Kitchen Call: Shhh! Some summery secret ingredients
Whether professional or homemade, every cook develops a personal bag of tricks. The big decision is whether to hold onto or share. Some culinary secrets fall in to the category of techniques; others might be the ingredients themselves. Below are two recipes with just one slightly out-of-the ordinary component. The ingredients lists in these recipes may appear dauntingly long, but the actual cooking in each is exceptionally easy.
The first, a simple grilling of the ripest backyard produce, combines a few fresh herbs with other flavorings, then the flourish of a simple technique, a “chiffonade” of fresh basil. It’s easy to do: simply pull the leaves from the stems, stack them, and roll the stack. Then, with a sharp paring knife, cut the stack crosswise into tiny ribbons. Perfection is not required. Then what looks like a pile of grass clippings infuses hot or warm food with summery burst of flavor.
This same technique used with large leafy vegetables — like spinach, or lettuces like romaine — adds eye appeal to a finished plate. Toss the shards of green with a little oil and vinegar and plop a piece of grilled fish or chicken on top. Now you have the look of a restaurant-style meal.
In the second, a secret ingredient is incorporated into a gentle simmering of vegetables. Ruthlessly expensive saffron, those dried flower filaments imported from Spain and France. Why saffron during a recession?
Because with a product called Sazon, long known to Caribbean cooks, you can get the flavor and color of saffron for a mere fraction of the cost. The culinary equivalent of Bell’s Seasoning in New England or Old Bay Seasoning in Baltimore, Sazon is packaged in small cardboard boxes and sold in the international foods sections of large grocery stores. Inside, eight small aluminum packets contain a mixture of ground annatto, cumin, and Mexican saffron.
Be sure to look for the box labeled con azafran, “with saffron.” (Alert: MSG included.) One tiny packet colors and gently flavors four to six servings of simmered vegetables, or rice, or paella. The annatto provides the golden coloring component and the cumin powder boosts the flavor of the ground saffron. No, it’s not pure saffron threads, but it does the job, deliciously, in this economy.
GRILLED SUMMER VEGETABLES
WITH FRESH BASIL CHIFFONADE
Serves 4 to 6
The marinade works as a wet rub for chicken or steaks, as well as vegetables shown here, before grilling. It will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
- 2 cups red wine
- 2/3 cups olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons grated orange zest
- 2 tablespoons minced sage leaves
- 4 teaspoons minced rosemary leaves
- salt, and ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 eggplant, about 1 pound, cut into 2-inch slices crosswise
- 2 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
- 2 yellow summer squash, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 3 large ripe tomatoes, sliced 2-inches thick
- 2 yellow and 2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut lengthwise in 2-inch slices
- 1 large red onion, cut into ½-inch crosswise slices
- 1 cup fresh basil chiffonade
1. Whisk together wine, olive oil, garlic, orange zest, sage, rosemary, salt and pepper to make the marinade.
2. Put the eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash in a colander. Add salt and toss. Set aside to sweat out bitter juices in the colander for 30 minutes. Rinse off salt under cold running water; pat dry with paper towels. Transfer the vegetables to a large shallow non-reactive baking dish. Drizzle with about 2/3 of the marinade.
3. Add tomatoes, peppers, onion, and basil to the eggplant mixture, tossing gently so that the marinade coats them. Grill for 5 to 10 minutes, brushing with the remaining marinade. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with the basil marinade before serving.
LATE SUMMER VEGETABLES
IN SAFFRON BROTH
Makes 6 servings
Good as a way to use perfectly fresh vegetables on a cool evening; perfect paired with toasted rounds of French bread topped with goat cheese whipped with just enough Greek yogurt to make it spreadable.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 12 whole peeled baby carrots
- 2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, quartered
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 8 fingerling potatoes, cut diagonally into thirds
- 1 cup fresh corn kernels
- 4 cups water
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 packet Sazon (con azafran) seasoning
- 1 small pinch cayenne
- A few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 cup green beans, cut in thirds
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, each cut in half
- Salt, ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Warm a small stock pot over high heat. Add olive oil, carrots, fennel, onion, potatoes, and corn. Reduce heat to medium low. Saute for 2 minutes.
2. Add water, wine, Sazon seasoning, cayenne, and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until carrots and potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add green beans and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Discard thyme sprigs. Swirl in the butter just until it melts.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.