty bread, it’s sure to disappear fast. 

Balsamic vinegar: Perhaps because of its close association with wine, I’m a big fan of vinegar. Balsamic vinegar, in particular, balances sourness with subtle sweetness resulting in a complex sensation that I never tire of.  I like the sourness of lemons too and sometimes mix up my vinaigrettes by using citrus instead of vinegar, but overall I prefer the more layered sourness of a quality vinegar. Adding a splash to a hearty soup or braise creates depths of flavor that never taste vinegary; they just taste better.

Cocoa powder: This wonder ingredient is essential for making anything chocolate, of course. Enough said. But I will add that its natural bitterness is one of its best qualities. I like my chocolate very dark. With just a hint of sweetness. In general, Americans undervalue bitterness, gravitating overwhelmingly toward sweetness. European friends have told me that in the US everything tastes sweet. Unfortunately for the undiscerning eater, this is true. I’m thankful I was not born with a sweet tooth and actually prefer bitter over sweet. The idea of sweetening my coffee is repellent to me, I’d choose bitter greens over sweetened yams, and as for milk chocolate? Non, merci.

Maple syrup: Ok, I admit sometimes recipes are enhanced by a touch of sweetness. And I do enjoy a sweet dessert every now and then. So on the rare occasions when sweetness is called for, like holiday baking, I turn to maple syrup (or maple sugar) whenever I can. It’s far superior to cane sugar in both flavor and nutrition. Honey is a close runner-up, but since my family and I are Vermonters, maple syrup courses through our veins (thankfully our friends David and Louise Brynn keep us well stocked). 

Vanilla: Often associated with sweet foods, although not sweet in and of itself, vanilla is highly aromatic and imparts a heady allure to everything it touches. No wonder it often shows up as a base note in colognes and perfumes. It enhances the flavor of many foods, especially baked goods, and can also stand on its own, hence its honored position as the most popular ice cream in America. I recently made some vanilla extract with beans one of Chris’s colleagues gave us from Madagascar where she does research (although in actuality vanilla “beans” are not beans, but instead are the cured fruit pods of an orchid). The extract has been steeping for four months and is now ready for use and giving as homemade vanilla also makes an inspired DIY host/hostess gift during the holidays.

There you have it, my essentials. So too during the month of December, there are certain fundamental ingredients for a happy holiday season. In addition to good food and drink mine include: family, friends, music, light, spirit, warmth, generosity, and traditions old and new. 

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Homemade Vanilla Extract

3 vanilla beans
1 750 ml bottle of quality vodka (or bourbon)

With a sharp knife, split the vanilla beans lengthwise. Place the beans in the bottle of vodka, seal it, and let it steep in a cool, dark cabinet for at least 4 months. Occasionally shake the bottle gently to mix. When it has finished steeping, discard the beans and pour the extract into sterilized containers.

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