We all have our meals, ingredients, cuts and condiments that we gravitate to on a regular basis. But when I cook myself into a lacklustre corner it’s time to shake up the shopping trolley, so to speak, because you’re only as good as the contents of your pantry and fridge. These are the ingredients that keep my meal wheels turning. Most of them are good flavour mates to each other and although some are pricey, they’re good value given their potency and shelf life. I’ve not listed great olive oil, salt, pepper and butter as they’re non-negotiable. So, before the yodeling kicks in, here are A Few Of My Flavourite Things:
TOMATOES – My great love. Sadly, all tomatoes are picked before they’re properly ripe. Never ever ever refrigerate a tomato unless it’s been really mean to you. Give them at least a few days on the shelf to ripen and for some reason, they last longer if placed bottom up. If you have a really beautiful ripe tomato (like a beefheart, which is scarce in SA), peel it with a sharp knife before slicing and serving with a generous amount of excellent olive oil, Maldon salt and a few drops of vinegar. If you’ve bought a really decent mozzarella or burrata, take the time to peel smaller tomatoes by first immersing in hot water, then cold, and removing the peel with the help of a sharp blade. It does taste better. The Italians and Spanish do it, and they are world leaders in Tomatoism.
LEMONS – Juice and zest. Long before Jamie and Nigella and The Barefoot Contessa filled our screens with culinary inspiration, back in the early 90s when I started cooking for myself on a small student budget, I got my kicks out of reinventing traditional South African dishes. This often involved adding lemon juice or zest to ‘brighten’ the flavour profile and cut through the artery-clogging composition of our classics. I am 100% convinced lemon juice helps the body to metabolise fat and despite being a citrus fruit, once fully metabolised the effect is alkaline which raises the pH of the body. And I’ll bet money that the next dieting craze after LCHF will somehow involve pH. Lemon zest mixed with chopped fresh herbs is the basis of a fantastic vinaigrette for salads, seared chicken and fish or roasted vegetables. Much like a good undergarment or cocktail, lemon gives an instant lift. Add olive oil, lemon juice and parsley to fluffy rice for a cool sidekick to your next tomato bredie (South African lamb stew with tomatoes).
EGGS – If I had to choose between veganism or being pushed off a cliff into a pool of jaw-snapping predators, my last bit of animal matter would be an egg – probably boiled for easy eating on the run – right before I take a sharp left at the precipice. Little protein-packed lifesavers, I say. Whether it’s a calzone-sized omelette, quick egg pizza for my son, eier-in-‘n-venstertjie, fried egg with bacon, poached on greens, boiled and tucked under a bechamel blanket – EGGS ROCK. But the egg business is a nasty one so buy the cleanest eggs lain by the happiest chickens… Right before they realise their kids got nicked, again.
CRÈME FRAÎCHE – I’ve always loved bulgarian yoghurt and buttermilk but at the moment my heart belongs to crème fraîche. I live quite far from the nearest supermarket so having a tub of crème fraîche on hand to stir into soups and stews, dollop over spicy sauces or make a creamy, herby omelette with, is essential. Unless I’m baking, I never buy regular cream. Crème fraîche holds up to high heat better but let’s be honest, I buy it solely for the flavour. It’s very similar to sour cream but has a higher fat content and while we’re on this high fat bandwagon, I’m sticking to my crème fraîche like a chive. Ditch the mayo and use crème fraîche, lemon juice and Hot English Mustard for your next coleslaw.
GINGER – There’s no such thing as too much ginger. When a recipe calls for 1cm of grated root, I add 3. I know you’re thinking “Where’s the garlic?” because ginger invokes the holy trinity of Asian flavour bombing. The ginger-garlic-chilli trio. After 3 years in Spain I’m taking a break from garlic. I always have some in my kitchen but I use it sparingly. It used to be the next thing in my pan after onions, to anchor any stew or sauce but no more. And I don’t miss it. Anyhow, enough about garlic. Ginger tastes better in every form and incarnation.
DILL – Aaah dill. I love all herbs madly but not equally. Dill is delicate yet distinct. It smells of spring and late Scandinavian sunsets. Most fish love dill, as do potatoes, rice, fresh cheese, scrambled eggs and many, many salads – coleslaw, potato salad, that basmati & barlotti salad with the dill and caper dressing – plus cucumber, tomato and GIN! I’m just dilly for it.
SMOKED PAPRIKA – The aroma and flavour most evocative of Spain, to me. It’s the secret to chorizo’s success. If I were vegetarian, I’d make liberal use of smoked paprika for that chorizo buzz minus the animal suffering. I use it frequently to add depth to sauces or a homemade rub. I have the sweet (dulce) and hot (picante) Santo Domingo paprika but prefer to use the softer one and add chillis for heat.
CUMIN – If smoked paprika is the sultry siren of the spice world, cumin is her stocky aunt in sensible shoes with a wirey grey hair on the chin. And superpowers. Just a hint of cumin and you’re instantly transported to a souk throbbing with heady scents and exotic rhythms. How did all that kohl get around your eyes? Ask yourself.
CREAM COLOURED PONIES AND CRISP APPLE STRUDELS – Cream coloured ponies are delicious, hot or cold! Number 9 should have been chilli. It slipped from 5th position as I now have to consider a toddler’s palate. It shouldn’t even be in the top 10 but I recently got back into jalapeños, like some rookie.
