I watched my uncle make dinner the other night. A chicken breast, 2 purple carrots from the local growers market and some mash. How I dreaded eating that dreary, dull, boring cobble. I figured his stretch to purple carrots was his way of adding some zest to the meal. That was, until, he produced a sauce from the microwave. The most simple of sauces. Milk, cream and cornflour to thicken. And, the one ingredient that immediately unlocked the inner beauty in his 'boring' meal. Blue cheese. So blue it looked like it'd been holding its breath for the last decade. So pungent that my Grandma almost fainted. So mouldy that I had to double check with him he hadn't left it in my shower for 2 weeks. It was beautiful.
This post is about the unsung heroes, the workers. Everyone knows meat and 3 veg. Everyone talks about spaghetti, chicken parmi, a big juicy steak, a pile of mashed potatoes. These are the stars of the dish, the Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting. The Ben Stiller in Zoolander. These pedastool dwellers are enhanced and lifted by those around them, the Ben Afflecks, Robin Williams', Will Ferrels. No-one wants to watch Di Caprio on screen for 2 hours. But sprinkle a little Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ellen Page on him and he immediately becomes a dashing hero!
So how the hell does this relate to food? I'm going to introduce to you some flavour and texture heroes. Low cost ingredients that will turn your chicken breast in to one worthy of sitting on Pamela Andersons chest, that will turn your bowl of pasta in to a passport to an ancient Sicilian village. The simple addition of these Mark Webber's of the food world will propel your cooking to new heights.
Garlic: A no brainer. You can pick up a kilo of this (unpealed) for a couple of bucks at Paddy's market or good fruit shops. It adds such a strong element to just about any savoury dish you care to make. Try throwing an unpealed head in when you're roasting vegetables, then squeeze the beautiful insides out of their shells as you eat your veggies. Beautiful. Chop finer to release a stronger flavour, or force through a garlic crusher in to your pan to add fragrance to sauteeing onions.
Onions: Simple. Onions make everything better. Whether you buy spanish (red) and thinly slice them to add to sandwiches, salads or chicken, or you go for the brown option to sautee in oil till they soften, they will enhance any meal. The smell of onion sizzling in oil on a barbeque is synonymous with Australia. You lust after it on your sanger sandwich almost more than that first beer on a hot christmas morning. The best way to prep them is with a tablespoon of oil in your pan, warm it up, drop them in for 8 minutes or until browned and soft, then add them to your spaghetti bolognaise, your chicken parmi or any tomato based sauce. Try this: slice in thin rounds, and arrange them in layers with potato in a roasting dish. Drizzle with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 200 degrees. Stunning.
Spices: Spices are the backbone of many asian and middle eastern foods. Ok, scratch that, they're the backbone of all sub continent and middle eastern foods. Australians are at times loathe to use too much spice, generally due to the high salt content and a general unfamiliarity. You may not be well versed in the applications, so I'll give you a few basic spices you NEED in your rack and some recipes. Essential are sweet paprika, ground cumin, ground corriander, garam masala, cardamom pods, saffron, star anise, allspice, tumeric and fenugreek powder. Add garam masala to your lamb meatballs, add some paprika to mashed potatoes, cumin goes great in ANYTHING but pairs especially well with meatballs, use either saffron or tumeric to turn your rice yellow and add a beautiful delicate flavour, and drop 3 whole star anise in to your rice before you cook it. Delish!
Salt and Pepper: There's a reason why a table isn't set up right without these two. They lift every meal up to new heights, they provide that missing ingredient that so often bridges the gap between boring and binge-worthy. Ever eaten chips without salt? Or unsalted peanuts? They suck. Pepper provides a similar outcome, a nice bitey flavour. Add it to everything but especially eggs.
