The Unbound Reader, who married The Middle Son last year, wondered if I would talk about flavorings, flavor combinations that work together and what flavors work with which foods…confused? Yeah, I have a tendency to do that sometimes, but let’s sort this out a bit.
Clearly, in order to experience the best flavors of anything, you need to start with a great cut of meat or perfectly ripe fruits or vegetables. No amount of herbs or spices will fix any food past its prime. But, on very good days, when the planets are all in alignment and you find the perfect, oh, let’s just say, the perfect winter squash, you will want that squash to sing when it hits the table, right? What do you choose to enhance the sweetness, the texture, the flavor of our perfect squash? All foods can be enhanced, their flavor boosted, by teasing out the very best parts of their flavors with salt and pepper, herbs and spices. The key is understanding what works, how much and when to just use salt and pepper and nothing else.
Before we go to herbs, spices and everything nice, I just want to say a bit about salt and pepper. These are the backbone-flavor-enhancers of all foods. There is a plethora of different salts on the market today. My personal favorites are the pink Himalayan salt, Fleur de Sel and Maldon Sea Salt; I use these at the table or for finishing. For everyday cooking, I use kosher salt. The weight varies from brand to brand, so proceed with caution if you change brands. Also note, you may use kosher salt instead of pickling salt, as long as there are no anti-caking agents present. It’s my understanding it’s the anti-caking agent that causes cloudiness in pickles. But, if you prefer sea salt, use that instead.
As for pepper, I prefer the Tellicherry peppercorn and please, grind the pepper just before using; don’t use the pre-ground pepper is you can avoid it. It just does not have the flavor of freshly ground pepper. Also, it works best to add pepper near or at the very end of cooking, because pepper can become bitter if cooked for long periods of time. Whole peppercorns don’t seem to be affected by long-term cooking, so add them whole to soup stocks, etc. You may want to fish these out, as some people find it a bit unpleasant to bite into a whole peppercorn.
- Salt and Pepper—Kosher or sea salt; Himalayan pink salt, Tellicherry peppercorns, green, white and pink peppercorns (see allergy alert)
- All foods and PLEASE use freshly ground pepper if at all possible
- Everything! If the little black specks of black pepper bother you, then use white pepper in white or lit colored sauces, mashed potatoes, cream soups, etc.
One last thing, for more even coverage when using salt and pepper, sprinkle them from at least 14 inches above the food, and damn, doesn’t that just look good, too? Okay, moving on….we’ll start our flavor adventure with herbs.
Herbs, by definition, are the leafy part of plants, either fresh or dried. The Goddess has her favorites: basil, marjoram, tarragon, rosemary, bay leaves, chives and dillweed. I use others, but those are my go-to herbs. I love them combined with citrus and garlic…always garlic. Have you noticed that I have a predilection for prodigious amounts of garlic (and onion…it seems I like those lily-family plants)?
Feel free to use dried herbs instead of fresh. Sometimes dried are the only option available and sometimes they are preferable. For example, I prefer to use dried parsley flakes in compound butters; I think the flakes hold up better. The exception to this rule is cilantro. Use it only fresh, as it does not dry (nor freeze) true to flavor; Indian, Asian and Latin markets have the freshest cilantro. Always chop cilantro just before using; I find that if it stands for awhile, the flavor can have a soapy aspect to it that freshly chopped just doesn’t seem to have.
The general rule of thumb for using fresh or dried herbs is a 1:3 ratio. In other words, use 1 tablespoons fresh herbs OR 1 teaspoon of dried.
These are my go-to herbs and their friends and neighbors:
- Basil—lemon, orange, lavender, garlic, chives, cinnamon, thyme, oregano
- Chicken, eggs, cheese, seafood, pasta, veal
- Tomatoes, summer squash, green beans, salads, strawberries, oranges
- Pesto, vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, mustard, compound butters
- Bay Leaves—Any meat, poultry, seafood, herb and citrus (remove before serving)
- Stews, soups, tomato sauces, roasted potatoes
- Chives—Lemon, orange, tarragon, mustard, dill, basil
- Pasta, chicken, fish, shellfish, lobster, eggs
- Tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, peas, beets,
- Salad dressings, mustards, compound butters, mayonnaise, sauces
- Cilantro—Lime, Orange, cumin, Mexican oregano, chiles, coriander (seeds)
- Chicken, fish, eggs, pork, shrimp
- Avocados, tomatoes, onions
- Curries, mayonnaise, sauces, soups, stews
- NOTE: Only use fresh cilantro as it does not dry or freeze to its true flavor. The best is available at Indian, Asian or Latino markets, not the supermarket.
