What better canvas to demonstrate the powers of flavor-building than the humble cauliflower? Untouched by heat, spice or sauce, it recedes into a bland, mildly sulfurous realm. But roast it in a 400-degree oven, dressed in the sheerest brushing of oil, salt and pepper, and it is exquisitely transformed.
Give it a smear of fresh basil pesto and you’ve added the exclamation point.
Flavor is everything in cooking. Too often we complicate our lives, our pans, our kitchens with intricate recipes, complex methodology and expectations of knock-out dishes. But truly knock-out dishes are not fussy. Truly great dishes are flavorful.
And while achieving flavor can be as easy as salt, heat and timing, it seems a magical thing.
I am often reminded of the lovely sofrito cubes prepared by Rosa Torres, a family friend with mad cooking skills. Her extensive repertoire of dishes, inspired by her Puerto Rican roots, is firmly rooted in the principle that every dish deserves to shine.
To that end, she calls upon her trusty wooden mortar and pestle, and she pounds together a paste of fresh garlic and cilantro. She adds this fragrant mix into a sizzling skillet of olive oil and diced onion. After it all cools, she spoons the paste into an ice cube tray and freezes it for later use. One cube can exalt a simple soup, add a pop of flavor to a sauté, take a random omelet from breakfast to dinner.
Making a good sofrito is not an exact science or an obligatory march of ingredients. It must have olive oil, garlic and onions. But the rest can be improvised. Add chopped green or red bell pepper, if you wish. Add minced cilantro or parsley, a smear of tomato paste, a splash of sherry, whatever your dish or whim calls for.
Like a good sofrito, there are many other flavor-builders. We explored a few of them in our borrowed Tequesta, Fla., “test kitchen” last week, where chef Lenore Pinello is the resident Flavor Saver. That smudge of basil that’s left in the food processor after she makes pesto or infused oil? That becomes the base for a bright, herbal salad dressing. That dollop of honey that’s left in the jar? It becomes the balancing factor for a too-acidic condiment.
Good flavor is not confined to the fancy jars in gourmet shops. It’s ubiquitous, we concluded, and it’s always ready for its moment.
Here are some of our favorite flavor hacks:
• Amplify the garlic aroma – add a clove of garlic to your saute oil as it warms in the skillet to infuse the oil with garlicky goodness. For even more flavor, smash that clove with the flat side of a large knife. Remove the garlic from the oil once it turns golden brown to avoid bitterness.
• “Grate”-ful aromatics – To add an oomph of flavor to dressings and marinades, grate a clove of garlic or a small wedge of onion into the mix. The result is not overpowering; it simply adds structure to your dressing. The same is true with citrus. Grate the zest of a lemon, lime or orange into a saute for instant brightness.
• Water works – Sometimes a touch of water added at the right time allows flavors to develop in a soup, sauce or saute. A splash of water can de-glaze a pan, capturing all its flavorful remnants. And it can be key in a simple but sensational veggie soup: Gently cook slivered onions in a slick of olive oil until nearly melted, add chopped veggie of choice (cauliflower, squash or carrots are good options) and cook at gentle heat; add water to just cover the veggies and simmer until soft. Add a pat of butter and puree soup.
• Bones about it – When making chicken or beef stock, the key flavor-building factor is bones. More bones yield a more intense, flavorful stock or broth.
• The drizzle – Finish your dish with a drizzle of good olive oil. Even if you used olive oil in your sofrito or saute, a touch of extra virgin olive oil at the end adds a layer of flavor and allows you to taste the oil’s distinct notes. Go bold: Try Spanish olive oil for a richer, more pronounced flavor.
• Instantly rich – Gently heat milk in a saucepan until just before its boiling point. Once a thin skin has formed on the surface, remove it from the heat. This process brings out a deep, rich flavor in the milk. In turn, this milk adds delicious depth of flavor to cafe con leche, cappuccino, gelato, shakes and other dairy treats.