VINEGAR – The step child of the pantry, frequently under valued and disregarded. One seldom needs more than a dash, so a great vinegar is actually a sensible investment. To totally contradict myself, my current go-to vinegar is a 250ml bottle of Red Wine Vinegar from Woolies that costs about R13.99. Ridiculously cheap but it has a decent balance of flavour and acidity, meaning it’s quite a bit softer than other garden variety Red Wine Vinegars that could eat holes in your countertops. As much as I appreciate this well-mannered little vinegar, I am forever ruined by a gift of elderflower vinegar from Denmark that completely redefined what vinegar could do to a dish. So much flavour beyond just acidity, every single dressing and sauce I made with Meyers Hylde Blomst Eddike was phenomenal. I thought I was the best cook until the bottle ran out. At R500 for a 250ml bottle, my ego may be ruined for life.
While we’re on the topic, could we address Balsamic? It was, after all, our collective introduction to “gourmet” vinegar, wasn’t it? A proper, good Balsamic is a wonderful thing but please, it has a very specific taste and should not accompany every salad, always. There are other options. Try them.
COLMAN’S ORIGINAL HOT ENGLISH MUSTARD POWDER – The wasabi of the North. I try to always have a bottle of the wet mustard in the fridge – every now and then I do run out – but I have not lived without a tin of hot English mustard powder in 25 years. It is just too valuable, adding punch to creamy sauces and vinaigrettes. There are many, many fantastic mustards out there but this is the one that has slipped under my skin.
NOMU FONDS – Fond is fancy for stock. And working people need instant stock. Nomu is an impressive brand and this is their most impressive line. Concentrated liquid stocks that offer incredible flavour, ease of use and shelf life, provided that shelf is in your fridge. So although a fond bottle might look small and expensive, a little goes a long way and you will appreciate its superior flavour. I always have Nomu chicken and lamb fond in my fridge. It’s the next best thing to having a stock pot simmering away for days. These fonds are a game changer.
PARMESAN – Although this is not my favourite cheese, it is the only one I always have in the fridge. Once again, expensive, but so packed with
natural MSG umami, a light sprinkling adds a distinct layer of flavour. Grated over pasta, roasted veg, steamed broccoli (oh yes, a squeeze of lemon, glug of olive oil, sprinkling of salt and Parmesan and you’ll polish the plate in seconds) and inside your salad dressing, not on top. Blend vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and a handful of finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley or basil – then add a tablespoon or two of grated Parmesan. Allow to stand and stir through your next leafy salad or bowl of grilled vegetables.
CURED PORK – If all else fails, bacon. Besides enjoying good old bacon and eggs for supper, a cup of diced bacon adds great flavour to soups, stews and sauces. Budget and availability willing, there are so many cured pork products that pack a great punch. Long before chorizo arrived on our shelves – back in my salad days – I bought Cabanossi or Landjäger sausages to add flavour to sauces and stews. They’re still a cheaper option.
CAPERS – I love pounding away at a caper-infused concoction with a heavy pestle. Capers deserve the culinary world’s Oscar for best supporting actor. A teaspoon full can make a dish sing. The pickled immature flowers of the caper bush, their briney, lemoney, tart flavour may be challenging straight out of the bottle but they elevate so many dishes: a classic puttanesca or ratatouille, creamy sauces, smoked salmon, chicken, salad dressings and of course, anything anchovy…
ANCHOVIES – Sneak a few anchovies into your next lamb casserole. Allow them to disintegrate with the onion to season your meat with deep-penetrating umami. If I ever had to interview a chef for a position, I would request a classic spaghetti alla puttanesca. A quick throw-together of brined scraps and overripe tomatoes that becomes a potent umami bomb in the right hands. Sadly, restaurants so seldom nail it. I’m guilty of messing with this classic by adding ginger and lemon zest (it’s a bit of a problem, okay) but the greatest sacrilege was using a tin of smoked mussels when the anchovies ran out. Same principle, allow the mussels to disintegrate while you sautée the onion and although less savoury than anchovy, you’re left with a very
cheap nice, smokey seafood base to your tomato sauce… If nobody’s watching, add sliced chorizo, garlic, red pepper and cook through. Hoo-hah!
MAPLE SYRUP – I don’t buy ready-made marinades, salad dressings or bastings. Much as I love honey, maple syrup has more complex flavours that suggest smokehouses and barbeques
and banjo music and sticky wings. Great for herby or spicy marinades that need a sweet note. Only real maple syrup will do, and it has become quite pricey. The maple-flavoured syrup tastes horribly artificial. I’m not even going to talk about pine nuts. Completely unaffordable. Squirrels need to keep their hands to themselves.
ALL THINGS ASIAN – I love the speed to flavour ratio of Asian cooking. The fastest, best weeknight food, provided you have the right ingredients on hand. Soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce and coconut milk are a good start, with ginger, chilli, garlic, lemons/limes and fresh herbs for the boost. Hoisin, teriyaki, plum and sweet soy sauce add instant moreishness but at the moment its the crossover lemony, savoury taste of Ponzu that ensures its space on the shelf.
PANKO BREAD CRUMBS – Yes, bread crumbs. This is what having a child will do to you. I now compete with supermarket freezer sections and fast food outlets to make THE best chicken nuggets in the world. At least, my son thinks so.
RED WINE – For the cook. I love freshness in wine as much as in food. There can be no elegance without the right balance of acidity. The same goes for people. g
oogles alkaline foods
Cheers, sweetie darlings!