By Rory Callaghan
A few hours before dinner I ask my wife, “Where in the world would you like to dine this evening?”
I want to learn more about the foods and cultures I don’t yet know. Experimenting with recipes from different countries is a fun way to learn about others while feeding yourself and your family delicious food. And sometimes we stay right here in the good old USA and slow roast a thick rib-eye, with onions, potatoes and carrots.
I am not a great cook. I’m a good cook – maybe even a pretty damn good cook – but I’m no pro chef, and no one needs to be a professional to make incredible meals. Learn the basics from a recipe. Then, look in your fridge and pantry, and make a liberal approximation of that recipe. Don’t fuss over a missing ingredient or two. Substitute something or dispense with it. It will still be delicious.
“If there’s no color, there’s no flavor!” This expression I heard as a child still holds true. Make it colorful with veggies, herbs and spices, and it will taste great. Dishes from across the world often start with the same basic ingredients. Spices are what separate cultures. Keep the basics on hand and you can go anywhere for dinner.
Fresh herbs are essential for delicious food. Parsley is nearly tasteless as a dried herb in a bottle. Keep fresh parsley on hand, either flat or curly, and make the time to chop it and add it to your food, if only as a garnish. You’ll be rewarded with color, flavor and fiber. Scallions/ green onions are an essential everyday item. Chives are a luxury.
How about growing your own herbs right in your kitchen with under-cabinet lights? It’s easy, looks pretty, smells great and you save money while enjoying fresh herbs with every meal.
Which dried spices should everyone have on hand? Here are the dried spices I keep for seasoning the many recipes I attempt. I’m easy on myself when I partly fail, as long as it’s tasty enough to eat.
• Allspice: It is critical in Mexican fajitas, Jamaican curries and many Caribbean dishes, as well as some Chinese foods.
• Paprika: I prefer nonsmoked for its milder flavor but robust color.
• Cumin: To Americans it screams Mexican, but it’s used in much of Africa and the mid-East. Cumin has been used in Greek recipes since the beginning of civilization.
• Ginger: This is another root spice that delivers a great flavor both dried and fresh. I keep fresh ginger, turmeric and tamarind in the freezer, where they last for months.
• Oregano: This herb is almost always over-used. A pinch is all you need. I grow my own and use only the flowers, which are highly fragrant. I use the tiniest bit of oregano flower dust to flavor a large pot of marinara sauce, what we native New Yorkers call gravy.
• Marjoram: This delicate herb is essential with any white fish in a simple butter and lemon sauce.
• Thyme: We need thyme for so many savory roasts. My roasted chicken is lightly coated in salt, pepper, thyme and nothing else.
• Rosemary: While not for everyone’s palate, this is the classic herb for roasting beef, with an almost pine flavor.
• Turmeric: I use both dried and fresh turmeric when I cook my approximation of Indian food.
• Tamarind: Admittedly, this is not a required spice to have on hand for most people. But if you enjoy the flavor of Lee & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, then you must like tamarind, because it is the dominant flavor in that bottle. Adopted by the English while colonizing India, this unique bean pod flavor enhances both savory and sweet dishes. I enjoyed tamarind ice cream as a child in the Caribbean.
I don’t follow recipes rigidly. I glean from them the essential flavors and techniques involved. I’m not rebellious about it. I simply substitute or omit ingredients, accounting for what I have on hand, and use technique to economize my time.
You can be an excellent cook without fussing over the details. Be the cook who spends more time enjoying the meal than preparing it.
The writer is the kitchen planning director at M&M Appliance & Cabinets on South Washington Street. Contact him for questions – or cooking tips – at [email protected].