My Favorite Ingredients – Part 2

I’m sharing my favorite ingredients, things I reach for over and over.  In Part 1 I talked about Dolin Dry Vermouth, Citrus Oils, Nut Oils, Clarified Butter and imported San Marzano tomatoes.  Today I’m moving on with the next 5, again in no particular order.  You may remember I had originally titled these posts “My 10 Favorite Ingredients”.  I had a hard time narrowing it down to 10, so there will be at least one more post with a few other goodies.  I hope you’ll find something to add to your pantry or fridge!

I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into smaller jars to save space in the fridge door.
I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into skinnier jars to save space in the fridge.

Better Than Bouillon Bases  Two foodie friends turned me on to these products.  I was surprised that these ladies used bouillon concentrate, because these gals are big on everything natural, organic, etc., as am I.  My assumption was a bouillon base would be a scary chemical sludge.  I had been buying Swanson Lower Sodium Chicken Broth by the caseload at Costco.  That’s a lot of cans to store and recycle!  So I tried a jar of the BTB organic chicken base and was pleasantly surprised.  Plain, I do prefer the taste of Swanson’s.  But when do I ever drink plain chicken broth?  Never.  In soup, sauces, stews, etc. the BTB works great.  No cases to lug and store, no leftover broth to eventually toss or freeze, no cans to recycle.  I have also used the Organic Reduced Sodium Beef, Vegetable, Fish and Ham bases and love them all.  Two words on that Ham base – get some!  It is great for seasoning the water for cooking greens or beans or adding a little smokey goodness to soups or stews.  Okay, I know that these bases are processed products.  The chicken & beef bases are the ones I use 90% of the time, and I always buy the organic versions.  The other ones I use sparingly.  But that ham base.  Seriously, get some.

The Cadillac of Allilums - they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.
The Cadillac of Allilums – they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.

Shallots  If you’re thinking that shallots are just fancy overpriced onions, think again.  These little babies pack a major flavor punch that is somewhere between garlic and onion but so much more.  Yeah, they are more expensive than garlic or onions, but I buy mine on the cheap at the warehouse club – a sack of 10 or so for under $4.  Even if you have to pay “full price” at the supermarket, they are worth every penny.  To help extend their shelf life, when I bring a bag home I spend a few minutes grooming off any dirty/moldy outer skins.  And since I store them on the counter, they look nicer, too!

I put shallots to use almost daily.  In salad dressings I usually add a Tbsp or so of finely minced shallots – great flavor without coming off “hot” the way raw garlic can.  I make a confit with caramelized shallots and dried cranberries (or cherries) that people go bonkers for when I serve it with a cheese plate.   Hmmm, I need to post that recipe!  And I wouldn’t think of sautéing veggies like green beans, broccoli or zukes without first sautéing a shallot in the pan.    Shallots work anywhere you would use onions or garlic – soups, stews, sauces, stir fries, pizzas, appetizers – they add a wonderful layer of umami goodness that makes everything else taste better.  They’re like natural MSG! I am never, ever without shallots!!!

I love this stuff - took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.
I love this stuff – took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.

SAF Red & Gold Yeasts.  You wouldn’t think yeast brands would be that different.  I have been baking bread since I was a Kinder and I’ve always used Fleischmann’s yeast.  Perfectly good.  But sometimes, especially when baking a whole grain loaf or a sweet bread with lots of butter, eggs or dried fruits, my results were less than praiseworthy.  Squatty.  Doughy.  Not right.  An infuriating waste of time and ingredients!  Turns out sugar is a bit of a bully in bread dough.  It hogs up all the water and leaves your poor lil’ yeast limping along in thirst, unable to do its job.  Enter SAF Gold yeast.  This yeast is specially formulated to perform well in a high sugar environment as it needs less water to function.  Voila!  Sweet, rich doughs that rise like a dream!  SAF Red yeast is “basic” yeast for the rest of your bread baking needs.  I find that it too is more robust than other brands of yeast.  Doughs rise faster and more consistently.  My tried and true recipes turn out better than ever with these yeasts.

