Food: Tips To Pimp Yo’ Dinner
As with most things in life, simple is better when it comes to food. Conversely, with food being such a huge part of life and said grub dictating so much of your quality of life, health and energy, it’s something we should think about, look for variety in and seek pleasure from. And so in the spirit of simplicity, but also variety, nutrition and taste, we offer a list of suggestions to tweak your dinner so that even if the rest of your day has been mundane, you can round it off with something tasty. The list may come across as basic, but it is distinctly tailored to avoid the epidemic of long ingredient lists and esoteric ingredients that are seemingly always lingering in the larder of a TV set, but not necessarily in our own homes.
TV cooks and chefs will advocate the use of herbs, have their own homegrown selection and use them in abundance. Yes, they make a difference but it’s not always feasible to have herbs on hand – the price, the selection, the waste where a pack is not used – are all turn offs. As a start, turn to the bay leaf. Good fresh or dried, put them in with anything you are giving the traditional over-boiling to, a sauce of any sort, or the bottom of a roasting tray. Adding a somehow savoury but floral taste, the flavour quota is upped immediately. All that’s required of you is that you fish the leaf out before serving so that no one chokes on it.
2. Go nuts
Nuts are the best application of a garnish. Maybe moreso for special occasions, as nuts can be priced steeply if you are buying in a major supermarket. Spoon them through roast or boiled veg – think almonds with carrots or hazelnuts with mushrooms and pasta. The crunchiness will work surprisingly well in any sauce atop a piece of chicken. Try a chopped herb (parsley), pine nuts and lemon zest as a topper for mashed sweet potatoes.
3. Sesame Oil
A bottle sat somewhere near the cooker, with a long shelf-life, can in small quantities add a flavour fix to anything. Sesame oil with soy is your stir-fry sauce. Through rice (with sesame seeds if you’re feeling fancy) you’ve immediately put a twist on your starch. A nutty flavour for your sweetcorn, chickpeas or any green, like spinach or bok choi.
Just as a herb garden can’t always be initiated, and most definitely not sustained, a spice rack can also be a transformation too much for a work-in-progress cook. Dried spices may be in date but will have lost their punch and toasting and grinding spices is all well and good but just isn’t a runner on a Tuesday. And so, it’s best to choose one to build from, and here we propose nutmeg. Grated in small quantities on your mashed potatoes, again the ordinary is made interesting. Nutmeg works so well with any green leafy veg – cabbage, kale, spinach. It also works brilliantly wherever there is a milk- or cream-based sauce – for your lasagne, piece of fish or pie. Whether you’ve made it yourself or you’re heating a jarred sauce (the shame!) nutmeg will give it that extra complex but spiced dimension of taste.
Onions are the base ingredient in so many meals, but they make your eyes water, don’t often work as a raw ingredient and are no fun to peel and dice. The spring onion is where you go to for an oniony ingredient to start a meal. You could even snip them with a scissors (a cooking scissors please, not one used to cut your nails) and get that alium flavour base, pronto. Softened spring onions put through peas add another dimension to your vegetable side. Similarly, chives as an afterthought can be that bit of freshness to top a meal, put through mash or snipped through rice. Think about it – rice with chives and sesame oil. Entirely manageable but a face-lift to your starch. The basics can be tweaked and given an accent without much effort. While we are on onions – put them sliced thickly and unpeeled on the bottom of your roasting tray – this provides a trivet for your joint of meat, which prevents it braising and gives a base for the best gravy. Ever.
Put it everywhere (within reason, people). This, with oil, is your marinade. TV cooks plan ahead and marinade at length to make us feel unaccomplished at length. With nothing more than lemon juice, oil, and black pepper on your chicken, mushroom caps or chops while you’re waiting for them to come to room temperature, you can get on with screaming at someone or reviewing Ramp.ie when you’re home from work. Squeeze a lemon into the cooling pan after having fried a steak for a savoury, lemony sauce. Barbecue a half lemon, cut-side-down, as a carmelised lemony sauce for anything coming off the charcoal.
7. Look Out! Iceberg!
A simple, one-use suggestion here but one I am evangelical about: put sliced iceberg lettuce through your stir-fry at the very last minute before it goes onto the plate. There may be cabbage in there already but this will be someway cooked – the iceberg should only get involved last minute and the crunchy, refreshing lift to the veg and/or meat is excellent.
Cream has not made it onto the list here – we’re all terrified of it these days for fear of getting gout and it’s not necessarily always on standby. Butter, on the other hand, might surely be knocking around the place. Mixed with flavouring, rolled into a log in a piece of cling film and sliced and put on top of whatever you have just grilled, baked or boiled, it will melt beautifully and give your dish a new tasty quality. Look to the list above for inspiration flavour-wise and of course think of your own – chive and lemon butter for veg or a lamb chop, butter with spring onions and garlic to put on a baguette and sit in the oven for 15 minutes for the best garlic bread, or my favourite, butter with orange and coriander for a pork chop.
Now – see the comments box below? Gimme your suggestions!