Flavor

Sometimes it feels like dinner is stuck in a rut. The flavors in my old favorite dishes begin to seem flabby and need some amping up. That’s when I start poring over the posts on my favorite food blogs and (much to the chagrin of the unsuspecting passengers in my car) making unscheduled detours to the nearest new specialty grocer, just looking for a few things to add a little vim and vigor to our family meals. Here are some of my newest finds.

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Harissa

The “national condiment of Tunisia” can easily go head-to-head with ketchup. Actually, there are many different versions of this North African paste of chile peppers, olive oil and spices. Right now, I’m enjoying the Mina brand, which is apparently a Moroccan variation. Mina harissa comes in red or green, and you can buy the red in a spicy traditional or mild version. Spicy is always preferred over mild in my household, but the mild version of Mina’s red harissa is still very flavorful.

Harissa can be used as a rub for grilled meats or incorporated into sauces and stews. Add it to your homemade bbq sauce for a little more interest and character. I like it straight out of the jar as a dipping sauce for falafel or in place of Mexican salsa and dips for veggies, pita bread or tortilla chips. Harissa is widely available in most supermarkets. You can find it on the “International” aisle at H-E-B.


Lemonaise

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I may be the last person in the world to discover the joys of The Ojai Cook’s Lemonaise. It’s a new favorite for me, and I’m glad to have recently stumbled upon it. I’ve used it as a substitute for regular mayonnaise in several slaw recipes to very positive reviews. I love it in a traditional tuna salad because it adds a little burst of extra personality.

Lemonaise comes in several flavored versions, though I haven’t tried them. Right now, I am sticking with the remarkably good “light” version, which shaves off a substantial amount of fat and carbs while maintaining the integrity of that creamy, lemony flavor. So far, I have only found Lemonaise at Whole Foods Market, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this great stuff is making its way onto the shelves of your neighborhood mega grocer.


Fleur de Sel 

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Heavens, what? You’re not using fleur de sel to “finish” your dishes? Well, though the name seems a little high falutin’, it’s actually pretty wonderful stuff. The best French fleur de sel is hand scraped from the top layer of salt ponds off the Brittany coast, primarily around the town of Guerande. Handscraped! This is why jars such as the two shown above, available at your local supermarket, are about $14 bucks a pop.

So is paying for fancy salt really worth it? Why not just stick to the big box of iodized stuff with the girl in the raincoat on the front? You be the judge. Taste test fleur de sel up against everyday refined table salt. To me, the table salt has a chemical after taste, while the fleur de del, because of its texture and mineral content, has a more vivid, complex flavor.

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I like to add a bit of fleur de sel to salad and vegetable dishes just before serving. And frankly, I don’t even want to eat chocolate anymore unless I have crowned each square with a few sprinkles before microwaving on full power for about 20-25 seconds. For this reason alone, you’re going to want to make sure fleur de sel is always at hand. (Available at most supermarkets and online through Amazon.com.)


Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp Paste

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Its nickname is “Angry Lady” chili, due to the photo on the label, and it’s got everything going for it. Flavorful oil-crisped pepper flakes, complex and addictive heat, crunchy bits of soy nuts–I ate half of the jar the day I bought it. (Sriracha, I’m sorry, we’re breaking up for now.)

Besides eating it straight from the jar (not for the faint of heart or those with timid tastebuds), here is one of my favorite ways to use Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp: Steam a good quality batch of frozen Asian dumplings. (Use a traditional steamer or adapt your rice steamer by using the steamer insert, lined with a few cabbage leaves.) Meanwhile, lightly stir-fry a medium bunch of choy sum, Chinese broccoli or other Asian leafy green or cabbage. Serve your dumplings and greens together, along with a heaping spoonful of the chili paste on top. You’re welcome. (Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp is available at Asian markets and through Amazon.com. I purchased mine through the new Yun Loy Asian Market on Sawdust Road, just outside The Woodlands, Texas.)


Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette

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I love traditional French vinaigrette and its variations, those dressings that let the salad greens “shine through” without getting in the way. I remember years ago taking a cooking class in which we learned how to put all the dressing ingredients together, then add the olive oil. You know, you have to pour the oil slowly and steadily with one hand, and with the other you must whisk constantly at super speed in order to create an emulsion. Invariably, my whisking arm starts to ache, the oil starts pouring out too fast, and sometimes I end up whisking the bowl right across the kitchen island and onto the floor. The alternative is to pull out the blender. But I dread pulling it apart and cleaning it once I’m done.

