A Dozen Pantry Items to Make Your Vegetables Sing
With spring comes fresh produce plucked from no further afield than the nearest farm stand. Given the long New England winter, most of us are likely to take the firsts – the first spear of asparagus, the first pint of strawberries, the first sun-ripened tomato, and the first ear of sweet, completely naked corn.
While eaters can be in whichever state of undress most comfortably balanced to suit the weather and social norms, this season’s vegetables will likely be unadorned. It’s just been so long since last year’s last local spear, berry, tomato or cob. At this juncture, fussing is so naturally unnecessary. But while vegetables’ austere presentation fits the bill early in the season, as the harvest progresses, most cooks look to dress up that third, fourth or fifteenth plateful of the crop of the moment.
Enter the pantry magician, who, from a dozen (give or take) pantry ingredients, can keep fresh vegetables singing all season long. The produce will still carry the farm fresh tune, but harmonize just a bit differently when mixed and matched with some combination of these supporting staple ingredients.
Salt and Pepper
It might seem a bit basic to give the nod to salt and pepper. But nonetheless, kosher salt applied to vegetables before or during cooking helps bring out their natural flavors, while judiciously applying a flaky finishing salt at the tail end of the process provides a pop. So keep both close at hand. A grind of straight black pepper is good, but a twist of a pepper mill containing equal parts allspice berries and black peppercorns just before serving, as suggested by chef and author Barton Seaver in his latest seaside-focused cookbook, Two If By Sea, gives finished vegetable dishes an unexpected, sweet undertone to match the pepper’s kick.
Olive oil has long been used in kitchens across Italy, Spain, France and the Middle East to heighten the flavor of both raw and cooked vegetables. It was not used much outside of the Mediterranean region until the International Olive Oil Council ran an aggressive marketing campaign in the late 1980s through the 1990s, explains food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins in Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil. But its widespread use has led to pervasive fraud in the industry so it’s a buyer beware situation to make sure you are getting the real deal.
Harmon Jenkins says to look for extra-virgin olive oil in an opaque container—dark glass or metal—because olive oil deteriorates rapidly if exposed to heat or light. Check the harvest date. At this point in early 2017, don’t buy bottles older than 2016 if you want to use it to garnish summertime salads, although the 2015 harvest is still perfectly acceptable for cooking. “Olive oil is not like wine . . . it does not get better with age—fresh and young are the two keys here,” says Jenkins.
Olive oils that carry “organically produced” or European designation of protected origin labels generally indicate that care has been taken to produce a superior product, which you in turn should expect to pay a pretty price for.
Pick a vinegar, any vinegar, other than plain white
There are as many vinegars as there are fruits that can be used to make them, so why settle for the acerbic one you can use to clean the crud out of your washing machine? Take your time to select a go-to light vinegar (dark, heavy ones like an aged balsamic can wash out delicate spring vegetables and dull brightly colored summer ones) based on its acidity level (the higher the percentage of acid the stronger the puckering sensation), sweetness and price point. But always have at least one or two (if forced to narrow the field, I’d run with brown rice and champagne vinegar) in the cabinet to dress salads, liven up salsas, and brighten herby sauces.
The C spices
Cumin and coriander, toasted and ground, used by themselves or in concert, will bring out the earthy tones in any cooked vegetables with Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and North African flare. Remember, though, that a little of either of these spices can go a long way. As a general rule of thumb, use ¼ teaspoon per 1½ cups of raw vegetables.
Smoky red pepper flakes
Middle Eastern red pepper flakes – like Syrian Aleppo Pepper or Turkish marash and urfa biber peppers – offer a fruity, mellow, faintly smoky heat that pairs well with fresh vegetables and eaters who don’t like most chile flakes’ one-note brashness. Sprinkling these peppers throughout your vegetable cookery and raw salads will appease fire eaters and spice wimps alike. Where there is smoke, there is a little bit of fire, but it doesn’t hang around.
An array of nuts and seeds
If allergies don’t apply, include toasted nuts (hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and almonds) and roasted seeds (pepitas, sesame and sunflower) to your vegetable dishes with a liberal hand. They add good fat, protein, earthiness, and crunch.
Mustard is an emulsifying agent that helps water (and vinegar) droplets stay suspended in oil so that salad dressings stay mixed together. Dijon is the most delicate of the prepared mustards; keep coarse mustard in the fridge for when you want to see it in the mix and smooth for when you don’t.
Traditionally used in South Asian and North African cuisine, preserved lemons, which are simply lemons that have been split open or sliced, salted and left in a jar to cure, provide vegetables with an easy route to salty, muted citrus flavors. The hardest thing about trying preserved lemons in the place of fresh lemon is remembering to put them up during citrus season back in February.
Honey is a remedy for anything from a sore throat to an overly sour salad dressing. Support local beekeepers, who work to save the pollinators that produce the elixir which can save your sauce.
Because vegetables are strictly vegetarian by nature, umami is often missing in some dishes. Behold the anchovy, allowed in the mix by pescetarians and omnivores alike, a lowly little fish that sits pretty low on the trophic scale, which means they are more sustainable than the bigger fish that eat them. If their mere visual presence will send your eaters running, buy anchovy paste instead of whole ones. They’ll never know why their dressed vegetables taste so very good and you won’t have to tell them to have seconds.