- Dillweed—Lemon, orange, mustard, garlic
- Fish, chicken, eggs, pasta, cheese
- Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beets, onions
- Salad dressings, mustards, compound butters, mayonnaise, sauces
- Marjoram (or oregano)—Basil, cinnamon, garlic, thyme, lemon, orange
- Pasta, chicken, swordfish, shrimp, beef, tomato, eggs , cheese, vegetables
- Mustards, compound butters, salad dressings, sauces, dry wines
- Rosemary—lemon, garlic, thyme, orange, sage,
- Chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, swordfish, venison, rabbit
- Potatoes, rice, breads
- Stuffing, mustards, compound butters, dry wines
- Tarragon—lemon, garlic, lavender, chives or chive blossoms, garlic scapes
- Chicken, fish, shrimp, lobster, lamb, beef, eggs, tomatoes
- Vinegars, salad dressings, mustards, béarnaise sauce, white wine
There’s a great way to add intense flavor, and richness to any dish and you can have it on hand and it freezes. What am I talking about? Compound butter, or simply put…butter with stuff in it. You can place a tablespoon of compound butter on hot vegetables, meats, seafood or fish and on bread, too. As it melts into oozy goodness with an intense flavor, you have an instant sauce.
Basic Compound Butter
- 1 stick (1/4-pound) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper (or use freshly ground black if the specks don’t bother you…I usually use Tellicherry pepper, freshly ground)
Cream the butter with a mixer until light and fluffy; it will be almost white. With mixer running, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Add the salt and pepper. Beat in the ingredients to make whichever butter you wish to make. These recipes can all be doubled or tripled. FOR ALL BUTTERS: Let stand for one hour then, roll into a log with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for use in 1-2 days. TO USE: Cut into 1/4″ slices from either the chilled or frozen log. Put unused portion back in the fridge or freezer. Place one or two slices on top of HOT meat, poultry, fish or toss with pasta.
To freeze: Wrap the log in waxed paper, then in aluminum foil and place in a freezer bag; freeze for up to 1 month.
NOTE: Adding 2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs per 1/4 pound of butter (1 stick), will give you a nicely robust butter. Citrus zest(s) and spices are nice additions, as well. Try the following combos:
- Tarragon, lavender, lemon or orange zest, garlic
- Chives and/or dillweed
- Roasted red bell peppers, basil, garlic
- Sun-dried tomatoes, basil, garlic
- Basil, garlic, lemon
- Cilantro, lime juice and zest, cumin, garlic, honey (optional)
The 2 following options are nice to have on hand:
ITALIAN TRATTORIA BUTTER
- 1 clove garlic, minced or put through a press
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh basil
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh marjoram or oregano
- 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh rosemary
- 2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
- 1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
Mix into butter and mix until well blended. Excellent on grilled steak and hamburgers, chicken or vegetables.
CAFE PARISIENNE BUTTER
- 1 teaspoon roasted garlic granules
- 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
- 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh tarragon
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
Mix into butter and mix until well blended. Excellent on fish, chicken, beef and vegetables.
These are just a few of the possibilities. As for that squash…how about a nice drizzle of olive oil, a smattering of ground cinnamon and allpsice, salt and pepper and a drizzle of honey. Roast it, enjoy it, savor it…The Goddess wants you to try different flavor combinations…just think, who would think that bacon would go so well with so many sweet combinations (it’s pretty good on our squash here, too)? But, it does. Who would think of putting chiles in brownies? But, they’re delicious and surprising. This is what cooking is all about…the good and interesting surprises!Also, please note that The Unbound Reader and a friend do a monthly podcast. It features their conversation about a specific book they’ve read; this month’s book was “Gone Girl”. So take a look and enjoy their podcast….