Tasty Tuesday: the little things that make alllllll the difference

highcountryparent_banner_HCP1703_AppUrgent_getwell

Today’s Tasty Tuesday post is going to be a little different. I was discussing with my son Michael (who is also passionate about cooking good food)  the LITTLE things that make all the difference between good food and GREAT food. As we were chatting, I realized that most of the little things that make such a difference are really easy things to incorporate into a kitchen routine. Here are fifteen things that take the food produced in my kitchen from good to great. I’d love to hear more ideas from you in the comments.

Let’s start with ingredients.

1.  There are a few ingredients that I just don’t skimp on. Buying spices at Big Lots, for example, is a bad idea. The quality of spices that you can get for a dollar at that store is very poor. (Same goes for the big W store, by the way.) I actually don’t recommend buying spices from the grocery store either because you’ll spend WAY too much. My favorite spice supplier is Penzey’s Spices. Some years, that is ALL that my sister-in-law gives me for Christmas and I love it. They have a website and do mail order and their spices are the highest quality. Look for bulk spices at health food stores or ethnic markets. I know the great places to buy spices in bulk in California and if anyone can help me out with suggestions for NC, I would be eternally grateful.

2.  Another ingredient that can make a big difference is flavored vinegar. If your recipe calls for a certain type of vinegar, it’s usually worth buying the right type. Rice wine vinegar really does make a peanut noodle recipe taste better. Usually you don’t use a lot of vinegar at one time so you’ll end up with a variety of vinegars in your pantry. This is a GOOD thing, by the way.

3.  Keeping a “library” of flours also keeps my recipes turning out exactly the way I want them. It’s nothing complex; I use bread flour in my bread and cake flour in my cakes. All-purpose flour WILL work in bread, cookies, and cakes, but using the specific flour will result in spectacular baked goods.

4.  One key ingredient that has really made a difference in my cooking is broth or stock. Using homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock really is a little detail that makes a big difference in flavor AND in healthiness. Homemade stocks don’t contain the sodium that commercially prepared stocks do. It’s not hard to make your own stock and it keeps in the freezer.

38fillingcontainers

5.  Another difference-maker is using the right fat. Cookies made with butter just taste better. Sometimes, though, when I know that my cookies need to keep their shape and texture for several days and my cookie-eating audience is a bunch of kids, using margarine gives me better results. I’m not tempted to eat cookies made with margarine, so that’s a side benefit. Using olive oil as often as possible is a great healthy choice.

6.  There are some ingredients that are practically magic in what they bring to the flavors of a dish. I recently discovered a new favorite, a sauce from Costa Rica called Lizano sauce. The flavors have turned every Mexican dish into something really amazing. You can bet that that is one sauce I will always keep on hand.

7.  One of my favorite “magic” ingredients is a high quality sesame oil. Most Asian dishes taste much better with a strong sesame oil. Watch out for fakes though. At Big Lots, again, you can occasionally find bottles of sesame oil. If you read the ingredient list, you learn that it’s a combination of sesame and canola oils. It’s not worth saving that much. Good sesame oil can be a little pricey but lasts a LONG, long time and goes a long ways.

Then there are the differences because of what you DO with ingredients.

8.  As often as possible, I try to toast or brown my spices. Roasting spices intensifies the flavor of the spices. This makes a huge flavor difference, especially in curries or chilis. The easiest way to toast spices is to put them into a dry skillet and heat until they are almost smoking. You don’t want them to burn, so stir frequently. When I brown my spices for curry, I can almost eliminate salt altogether because the flavors are so intense.

9.  I love the extra flavor that I get when I grill or roast certain vegetables. Grilling or roasting peppers and onions lends a depth of flavor to chilis or fajitas that you are unlikely to get any other way. When the weather is warm and the propane tank is full, I usually grill the veggies. When it’s too cold to keep my grill going, I use the oven instead.

10.  One of my favorite items to grill is whole garlic cloves. I LOVE garlic and use a lot of it. One thing I try to keep on hand is grilled garlic cloves. I buy the 4# container of whole cloves from Sams Club and grill most of it for future use. I toss the cloves in a little olive oil and then put them in my grill basket over a low grill. It takes awhile and makes the entire neighborhood smell heavenly (you might meet neighbors who are just compelled to come over and check out where the divine smells are coming from). Once the cloves are grilled, spread them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them. Once they’re frozen, put them in a ziplock bag that you store in the freezer. Voila! You have the wonderful flavors of grilled garlic ready to use at any time.

img_1655

11.  Here’s a VERY little thing that makes a difference. Fairly recently I’ve started heating my tortillas on a hot skillet or over the burner. This works best on a gas stove, but even an electric burner will do. The tortilla needs to get hot and possibly a very little bit browned. You don’t want it to get crusty or it becomes hard to use.  Zapping a tortilla in the microwave doesn’t do the same thing at all. I’ve been surprised at what a difference this very small step makes in the overall quality of a meal involving tortillas.

torts1

Then there are the tools you use that make a difference.

12.  I’m a huge fan of using baking parchment for baking cookies. Perfect cookies come out of my kitchen because of baking parchment. I re-use my parchment until it crumbles to bits, so it isn’t a terribly expensive habit. If you’ve never used parchment, it’s worth a try.

13.  Using good knives will make cooking much more pleasant for the cook! I love my knives. I’ve been known to bring my own knives with me when I know that I’ll be asked to pitch in with food prep.

14. Using good, heavy pans makes a huge difference. If the pan is heavy, it’s harder to burn things like soups and chilis. This also goes for bakeware. I try to bake with glass or stone bakeware. The food bakes more evenly and, again, rarely burns. If at all possible, use pizza stones when you bake pizza. The crust turns out so much better.

And last, I just recently learned a little trick that I’ll pass on to you.

15. If you use half-and-half in your coffee, try shaking the carton vigorously before you pour it into your cup. The half-and-half pours out frothy and thick and it feels just a little more decadent and coffee-shoppish.

These fifteen things are nothing revolutionary or original; good cooks everywhere have commonplace tricks that just seem to make the food better. What’s your favorite kitchen trick? I’m always looking for new ideas, so come on…share with us!

Barb Kelley.

About Barb


Mom of 4 boys ranging in age from 18-24, Barb cooks and writes her way through life as she explores what comes next in the life of a mom. Visit her at My Sister's Kitchen at http://mysisterskitchenonline.com. You can also find Barb on Facebook at http://facebook.com/sisterskitchen/ or follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/sisters_kitchen


Comments

  1. I prefer brown rice in most things over white…a nutty flavor and great texture. But, it takes twice as long to prepare. My trick is to cook a big pot and throw it in the freezer. You can reheat by nuking in a covered bowl either while frozen or after thawing on the counter. Then, the rest is back in the freezer for the next meal. I do not notice a change in texture or taste even after several times in and out the freezer…a real time saver for a better flavor.

  2. Totally impressed with the frothy half and half!!! That is my treat this morning:)I can’t wait too serve it to my friends who I jokingly call…coffee snobs!!