People ask me why the food they cook at home doesn’t taste as special what they get in restaurants. That doesn’t mean their home-cooked fare isn’t wonderfully delicious–it is–but I know what they mean: Cooking in restaurants often has an engaging complexity and nuance that’s a step up from home cooking.
There are many reasons for this. Chefs–good ones, anyway–are willing to track down top-quality ingredients. They’re not shy about using flavor-enhancing salt, butter and cream. Even more importantly, they take the time to prepare little extras that add flavor and texture to many of their dishes. I worked at a restaurant where the mayonnaise was always made in-house, as was the dough for the flatbreads. We made pureed garlic confit,* which was used to add mellow garlicky flavor to everything from salad dressings to lentils.
Thomas Keller has a similar preparation in his inspiring book, Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan), as part of a long chapter “lifesavers.” These include house-made nut butters, flavored oils, chutneys, jams and pickles, and they provide the delicious backbone for some recipes and the finishing touches for others.
Making a batch of Carnitas de Lia this weekend inspired me to make my own piquant finishing touch. As I rubbed the spices onto the pork shoulder, it occurred to me that I needed some pickled red onions, which are a traditional accompaniment to provide a refreshing tart-sweet, crunchy counterpoint to the rich pork and guacamole. And because they’re so easy to make, I put together the following Quick-Pickled Red Onions in, oh, about 10 minutes. They were great with the carnitas, and I’ve also been enjoying them tucked into quesadillas and, this afternoon, on an egg salad sandwich.
We have lots of other extras that are easy to prepare and will make your cooking anything but basic:
- Homemade Mayonnaise: It’s a far cry from the jarred stuff and will elevate even the basics like egg salad.
- Spicy-Sweet Pickled Cucumbers: I made these all summer long and basically ate them with everything.
- Fragrant Curry Paste: Add this to a stir-fry, whisk a little into plain yogurt for a dipping sauce, combine a bit with mayo for a zesty sandwich spread, or stir it into some cream and chopped tomatoes to make a speedy curry sauce.
- All-Purpose Asian Dipping Sauce: I’d whisk in a little cornstarch to make this an ideal stir-fry sauce, too.
- Asian Pesto: It’s delightful over rice noodles and it makes a great sandwich spread; also try it whisked into a salad dressing.
- All-Purpose French Lentils: Lia calls these “the little black dress of dinner,” since you can serve them as a side, toss them in a salad or enjoy them as an entree.
Once you start playing around with different ways to use components like these, you’ll see that the recipes aren’t the end goal, but the start–or end–of something extra-special.
* That garlic confit is super-easy to make: Place peeled whole garlic cloves in a saucepan, add enough olive oil to cover, and simmer until very tender. Drain, reserving the oil (because it now has wonderful garlicky flavor, too!), and mash the cloves with a whisk or a fork. Store the oil and garlic separately and use them within a week.