Have you ever had a meal that is lacking something, but you are just not sure what that is? The three top components of cooking that are grossly overlooked when it comes to a certain “je ne sais quoi” that change a dish from mediocre to fantastic are fresh herbs, acid and salt.
Recently I had dinner guests over to my home for dinner, these are friends I know quite well, the kind I take leftovers to the next day, because I know her and her family will enjoy them. I was serving the meal and stopped to sprinkle some fresh minced cilantro atop the meat dish I had set aside from cooking. She looked at me and said, “Why bother doing that, its just us eating”. My answer was as automatic as was the finishing flourish of herbs. I explained that the final touch is not strictly because of the way it looks, but because it adds a burst of flavor to a dish that had been cooked to a stew like texture. The small pieces of fresh herbs pop in you mouth giving that cooked dish another layer of depth as you bite.
Branch out from there, ( no pun intended) and use herbs you wouldn’t normally sprinkle on afterwards, Tarragon? Sage? Lavender? Experiment and you might be surprised.
Now what about acid. What do foodies mean by acid? Using citrus, vinegars and wines to perk up dishes while cooking and as a finishing spritz. Vinegar is not just for vinaigrettes it can also be used sparingly in the cooking water of vegetables to help maintain color and as they cook, the vinegar is absorbed lending a delicious flavor. I was cooking with a friend recently and I commented on how delicious a sauce she made was. I begged and got the ingredients out of her , and low and behold, apple cider vinegar was the secret ingredient!
Lets not forget our tried and true friend, citrus. In the form of lemon juice, lime juice or in some case orange juice. Citrus based acids are a great way to round out a dish, a small squirt over steamed beans, pan fried potatoes, roasted chicken and so much more all creates great balance. Next time you feel like your meal is missing something, try reaching for a lemon.
Now we come to the most overlooked seasoning of all. Salt. No matter where and how you harvest it, its delicious yet so many meals are lacking enough of it.
The western foodie world is used to table salt, which in its over processed, pure white state does add flavor, albeit a flavor devoid of nutrients. Table salt has over 80 minerals removed during its processing, and only one put back in, iodine. Iodine is a naturally occurring mineral abundant in real sea salt, Himalayan salt and many more salts now available for daily use.
But user beware! Sea salt is usually a gimmick the food industry uses to entice the consumer. All salt on the market is essentially sea salt, that’s where it originated, and real sea salt should have naturally occurring minerals, including iodine. A rule of thumb is if the ingredients list iodine as added back, that salt has been over-processed, concurrently the color of a salt will tell you a lot. Grey and brown colors and a random flake en each grain are all signs of a pure, unadulterated salt.
Which brings me to my next point. There are a plethora of finishing salts available on the market. Some of my favorites include, truffle salt, lemon salt and rosemary salt. Salt is undervalued, and highly underestimated when it comes to seasoning food. Don’t forget your sweet foods too! More often than not the best meals have an abundance of salt in, on and sprinkled after cooking, even the desserts. Experiment here too, use a Himalayan pink to cook, then a crunchy, Celtic grey to finish.
Snip your herbs, squeeze on some acid and sprinkle on your salt, your tastebuds will thank you.