Salt n Pepa will add some sex to your dish
Herbs: I don't know what the hell a super food is, honestly. My definition would incorporate herbs. They are good for you, they taste fantastic and they are cheap. Sold! Oregano, Rosemary, Dill, Mint, and most importantly Corriander. You can buy them dried, and Oregano and Rosemary hold up really well in bottles, but the best is fresh. Fresh corriander and mint will have you salivating. Use corriander in anything, seriously. Any kind of stiry fry or Asian noodle dish needs corriander. Use mint with lamb and fish. Oregano goes brilliantly in mashed potato, and rosemary is stunning when added to darker meats like lamb, kangaroo but especially steak. Pop a bit of dried rosemary in your pan as you're cooking and bask in the brilliance of that aroma.
Cheese: I'm not talking about your block of homebrand light tasty cheese for 7 bucks a kilo. I'm talking about things like parmesan, blue cheese and haloumi. Whilst they mean seem comparatively expensive, they can turn a maccas lunch in to a Matt Moran special. Grill Haloumi and put it on anything, its salty flavour and crunchy texture is pure heaven. Put it on a pizza, top a green salad with it, throw it on top of your bloody weetbix you can't go wrong. Parmesan is another winner. Buy it in those cylinders they sell next to the pasta so it is nice and smelly. Add it to home-made pesto, any kind of bread or dough you're making, and make cheesy toast from sizzler by putting mountains of it on your bread before you grill it.
Olives: These dark cylinders of joy turn sandwiches from chewy hell to bites of delight. Kalmatta pitted are the best, and they aren't cheap. The beauty is their saltiness and deep roasted taste mean you don't need too many to enhance any sanger. They're also brilliant in spag bol, or even throw them in to a nachos cheese sauce for an italian twist.
Brown Sugar: I love baking. We all do. But we can't do it too often lest all our family members will get diabetes. Brown Sugar can be snuck in to more than just your peanut butter cookies though. The rich caramel flavour you can achieve with it is perfect in almost any asian dish. Add it to your next stir fry, or fry up a kilo of onions until they are soft then add a few tablespoons of this mahogany master along with some apple juice to make brilliant onion jam. Or, and this is pure indulgence, fry up some bacon pieces and throw some brown sugar in the pan. Watch as it caramelises and turns in to the most dangerously delicious foods.
Soft Cheeses: It's not so much about the taste, things like buffalo mozarella can be slightly dull. But they are so creamy and smooth it's like eating solid cream. Add them to green salads, or toss buffalo mozarella through a simple penne pesto.
Hard Cheeses: Stilton, Fetta, Haloumi are all worthy of meals within themselves. You can use Haloumi almost as a main dish it's so hardy.
Nuts: Oh god. Nuts. The KINGS of texture addition. What would a pad thai be without peanuts? What would a stuffed chicken breast be without pistachios? Dark chocolate without almonds, pesto without pine nuts! Nuts add that wonderful, pliable crunch to soft dishes. Want a real treat? Toss some chopped peanuts through your next bolognaise sauce, or add pistachios to your ice cream. Delish
Oil: Two aspects to this brilliant tool. Firstly, adding to salads gives that fatty warm feeling in your mouth, they create heaviness without needing to add much. Furthermore, as a cooking tool, oils are brilliant for browning, which creates crunch. Drizzle some on a potato pancake and watch it crisp up. deep fry tofu and turn it in to a cube of heavenly delight!
Carrots, Capsicum, Onions, salad veggies in general: What would one of my world famous sandwiches be without these crunch-tastic ingredients? Capsicum especially is a lovely addition to a salad. It's so fresh and full of water, it's so crunchy yet pliable so your teeth melt through it. Adding onions or carrot to a meal adds crunch, make sure you toss some spanish onion through your next salad or roasted veggies to compliment the softness.
Butter: Where in the world would we be without that beautiful smooth texture butter imparts. I made puff pastry the other day, and the butter positively oozes out of the layers. It is surely the food of the gods.
I'm about to fall asleep, so I will post up some sneaky recipes in the next few days. But try these flavour and texture heroes. They won't break the bank and you don't have to tell your loved one why your meatballs taste so incredible, just hide the garam masala.