About this time of year the pots of soup, stews, braises and other comfort foods that get us through winter can get a little -- let's admit it -- boring.
About this time of year the pots of soup, stews, braises and other comfort foods that get us through winter can get a little – let's admit it – boring.
There may not be much new in the market, especially if you try to eat close to home, but there are ways to bring new interest to those same old roots and storage crops -- carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbages, crucifers, onions, hard squashes and their friends -- by making use of some simple techniques that can ramp up the flavor of any dish.
Roast meats and vegetables to add to other dishes or eat as is. Two scientific reactions make browned food more flavorful food: the Maillard reaction and caramelization. In the Maillard reaction, amino acids and sugars go through a chemical change when heated that gives browned foods -- steaks, green beans, cookies -- their distinctive flavor.
Caramelization increases flavor by removing water and causing foods with a high amount of naturally occurring sugar, like carrots and onions, to brown. You can roast most anything -- fennel, broccoli and cauliflower, green beans, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, cubes of winter squash -- then deglaze the pan you cooked them in with water, wine, juice or broth to scrape up the delicious browned bits from the bottom of pan and add it to sauces, soups, stews and braises.
Build a flavor base with some variation of the Holy Trinity. Even if your recipe doesn't call for it, you can create a flavor base for a dish with aromatics that are diced, salted and sautéed in butter, ghee or oil to provide a more flavorful base for soups, sauces, stews, braises and stir-fries.
Different countries use different combinations to add a distinctive flavor to a dish. The best-known combos include the French mirepoix, a combination of onions, carrots and celery; the Spanish sofrito, that makes use of garlic, onion and tomato; and soffritto, an Italian flavor bomb that often adds fennel to the onion-carrot-celery combination. Greeks and Lebanese make use of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, while many Asian cuisines use scallions, ginger and garlic.
Fat carries flavor, so warming or frying whole, fresh or dried spices or herbs -- like cumin, coriander, fennel, curry or peppers -- in a little butter or oil before adding them to a dish also intensifies their more savory side. A sprinkle of salt while they are cooking helps tie it all together.
Boost the umami factor. Umami, often called the fifth taste because is distinct from the usual sweet, sour, salty and bitter suspects, works with glutamate receptors on the tongue to satisfy the need for more deeply savory flavors.
Many different foods can add umami to a dish: soy sauce, miso paste, mushrooms or mushroom powder, olives, seaweed, smoked paprika and chipotles, tomatoes, anchovies or anchovy paste, Worcestershire sauce, bacon, bone broth, cheeses (like Parmesan) or just a few drops of fish sauce can add a layer of flavor that you can experience but not necessarily identify - benefiting soups, stews, braises, sir-fries, sauces, even a basic marinara.
Vegetarian chefs swear by nutritional yeast flakes that can add a similar umamilike flavor to popcorn and pasta, and steamed veggies much more appealing.
Drop a little acid at the end. Adding a little acid to a dish -- a small spoonful of a mild vinegar, cider, freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or wine to a dish after you've turned off the heat and just before you serve it can brighten the flavor of almost every dish.
Try one taste-enhancing technique or all of four them -- you've got nothing to lose but the winter kitchen blahs.
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