Ever notice how some cooks’ food just tastes spectacular and you can’t figure out what the trick is? There shouldn’t be any mystery because good cooks cheat. They have little secrets that make their food taste great or at least entice you to believe it is great. These tricks and secrets are not like the magician’s because cooks just cook and they want everyone to cook well.
The aroma of sizzling onions wafting through the house will elicit a “smells good” from anyone inside. There’s nothing quite as enticing as the smells of onions frying. In a sense, there is something secret in those frying onions. They’re so simple, yet offer lots of bang for the buck because the pleasing aroma predisposes the diner to think the meal they accompany is delicious. There are many little cooking secrets that make food so appetizing through such utterly simple means.
Don’t overlook these simple secrets
Secrets come in two forms: techniques and ingredients. Consider those frying onions as something like a technique. If cooks keep those onions cooking in the pan, after some time they will begin to caramelize, meaning the carbohydrates start to break down into sugars. From a culinary point of view it’s best to cook the onions slowly so that you can avoid burning. What do you do with them? My favorite is the dish of thinly sliced onions sautéed slowly in olive oil and tossed with fettuccine that I had in Egypt years ago.
Another great secret of cooking is water. It’s just amazing what you can do with water to transform certain foods into something glorious. The first method is adding water to a dried-out sauce, for instance. Or you can add it to leftovers to reconstitute the sauce until it tastes nearly identical to what you made originally. Water is also used to de-glaze a pan crusted with bits of previously fried food. Water poured into the hot pan magically lifts all the golden crust forming the basis to a sauce. A pan will de-glaze almost instantly, which even though I’ve done it a thousand times, still amazes me.
But you don’t need a recipe to make something magnificent. Try this: heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until very hot then place a slice of boneless turkey breast down and cook on both sides until done turning only once. (Time will depend on how thick it’s cut). Remove the meat and add a quarter-cup of water to de-glaze the pan and spoon this sauce over the meat and season with salt and pepper.
Three compound butter favorites
The most famous cheating ingredient is butter. There’s no better way to instantly boost the flavor of a dish than to use butter. In a sense classic French cuisine is cheating because butter is so liberally used. Anything will taste great with enough butter in it. But another little trick for boosting flavor of simple dishes is with compound butters. These are butters made with a flavoring agent. My three favorite ones are lobster tomalley butter, maitre d’hotel butter and hazelnut butter. The first is made by processing the tomalley and coral from a lobster with the butter. The second is made by processing together finely chopped parsley, lemon juice, and salt. The third is made by grinding blanched hazelnuts until fine, then processing them with butter and salt and finely crushing the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or food mill.
Related to butter is another wonderful cheating ingredient, also famous in classic French cuisine — cream. Just a tablespoon or two of cream can enrich a dish and add a velvety texture or an enriched taste. There are thousands of other tricks available to a cook, but the next time you’re scratching your head over your cooking, remember some of these “cheats,” such as merely more salt.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Sauce made from de-glazing. Credit: Clifford A. Wright