Saturday, February 5, 2011

Secret weapons.

I must be getting better.
Although I'm not entirely out of the weeds yet on my back injury, something must be going right, because I've started to cook again.

I made a beef stew this week, and it was delicious, and we ate it over egg noodles, and my husband licked the bowl.

This post is not about that.

It's about secret weapons.
Secret ingredients: that thing which makes a recipe a well-needed tweak, maximizes flavor and gives the dish a certain, I don't know what.

The reason I've been thinking about this is that I made the aforementioned beef stew, and while it WAS good, something was just a bit off. I chalked it up to the fact that I didn't have any red wine handy to de-glaze the pot, nor had anything for liquid other than some boxed chicken stock. Obviously, something was lacking.

Salt? No, there was plenty.
Acid, then? Adding cider vinegar or lemon would have taken it in the wrong direction; it was already too bright. No, no, what it needed was the exact opposite, some depth. But how?
The entire point of me making this pot of stuff was that I really, really didn't want to leave the apartment for things not on hand. Which, sadly included tomato paste, my go-to for depth.


Twitter suggested a number of ingredients that might round out the flavor and add some richness, depth and, well, beefyness. I would say umami, except I think umami is a stupid sounding word and one that's annoyingly overused.

What worked, in the end, to turn my blandish beef stew into something utterly delectable?
one squirt of ketchup. One bay leaf. Three drops of soy sauce. One tiny drop of fish sauce.
The end result tasted like none of these things; it only tasted beefy and incredible.

THATS what I mean by secret weapons.

Now that I know the soy/fish sauce thing, I'm never going back. (thanks to Ron Zimmerman, @herbguy, for that little trick)

I've compiled a few secret weapons, perhaps not so secret now.

Baked goods and other things -
  • Tea masala
  • Cardamom
  • Ginger-brew (essentially ginger sugar)
  • Chinese slab brown sugar
  • espresso powder
  • Sadaf cardamom tea (to replace liquid) or Good Earth herbal tea
  • Bacon grease (savory pastries)
  • Greek yogurt
  • Hawaiian sea salt
  • Yank Sing chili sauce (either the oil off the top or a bit of the mixed in detritus)
  • Sriracha
  • Garam masala
  • Dave's Insanity ghost pepper sauce (never more than a drop!)
  • Cider vinegar
  • Fresh lemon or lime juice
  • leftover white wine
  • Tabasco
  • Tomato paste
  • Black soy sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Parmesan rind
  • ketchup
  • dutch-process cocoa powder
I'm sure there are a ton more - after all, everyone has a favorite secret weapon.

Anyone willing to share some of theirs?


britni said...

I know you've got sugar under the baked goods, but sometimes adding sugar to something savory (like a stir fry or soup) lends balance and depth to the dish.
And yeah, about that fish sauce? ISN'T IT AMAZING!?!?!? I loves it.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

You have outdone yourself with the illustration this time - I'd love to frame a print of this drawing, but then my husband would realize why his food has been tasting so good!

Foodbat said...

Ha! Thanks. They would be a lot better on the whole if I wanted to put any effort in.

Jenni said...

Great post! I've been using fish sauce in all my savory stuff for awhile now--it's especially good in chicken or turkey soup!

What a great reference--some of these secret weapons already live in my arsenal (garam masala, cardamom, espresso powder, fish sauce, vinegars&other acids), and others I'm going to have to keep on hand when a dish needs *just* a little tweaking!

Medifast Coupons said...

I do love all the little secret ingredients that we can substitute with or to just change up a flavor or add a flavor. And some of them I know if the family knew they would be turning up their noses whether it was good or not they wouldn't even try. Us cooks we have to have our secrets :)

Christine Wu said...

Mine would be sesame oil, shrimp paste and sambel oelek. And yes! Fish sauce FTW.

Jean | Delightful Repast said...

We share many of the same secrets! One of my faves is not on your list. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. Couldn't function without it! And sesame oil.