Today, I’m recommending Trader Joe’s Champagne Vinaigrette, available in original and “light.” It’s very much like the classic whisked together Dijon/olive oil/garlic/champagne vinegar dressing that is a basic of French cooking, but without you beating the heck out of yourself, the bowl and the whisk. Just tell everybody you made it yourself, because it tastes like you did.


Piment d’Espelette 

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I know, you’ve got chile powders coming out of your ears. Cayenne, ancho, chipotle, guajillo, smoked paprika, Hungarian paprika…but you’re going to want this one too. Espelette is a type of chili pepper grown in the northern Basque region of France. Do a little hunting, and I’m sure you can find piment d’Espelette chili powder at a store in your area. I bought mine through Amazon at a somewhat pricey $8.99 for a small jar. But when I popped the seal, opened the jar and smelled the fresh pepper aroma, I was glad I had made the purchase. Use it along with salt and pepper for a simple, flavorful kick of mildish heat before pan sautéing fish or grilling chicken and pork. All in all, a versatile chili powder that adds interest without being too overbearing.


Agave Nectar

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Sometimes enhancing the flavor in a recipe means subtracting something. For me, this applies to the use of honey in fresh food recipes. When making smoothies, fruit dressings, etc., the unmistakeable taste of honey (and some other sweeteners) draws attention to itself and can get in the way of the fruit flavors. That’s where light agave nectar steps in. Light agave nectar (or syrup) is very sweet, so a little goes a long way. More importantly, it has a neutral taste, so it does night interfere with the delicate flavors of fresh fruits.

Remember when we thought using powdered sugar or frozen limeade mix was the secret to making a really good Margarita? Forget those sugar-filled days. Try making your next one with fresh lime juice, your tequila of choice, agave nectar and ice. It’s so good that now you can find agave nectar margarita mix on the shelf at Whole Foods and other stores. But you really don’t need a mix, because it’s so easy. Just make sure that if you want yours frozen you have a worthy blender.


 Pumpkin Seed Oil

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Do you watch Chuck’s Eat the Street on The Cooking Channel? Have you seen the Houston Goes Global episode? Canadian Chef Chuck Hughes visits the kitchen of Osteria Mazzantini, one of my favorite new restaurants in Houston. Chef John Sheely takes Chuck into the kitchen to talk about simple dishes and great flavor. Sheely prepares a pan-seared red snapper with acorn squash and savoy cabbage, topped with with fresh pea shoots and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil.

I went out the very next day to buy pumpkin seed oil, and used a few dashes, blended with olive oil, on a salad of sweet, mild mache greens (also known as corn lettuce or lamb’s lettuce), buckwheat sprouts, crumbled goat cheese, slivered sweet onion and pistachios. That and a little salt and pepper, nothing more. The rich toasty flavor of the oil clung well to the greens, unified all the ingredients and elevated the whole salad to something special. (Available widely through most supermarkets.)


Biscoff 

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I discovered Biscoff through the very readable and entertaining Noble Pig Blog. At first I was excited, but now I’m not so sure! Biscoff looks like peanut butter but it’s made of butter cookies. BUTTER COOKIES! See if you can eat a spoonful of spreadable Belgian cookies and still replace the lid before consuming half the jar. (I couldn’t.)

The Internet is spilling over with Biscoff fanatics who’re finding ways to incorporate this addictive spread into every recipe imaginable: brownies, pies, milkshakes, macarons. There is even a recipe out there for Biscoff grilled cheese sandwiches! But right now my favorite way to eat Biscoff is straight from the jar with the aid of a delivery device such as apples, celery or bread sticks. Really, I would rather just use a spoon if I could get around the “no double dipping” rule that is strictly enforced by my daughter.

Biscoff comes in smooth or crunchy. I prefer the crunchy, because it’s like eating raw cookie dough mixed with cookie crumbs, which has always been a dream of mine. I’m even thinking about ordering up a size in my next pair of pants. Forget about the Hershey’s syrup. Push the Nutella to the back of the pantry. Because you’ll be buying several jars. You’ve been warned… (Available on the peanut butter aisle at many supermarkets.)


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