12 ingredients that make food delicious
My goddaughter, Marielle, recently visited from Colorado and asked me a really great question. She wanted to know if there are any particular ingredients I use to make food delicious. I love this question, and have been giving it quite a lot of thought. I have compiled a list of 12 ingredient groups that make food delicious and that I use everyday. I pulled all of the items in the picture above from my fridge and my cupboards. It looks like a lot, but they are categorized into 12 groups. You can start by acquiring an item in each group, and slowly build your deliciousness arsenal.
After compiling my list, I realized 8 out of the 12 ingredients are umami-rich. Which makes sense as these ingredients all contain glutamate, which is the defining element in umami and deliciousness. I also realized that along with flavor, these ingredients provide important nutrition and eating them can enhance your health. Isn't that a win-win???
So after great thought, here is my list:
Salt makes an enormous difference in food flavor. In fact, I would go so far to say salt is the number one flavor enhancer. I use kosher and sea salt for cooking and Maldon salt for finishing dishes. You may have noticed I do not tell you how much salt to use in most of my recipes. I tell you to salt to taste. Salting to taste is essential to making delicious food. Salt is meant to enhance flavor, not to impart a salty flavor. When measuring salt, the type of salt you are measuring makes a huge difference. One teaspoon of regular iodized salt is much greater than 1 teaspoon of kosher salt or flakey sea salt.
When it comes to health, there is a great salt debate. On one side, salt is thought to be the root cause of a lot of cardiovascular disease. On the other side of the argument, salt is viewed as essential to the human diet, and too much salt restriction will harm health. This recent article in the New York Times discusses two of the latest studies, on both sides of the salt debate, both of which were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. So great minds disagree on the health impact of salt. See my post on salt to learn more about the pros and cons of salt on health as well as the fascinating history of salt.
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Citrus juice and citrus zest
I add citrus juice and citrus zest to just about everything. Citrus zest and juice are low-calorie, high impact flavor enhancers, as well as a great way to get more vitamin C. Use citrus zest in marinades, salad dressings, pastas, custards and more. Citrus juice enhances soups, marinades, dressings, desserts and let's not forget cocktails!
There are three tools that help me make the most out of citrus: a citrus press, a zester and a fine microplane grater. I use the press to add fresh juice to my food, and to my cocktails! I use the zester when I want long strands of visible zest and the microplane when I want fine bits of zest. Both the zester and the microplane are particularly effective in making zest with no bitter pith. If I had to choose, I would purchase the press and the microplane first.
Herbs & spices
My favorites herbs include mint, basil, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano, chervil, tarragon, cumin, dill, bay leaves and za'atar, which is actually a blend of herbs and seeds. Smoked Spanish paprika, ginger, sumac, turmeric, vanilla bean, cinnamon, nutmeg are some of my go-to spices. Herbs and spices not only add flavor, but many have profound health benefits.
Alliums - onions & garlic
Yellow onions, white onions, red onions, sweet onions, shallots, chives and leeks all add great flavor to food. The interesting thing about onions is they change so much when they are cooked. Raw onions are sharp, strong, astringent and crunchy. Cook them and they become sweet, mellow and even caramel-like. It is hard to believe raw onions and cooked onions are both onions!
Garlic, also an allium, behaves a lot like onions in that raw garlic is pungent, sharp and gives off a burn. Sauté it or roast garlic and you have a mellow, sweet and savory treat.
Garlic and onions have the power to add enormous flavor to food, but eating these alliums also provides numerous health benefits. Onion enhances immunity, regulates blood sugar, reduces inflammation, encourages the production of HDL (good cholesterol) and has anti-cancer properties. Garlic is no slouch either. Garlic provides numerous cardiovascular benefits, protects against cancer, is anti-viral and anti-bacterial and may play a role in regulating fat cells.
To get the full health benefits of onions and garlic, please skip buying pre-cut onions and garlic. Seriously, you will not get the flavor, nor the health benefits from these pre-cut products. All produce degrades after it has been cut, plus many of these pre-cut products have additives that do you no good. To get the most benefit from eating garlic, allow garlic to rest 5 - 10 minutes after it is chopped or pressed before you cook with it. Once garlic's cell walls are broken down, allyl sulfide is produced which is thought to provide potent anti-cancer benefits.