Yes, they come in 1 lb. sacks, and even though they have a 2 year shelf life, I will never use this much before the expiry.  But fear not – it’s actually quite cheap.  You can find it at some warehouse clubs for about $1 more than the 4 oz jar of Fleischmann’s at the supermarket.  Or, you can order it online – I usually get mine at King Arthur when I’m stocking up on baking needs.  I portion out what I think I’ll use by the expiry and vacuum seal it in 8 oz canning jars which are stored in the fridge or freezer.  I share the rest with friends who love to bake bread too.  Win-win!

An arsenal of flavor
An arsenal of flavor

Nielsen Massey Extracts.  I hate wasting my time baking something that comes out “meh” or just lacking in flavor.  Like most people in the US I grew up using McCormick extracts, which is pretty much all you could find at the supermarket.  I’m pretty sure it was while watching Ina Garten’s show that I thought “girlfriend never uses anything but Nielsen Massey vanilla – I should check that out.”  Boom!  Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla totally converted me from a chocoholic to someone who genuinely prefers all things vanilla.  And fyi, the “Bourbon” in Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla is merely the name of the vanilla bean varietal – there is no Bourbon or Bourbon flavor in the vanilla.

I have tried all their vanilla varieties – Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, Tahitian and Vanilla Bean Paste.  I buy the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla in quart bottles at King Arthur.  Watch for a sale!  Stored cool and dry, vanilla will last for years.  I decant it into a smaller bottle for everyday use. I confess that the nuances of Mexican vanilla are lost on my palate, so it’s not worth the extra expense for me to keep that one around.  Tahitian vanilla, however, is quite distinctive.  The flavor is very floral and reminds me of marshmallows.  It’s kind of the cilantro of vanillas – you love it or hate it.  The subtle flavor shines best in simple things like vanilla pudding, tapioca, egg custards, fruit salads or good ol’ steamed milk (sooooo good in sweetened steamed milk!!!).  The Vanilla Bean Paste is also a winner.  Same great taste as the Madagascar Bourbon extract, but with the added visual appeal of all those little vanilla seeds.  Perfect for ice cream, yogurt, cakes, cookies – anywhere you want to taste, smell and see vanilla.  Tip:  if a recipe calls for 1 tsp. of vanilla, be generous and add up to 2.  I almost always double the amt. of vanilla called for, and I often add a tsp or so even in recipes that don’t call for vanilla.  It’s just that little somethin’ somethin’.

Nielsen Massey makes a full range of extracts, and you can often get good prices by purchasing them in sets.  I love to use their coffee extract when I make anything with cocoa; a half tsp. or so really upps the chocolate flavor.  Their citrus extracts deliver clean, natural flavor to breads and other baked goods.  I don’t use them as much since I’ve “converted” to citrus oils, but they are great.  And their peppermint extract is the best I’ve ever tried.  I love, love, love anything peppermint and I when I bake something peppermint flavored, I want it to taste like an icy-cool candy cane, not “random, muddled mint flavor”.  NM is the only brand I’ve tried that delivers that brisk, candy cane flavor.

A spoonful of fiery deliciousness
A spoonful of fiery deliciousness

Sambal Oelek  Sriracha is a close second, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose Sambal Oelek.  It brings  clean, simple heat to a dish, whereas Sriracha also brings a big garlicy punch.  Sometimes you just want to invite your spicy friend to the party, and you don’t want her bringing her loud-mouthed cousin, you know?  I use sambal oelek in stir fries, salads (think spicy coleslaw to offset sweet barbecue), dressings, dips (queso, baby!), sauces – anywhere I want to bring a bit of heat.  The flavor is purely of the peppers – not vinegary, salty, etc., just a vegetal note from the peppers and heat, heat, heat!  The only thing you need to remember is that it will obviously tint your dish reddish orange, so keep that in mind.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest to try a few new things!  I’ll be back soon to share my better-than-Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup!  Blessings, E.

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