Thursday, January 29, 2009

Secret Ingredients

Ok so they're not exactly secret, but I wanted to share some of the more unusual ingredients that I put in pretty much everything. The reason they might be called secret is that I often don't use them in amounts where you can discern their individual flavors, but they all add a depth and complexity to dishes that would be missing without them. Which is not to say I don't use these ingredients as pronounced flavors at times - I most certainly do - but more often I will use just a little but in places where they may not be expected. So, here are a few of these crucial ingredients:

  • Chipotle
No one saw that one coming right? Especially not after my last post... A little chipotle adds mainly two things: spiciness and smokiness. This can be great as a primary flavor (in, say, scrambled eggs, or a chili), but its utility extends beyond that. I add small quantities to pretty much everything: lentil soups, tomato sauces, frittatas, whatever. Lately I've just been incorporating it into my sofrito bases: most dishes I make at this time of year will start with onion and carrot being slowly cooked in some oil; try adding a little chipotle to the mix. The stuff I keep around is the type that is canned with adobo sauce. This summer I plan on smoking my own jalapenos and seeing how that goes.

  • Vinegar: sherry and cider
Acidity is a component of food that I believe people don't give enough thought to. Acidity is what gives food that brightness, that bite, that liveliness. And unless you're cooking with citrus or wine, there's probably not enough of it in your food. That's why I add a little vinegar to most things. My two favorites are sherry and cider, mostly for their versatility. I have no problem with balsamic, but because its flavor can easily overwhelm I tend to reserve it for very specific uses.

  • Soy sauce
Another element of food that isn't emphasized enough is umami. If you're cooking with a lot of meat or, say, seaweed, you don't really have to think about this too much. But if like me you cook mostly vegetarian, then the quest for umaminess is all important. Umami is that meaty, deep savory flavor that makes a dish so satisfying. Soy sauce will help you bring the umami. Of course you don't want everything to taste like soy sauce, but in small doses you won't overwhelm and the soy sauce will simply act as an umami giver. (Umami side note: fino sherry has also been scientifically proven to enhance the umami flavors of food, which is why it's so good with pretty much everything. Drink more fino!)

In pretty much any dish, be it a pasta sauce or a vegetable sauce, a little dash of any (or all!) of the above can add serious dimension to a dish.

There are a number of other ingredients that could be part of this list, like smoked paprika (you do know about pimenton, right?), but the ones above are the ones I'm currently infatuated with.

What are your secret ingredients you add to everything?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chipotle and Red Wine

You know how there are some flavor combinations that are just transcendent, where certain flavors just feel like they were made for each other? Many are well-known, like fish and lemon, or wild mushrooms and cream, or bacon and anything. Sometimes, though, you hit on some less obvious ones.

The other day I was thinking about this sauce my mom likes to make with port and ancho chiles. It's a delightful and surprising combination of flavors, sweet, bitter, and spicy. It's the kind of sauce that you remember, vividly, for a long time. I was thinking about this sauce and contemplating making something like it, but port and ancho chiles are two things I don't usually have around. The closest things I had were two items that are staples in our kitchen: chipotle peppers and red wine. So I decided to give it a whirl, and, my, what a revelation...

My mom serves her sauce over creamy polenta, so I followed her lead on that one. I don't actually know how she makes the sauce though, so I made it up (full recipe below). I put some red wine and some stock in a sauce pot with a little garlic and tomato paste and let it bubble until it reduced and the flavors concentrated. Meanwhile I slowly cooked an onion and a carrot in a little butter until they caramelized. I then added some chipotle, then the wine mixture, then some white beans for bulk, and let it all hang out for a while. The results were glorious: the earthiness and spice from the chipotle, the tannins and fruit from the wine, a slight sweetness from the caramelized onion.

Fast forward a few days: I had intended to make a boeuf bourgignon for Sunday dinner but, inspired, I tried a different route. I swapped pork shoulder for the beef, and slow cooked it in - you guessed it - red wine and chipotle for 5 hours. It was like boeuf bourgignon took a Mexican vacation; I dubbed it carnitas bourgignon. Now that I think of it, a little cilantro would be a great addition...

White Beans in Chipotle and Red Wine Sauce

-In a small saucepot, heat 1 1/2 cup stock and 1 1/2 cup red wine with 2 cloves garlic and 2 tbsp. tomato paste.
-Let simmer for 20 minutes or so.

-Meanwhile, caramelize 1 minced onion and 1 minced carrot over low heat in a little butter.
-After about 20 minutes, add 1 chopped chipotle pepper (I use the ones canned in adobo).
-After 5 minutes, add the wine and stock mixture and 2 cups cooked white beans.
-Simmer it all together for 15-20 mins, until slightly thick and all the flavors are well-acquainted.

-Serve over creamy polenta.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Hello reader(s),
Sorry it has been a while since my last post. I am making some changes to the blog. Alexander has been granted full admin status and will be adding more content and influencing the direction of the blog. Hopefully with 2 of us we can publish more often and keep this thing a little more current. It has been a cold winter here in North Carolina and our attempts at winter gardening failed. Recently we have been focusing on food chemistry experiments, making our own lemoncello, gin, mustard and cheese. We will try to get recipes and pictures up soon as well as more actual food recipes.

Guinness Mustard

Ok, so we got this recipe out of the January Saveur (cheating, I know) but it is easy and excellent and we want to share it.
12 ounces of Guiness Stout (we used a draft can)
1 1/2 cup brown mustard seeds
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. kosher salt (we used sea salt)
1 tsp. Freshly ground Black Pepper
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice

Combine ingredients in nonreactive mixing bowl (we used pyrex) cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 1-2 days so that mustard seeds soften and the flavors meld. Transfer mixture into a food processor (We don't have one of those so we used a blender). And blend, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Do this for about 3 minutes until the seeds are coarsely ground and the mixture thickens. Transfer into a jar and refrigerate over night and use immediately or refrigerate for up to 6 months.

Note: You probably won't want to eat this the next day as it is VERY intense when it is fresh. I recommend waiting a couple of days before you eat it. It is awesome then though.