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Eggs do so many great things for food. They act as binders and volumizers and allow us to make incredible things like meringue and soufflés. Just adding a poached or fried egg to a salad, pasta or hash makes a good dish into a delectably satisfying dish.
The nutritional information on eggs is changing. Once thought to be hugely contributory to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, eggs are now back in our good graces. Can you imagine all those years when we thought it was healthy to eat egg white omelettes? We were actually throwing out the best, most nutritious part of the egg!
Cheese is delicious by itself, but also enhances everything from soup, to salads, to sandwiches, to burgers, to gratins, and even makes the crusts of some roasts all the better. And there are so many phenomenal cheeses to be eaten. Cheese is incredible, and from my point of view should be eaten frequently.
Touring a parmigiano reggiano cheese factory in Italy with my mom & sisters
My favorite cheese to cook with is definitely Parmigianno Reggiano. It add so much umami and deliciousness to everything it touches. Other favorite cheeses include: Brillat Savarin, incredibly delicious and decadent; Torta del Casar, a spoonable Spanish cheese that is hard to find, but if you do buy a whole wheel; Delice de Bourgogne, which is particularly delicious with a little lemon marmalade; aged gouda, there are so many but the hunt is so much fun; and the many many great blue cheeses of the world, from English Stilton, to French Roquefort, to Spanish Valdeón, to Italian Gorgonzola and Australian Roaring Forties.
Yep, there is a lot of truth to the adage "everything is better with bacon." This list would not be complete without bacon. A crumble here and a crumble there always takes a dish up a notch. Use a bit of bacon to garnish soups and salads and add to sandwiches and pasta. I am a particular fan of American thick-cut bacon, but I love bacon's Italian cousins pancetta and prosciutto as well as Spain's Serrano ham.
No, I am not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince you that bacon is healthy. Everything in moderation.
Talk about super healthy ways to add flavor, I am not sure the roasted tomato can be beat. Even so-so tomatoes turn into something magical when you roast them. I roast a batch of roma tomatoes regularly and store them in the fridge. I serve them as an accompaniment to meat and chicken, and throw them into salads, soups, pasta and sandwiches. See my posts for a slow-roasting method and a quick-roasting method.
This includes Thai fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Both are made from sardines and give foods an umami pop. In Thai cooking fish sauce is often mixed with lime juice, sugar and chilis, for a complex, balanced, delicious flavor profile. I like Three Crab Fish Sauce and Red Boat Fish Sauce, but always pick up something new when I shop at Asian markets.
Mustard & vinegar
I'm kind of cheating by combining these two ingredients into one, but vinegar is an ingredient in mustard, so I can rationalize putting these two together. Mustard enhances salad dressings and sandwiches, but it can be used to enhance a lot of other dishes, like Wine-poached salmon with mustard and brown sugar glaze.
Vinegar is a fermented product that adds zip and brightness to food. Some vinegars, like balsamic vinegar, are rich in umami. There are many health benefits attributed to vinegar, including: vinegar enhances the body's ability to absorb essential minerals, particularly calcium; vinegar helps control blood sugar levels and manage type 2 diabetes; and vinegar is a low-calorie way to add flavor to your diet.
Peppers & chilies
Ground, crushed, dried or fresh peppers and chilies go a long way to give our food zip, interest and heat. I keep a bottle of crushed red pepper flakes handy and add them to just about everything. Then there are the great Asian chili pastes. I am particularly fond of Sambal Oelek, brought to us by the manufacturers of Sriracha and aleppo pepper, a Turkish crushed chili pepper with a flavor similar to ancho chili.
Fat enhances the flavor of food and makes food satisfying. Olive oil is the number one fat I use for cooking and drizzling, but I also frequently use butter, walnut oil, sesame seed oil, and coconut oil. Oils high in Omega-3's enhance nutrition. I minimize my use of fats high in Omega-6's, as Americans get way too many of these. I am a big fan of butter from pastured cows. You can always find a bar of unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter in my fridge.
I also use avocado, which is high in fat, to add saity to foods. I even use avocado to dress my Avocado massaged kale salad.