‘Tis the season — for culinary experimentation!
Let’s face it, at some point the endless parade of traditional American holiday fare that marches through our dining rooms from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day gets tired — which makes it a perfect time to slip in a few unexpected flavors.
It's easy to incorporate culturally diverse flavorings that are inexpensive and can work well in combination. Having a few on standby gives you interesting options.
Think of a platter of broiled chèvre crostini with warm garlic confit and a drizzle of honey, racks of sweet and sticky kecap manis-glazed baby backs, Moroccan stew with olives and preserved lemon — they’d be cheered between those meals of warmed-over turkey and green bean casserole.
If you plan on making your own seasonings and condiments on a regular basis, invest in small canning jars and plastic lids. Be sure to follow sound food safety practices.
Garlic confit. Garlic cloves are poached in oil until they’re pale golden, soft and sweet. Eat this stuff, oil and all, by dunking crusty bread into it, or use it wherever the deep flavor of mellowed-out garlic is desired. You’ll see more than a few takes when you scan for recipes. Store it in the fridge, make sure cloves are submerged, and use it within a week. When I make more than a cup, I mash it and freeze it in ice cube trays.
Onion oil. Barely simmer a yellow onion in canola oil until it caramelizes, strain it, and you’ll wind up with liquid fried onions. Drizzle it over mashed potatoes. Add a scant tablespoon to a vinaigrette of canola or hazelnut oil, orange juice and a splash of lemon juice — perfect over a salad of warm roasted Brussels sprouts and toasted pine nuts. I stumbled upon onion oil as an intern testing the snow pea shoot dumpling recipe for this San Francisco Chronicle story about Yank Sing and its dim sum, and was surprised at how this simple oil elevated the filling. It’ll keep in the fridge for a week.
Annatto oil. Achiote seeds from the fruit of the bixa orellana tree are heated in oil to create a red-orange-yellow coloring and flavoring agent popular in Latin America and the Caribbean. Annatto oil adds brilliance and subtle earthiness to rice dishes, stews, fried potatoes — anything you’d like to give a tropical treatment. This “Poor man’s saffron” is a natural with sofrito, the next item down, and works well with bell peppers, onions, olives, capers, tomatoes, thyme, oregano and cilantro. Achiote seeds are available in Latin and Asian markets, and here’s an annatto oil recipe.
Sofrito (Puerto Rican version). The heart and soul of Puerto Rican cuisine, sofrito is a pureed cooking base of green bell pepper, onion, garlic, cilantro, aji dulce, recao and, often, tomatoes. It’s sautéed in olive or annatto oil and used in rice dishes, soups, stews — you name it. Here’s a recipe to start with. If you can’t find aji dulce (sweet little red peppers), use red bell pepper. Look for recao under the names culatro, Mexican coriander, saw-leaf, sawtooth and ngò gai — though it can be left out or substituted with flat-leaf parsley. I freeze sofrito in a straight-sided canning jar and pry out what I need. You can buy sofrito. I grew up with the ubiquitous Goya brand in New York City, and have seen their products in the Bay Area.
Easy preserved lemons. When I don’t have Moroccan preserved lemons on hand — you know, the kind you pickle in salt and their own juices on your countertop for a week or more — I make the quick version, adapting this New York Times recipe. Two Meyer lemons, a tablespoon plus a teaspoon of pickling salt and one teaspoon of sugar (I consider this optional) yields about an 8-oz jelly jar full. Eyeballing a Moroccan cookbook will give you countless ideas for using this lemon-in-overdrive in soups, sautés, clay pots and salads, and you’ll be making real preserved lemons in no time.
Kecap manis. This thick, palm sugar-sweetened Indonesian soy sauce has molasses-like notes and plays well with garlic, shallots and chilies, but you can use “ketchup” (that’s how you pronounce “kecap”) manis straight as a dipping sauce or glaze. I discovered it by way of the killer Black Pepper Tofu recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s fab vegetarian cookbook, Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi, published earlier this year. Buy kecap manis in Asian markets or make it yourself, but use a recipe that calls for palm sugar.
While not on the official list, I suggest having orange juice on hand at all times, and springing for a bottle of roasted walnut, hazelnut or almond oil. Not only are they highly compatible, they work well with other items above and will give your warm and cold salads — especially those with cruciferous vegetables and hearty grains — a lift. To stretch nut oil, use it with canola oil. Be sure to store it in the fridge.