This chapter of the theory basics is dedicated to the condiments which, when used right, can make the difference between a good meal to a great one. Salsas, chutneys, pickles – all this can add that extra layer of flavour that will bring your food to the next level, literally.
Salsa is, basically, a sauce in Spanish. Traditionally, it’s made using the mortar and pestle, but hey, who has the time and the tools for that?! We’re the people of blender and food processor era :). Here’s the basic recipe for Mexican style salsa, which you can take to any direction you desire by playing with the ingredients.
- 3 tomatoes
- 1/2 medium onion
- 2-4 fresh jalapeno peppers’ cored, seeded and very finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/4 cup fresh coriander, chopped
- 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice (ideally – lime)
- 1/2 tbsp coarse salt
There are 2 ways of making this salsa. Either we can go to the “rough”, rustic side, and finely chop all the ingredients and then mix them in the bowl, or, if it is a more smooth saucy consistency we are after, then simply use a blender to puree all the ingredients together. Frankly – I prefer the first option :).
Once I have attended a very interesting class of one of my chef friends, who asked us a simple question none of us actually had an answer for. He asked “why people love hamburgers?”. Think for a moment, can you explain WHY you enjoy your hamburger? Well, I could not. And here’s what he had to say about it. There are 5 basic tastes we, humans, can feel: sweet, salty, sour, hot and umame. Hamburger combines them all in a perfect balance. The sweetness comes from the sauce and the bun, the salty – from the meat, the hot – from the hot sauce, the sour – from the pickles and the umame – well, mayo, for example… And the balance is the exact one to make all our tastes come together to a resonance which makes us enjoy the hamburger so much. The lesson I learned about cooking was, that in any dish you make you want to get to that perfect balance between those tastes, and if you succeed – your dish will be perfect.
Why did I tell you this story? Because the next thing I want to talk about is pickles, your “sour”, acidic component in the dishes that you can use to play with the tastes to get to that perfect balance. So here is a Thai pickled cucumbers recipe, I especially enjoy. Interestingly, you will see that in it’s pickling marinade there’s a balance between 4 of the tastes – sweet, sour, salty and hot, and adding the vegetables gives you the 5th taste – the umame.
- 2 big cucumbers, sliced crosswise, about 1/8″ thick
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 chili pepper, seeded and chopped finely
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts (without salt), chopped
For the pickling sauce:
- 1/3 cup vinegar (regular, not red wine or apple cider)
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 1/3 cup cold water
- 1/2 tbsp coarse salt
- 1 garlic clove, smashed with the side of the cleaver
In the saucepan mix the vinegar, sugar, water, garlic and salt and bring to boil on high heat, constantly stirring. Lower the heat and cook, stirring, until the salt completely dissolves. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl big enough to contain the whole dish including the vegetables and let cool to the room temperature.
Prepare all the vegetables – slice the cucumbers crosswise, 1/8″ thick, thinly slice the shallot, chop the chili and the coriander and add all the vegetables to the bowl. Mix, cover and let sit, refrigerated, for 2-3 hours. Serve, sprinkled with chopped peanuts.
In South Asian cuisines chutney is a very popular condiment. It usually contains spices, fruits and/or vegetables. It is a very wide family of condiments, and the only thing common to all the chutneys is they are added to the meal for extra flavour. The closest English term for chutney is “relish”.
So here’s a peach & pecan chutney, which is very aromatic and flavourful, as it contains a large variety of fruits and vegetables, along with aromatic herbs and spices.
- 3 lb ripe peaches
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 allspice berries
- 4 cloves
- 10 black peppercorns, whole
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 red bell pepper, diced to about 1/2″ cubes
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced to about 1/2″ cubes
- 2-4 jalapenos (or any other hot peppers), seeded and finely minced
- 2 pieces of candied ginger
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup pecan nuts, roasted in a dry pan for 3-4 minutes
- 1/2 cup rice or apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 3 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
Basically, we’re about to prepare a jam, but in a “quick” way. First we need the peaches peeled. For that we need to prepare 2 big bowls – one with boiling hot water, and one – with ice water. Peaches go first into a boiling water for 30 seconds, and then – straight to the ice water. After this it’ll be very easy to peel them. Once done – dice the peach flesh to rough cubes.
To make things a bit easier, wrap all the spices – cinnamon stick, allspice, black peppercorns and cloves – in a piece of cheesecloth and tie. It’ll be way more simple to pull them out of the chutney once we’re done.
In a medium saucepan mix the peaches with all other ingredients and put the wrapped spices in as well. Bring to a light boil on medium heat, then – turn the heat down to low and cook for about 15-20 minutes, until the peaches are soft.
That’s it – remove from the heat, take out the wrapped spices, transfer to an airtight jar and it can be stored in the refrigerator for couple of months.
You can make chutneys pretty much from any combination of fruits and vegetables. Once again, experimenting is the key. Good luck! 🙂