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Okay, I will confess that I am a sauce and marinade junkie! While others get their jollies perusing the cookie or candy aisle in the supermarket, I have trouble pulling myself away from all those exotic and enticing glass bottles full of liquid promise. To me, there are certain small additions that can turn an OK meal into a memorable one. Although I like to buy and try new ready-made concoctions, with the right basic ingredients you can make your own creation for any recipe.
You will often see me refer to myself as the Lazy Chef. This is largely because a) I don’t like to re-invent the wheel, and b) I prefer to take the shortest distance between any two given points. I realize that the French are revered the world over for their culinary prowess where the British are not. However, I don’t pretend to be a Cordon Bleu afficionado. I like to prepare quick, easy and relatively nutritious meals without too much fuss and muss.
Usually, when I visit our daughter Christa in France, I prepare at least one complete meal for the family. This normally involves a trip to the local supermarket to pick up what I might need. Checking out the store shelves, I am constantly amazed how many of the products that I take for granted and use on a regular basis at home in Canada, are simply not available. When I have enquired as to why this might be, I have been told that it is because the French like to do everything from scratch rather than use prepared products, especially when it comes to sauces, condiments, dressings and marinades.
Well, that is all and good for them, but I will continue to save myself time and effort by using the ten staple products listed below as the basis for much of my own culinary efforts. I should mention that I always manage to still pull a rabbit out of the hat in France by substituting and mixing what I am able to find for what I would normally use back here in Canada. This adapting and substitution is at the heart of the recipe book: The Un-Cookbook, which I hope to have completed (2nd Edition) shortly. Watch this space for more news as it becomes available!
Since I consider all of these ingredients essential in their own way, I will not number or rank them.
Bovril: Concentrated Bouillon (Beef & Chicken): I grew up with Bovril in the UK, and it was considered good for you. Yes, I know they contain MSG but it is really hard to find a reasonably priced bouillon concentrate that does not. Besides, although I use them in my cooking constantly, I do so sparingly and one bottle will usually last us 12 months or more. When a recipe calls for any type of stock, we will often simply add the requisite amount of liquid to this base.
Minced Garlic: There really are not too many vampires here in Ottawa, so this much vaunted property of garlic is not the major reason that we add it to many of our dishes. We simply love the taste. In my early years of cooking, I principally used powdered. I suppose it would be best of all to crush fresh cloves as needed, but remember that I am still the Lazy Chef and minced garlic from the jar suits me just fine!
Sweet chili sauce: This ingredient has only been added to our cooking arsenal in relatively recent times. This is not to be confused with regular chili sauce which will appear below. This chili sauce is really based on chilies unlike its aforementioned namesake which contains no actual chili peppers at all. As a result, this one lends a considerably more piquant aspect to a dish into which it is added. Since sugar is the first ingredient and chili the second (other than water), you can imagine that sweet and hot is the resulting quality this sauce imparts. Used sparingly in the right places (stir-fries for example) it is a boon!
Balsamic Vinegar: In my early years, I knew vinegar only as a condiment for fish and chips. I also only knew of two varieties: white and malt. Now I know better. If I could only have one vinegar in my cupboard, it would definitely be balsamic. Both the color and the slight sweetness make it an ideal addition to salads, sauces and marinades. Yes, it costs a little more, but it is easily worth the extra.
Green Seasoning: I was introduced to the concept of green seasoning about twenty years ago by our good Barbadian friend Norma who used it in almost everything she made and gave it a very distinctive flavour. She used to make it herself and it was only a few years ago that she gave us the recipe. Then just as she stopped producing it herself, we discovered some commercial variants of it at our local Caribbean store: Kool Runnings, (see link in left column). We have come to favour the Trinidad style pictured here. If I could only have a single seasoning, this would likely be the one I would choose. A word of warning though, the Scotch Bonnet peppers give it a bit of a hidden kick!
Chili Sauce: This is the one that most of us will recognise as the REAL deal, even though the ingredients reveal that there is not a speck of chili inside. In reality, it is more than ninety percent ketchup and therefore mostly tomatoes. However, I find that it gives a much more interesting flavour than plain ketchup. When added to sauces or marinades in moderation it adds a touch of spicy sweetness. One of my favourite uses is to mix it with mango chutney beside a hot Jamaican goat patty (also available at Kool Runnings)!
Olive Oil: Even though my childhood was filled with all kinds of fried food, it has fallen completely out of favour in our green, calorie-conscious society. Most of today’s children will not get to sample the delights of fried bread fried to a crispy golden brown in lashings of beef drippings. Recently, we tossed our own deep-fryer to the curb due to total lack of use. Rather than frying food, I tend to use a non-stick griddle lightly brushed with either butter or olive oil. However, bread, salads, dressings and marinades do call for some type of oil and pure virgin olive oil is always our number one choice.
Minced Ginger:Just as minced garlic has recently replaced its powdered counterpart in our cooking, so ground ginger has largely given way to the minced variety pictured here. In my childhood, ginger was pretty much restricted to cakes and cookies in English cuisine. Nowadays, ginger is a staple in many different types of cooking but more especially in oriental and Asian dishes. If you are not a fan of the many types of pepper, you might consider adding ginger to spice up your cooking.
Soy Sauce:For most of us, talk of soy sauce brings to mind those ubiquitous, environmentally- unfriendly sachets that accompany Chinese take-out. We use this ingredient in many more places: soups, gravies, sauces and marinades etc. We would caution, however, that soy sauce contains significant amounts of salt, a quality that it shares with Bovril above. So, use it sparingly and don’t add extra salt, especially if you use it along with Bovril. It often pays to be aware of the nutritional information labels on the products you use in your food preparation.
A Touch of Sweetness: As a child, raw granulated sugar was a large part of our diet. We would put it on cereal, eat on bread thickly slathered with butter and much, much more. Today, it is a definite no-no! So what are we supposed to do when the recipe and the palette calls for a touch of sweetness. Here are our personal preferred candidates. Both molasses and honey offer benefits not available from sugar alone, not least of which are flavour and colour. Although molasses is our personal favourite, there are times when both its colour and strong flavour make it unsuitable for certain recipes. That is why we added honey here as well.
So, there you have it: our personal Top Ten list of indispensable flavour enhancers!
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