Weeknight cooking is no time for nuance. Meals must stand and be noticed. They must cut through the clutter of weekday chaos. And they must do it quickly and without fuss, mess, or toil.
It's a simple premise. Let high-flavor ingredients do most of the work. Foods that taste great going into the pot need less work from you to taste great when they come out. I'm talking about the Parmesan cheeses, balsamic vinegars, jalapenos, chorizos and wasabis of the world.
In my cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking" ease and flavor rule. Because bland foods just don't satisfy. We crave assertive foods - rich chocolate cakes, savory chilies and sauces, sharp cheeses, bright, citrusy desserts. These flavors comfort and satisfy.
Getting those flavors to the table, and fast, is at the heart of how I cook. And it doesn't require any special skills or hours at the stove. It's just a matter of taking good raw ingredients, adding intensely flavorful stuff, then eating.
I'm not big on fancy techniques. I'm not a chef and I've never worked in a restaurant. I'm just a working dad who loves good food and won't sacrifice eating well just because I have a crazy life. Here are some of my favorite high-flavor ingredients. All are easy to get and even easier to use.
In the U.S., cinnamon makes us think of sweets and baked goods. In the rest of the world, it's a savory seasoning that shows up in meat rubs, vegetable stews and curries, as well as sprinkled over grains, such as couscous. And with good reason. Cinnamon imparts a mellow, delicious warmth and aroma. Try a little in your next batch of chili. Or combine it with garlic powder, cumin and salt for an awesome steak or chicken rub.
Citrus juice and zest
Citrus effortlessly brightens and sharpens flavors. The juices are best in marinades, dressings, sauces, even soups (try a splash in chicken and tomato soups). The zest (the thin outer layer of colorful skin, not the white pith beneath it) is great in baked goods, sauces, and sautes (add it to a saute of kale with garlic and grated Parmesan cheese). While fresh juice is nice, bottled is easier and often cheaper. As for the zest, you can use a vegetable peeler to remove it, but a wand-style grater is better.
Fresh ginger (sold as a funky brown root in the produce section) has a peppery sweet flavor and is essential to Asian cooking. Also try it grated over steamed and buttered potatoes or mixed into a vinaigrette. The best place to store fresh ginger is the freezer. Not only does it keep for months, it is easier to grate. And as long as you use a very fine grater, there is no need to peel it first. Dry ground ginger (sold with the other spices) is excellent in meat rubs, chili and vegetable sautes. Its flavor is milder than fresh. Crystallized ginger has been candied. Sold cut into a variety of sizes, it can be eaten as is, or minced diced, or ground. It's also wonderful finely chopped and simmered in homemade cranberry sauce.
Many foods - even sweets - simply taste flat without a pinch of salt. It doesn't take much, and it doesn't take the pricey gourmet stuff. The best bet is kosher salt, which is inexpensive and easy to pinch. Keep a bowl of it next to the stove.
It's all about getting sauced. Or is that making sauce? Whichever, wine is great for deglazing pans. When wine is cooked, it reduces and the flavors are intensified. If the wine tastes good, this is good. If the wine tastes bad, this is bad. So while you don't need to spend a fortune, skip the rotgut. Use whatever you drink. For cooking and drinking, I'm pretty happy with $10 bottles. Use reds for beef- and tomato-based dishes; stick with whites for everything else.
- HOT SAUCE
This is my secret ingredient in hummus and cheese sauces. Just a dash brightens the other flavors without adding significant heat. Try it in macaroni and cheese and mixed into burgers. Use it to perk up mayonnaise for a sandwich or potato salad. Also try it in vinaigrette on a hearty salad (something with meat and cheese in it). There are innumerable hot sauces; experiment until you find a favorite.
For many people, anchovies are a no-go zone. Too bad. They are incredibly savory, inexpensive and easy to use. Best yet, you don't need to eat them whole to appreciate them. Place a few in a hot pan and stir around; they will melt into a flavorful paste. Now continue with your saute. You'll never know the anchovies are there, but the taste will be tremendous. This is great with sauteed hearty greens, such as kale and chard, as well as for pan sauces tossed with pasta. They also can be pureed into salad dressing. Because they are salty, be sure to taste as you cook.
- BALSAMIC VINEGAR
A good balsamic can be breathtaking. It has an intensely sweet and mouth-puckering flavor that is awesome drizzled with olive oil onto a salad. It makes a great dipping sauce for chunks of Parmesan cheese and dark chocolate. When it comes to red sauce, it can make the difference between so-so and superb. For a great dessert sauce (over shortcake, angel food cake and cheesecake) simmer equal parts chopped fresh strawberries and balsamic vinegar until reduced and thick. For most cooking purposes, inexpensive varieties are fine. For dipping, consider splurging on the good (aged) stuff.