In reading recipes by great chefs, I am always surprised how very elemental many of their preparations really are. The elaborate architectonic creations that dazzle us in their restaurants are often ingenious constructions of simple parts. Each one contributes a layer of flavor and texture. Taken individually, these techniques and flavor affinities are powerful tools that the home cook can use to achieve incredible effects easily and quickly. In essence, this is a building-block approach that relies on well-chosen key elements from which endless combinations can be made.
This method--employing powders and quickly made sauces--encourages spontaneity and ease in cooking. There are no predetermined combinations, only marvelous possibilities.
Many chefs have taken to rubbing powders made from spices, dried wild mushrooms, ancho chiles, lemon grass and fruit peel into foods to create a delicious crust, a technique that seems to have erupted spontaneously across the country.
At Chef Allen's in North Miami Beach, Allen Susser dusts fish with powdered dried mushrooms before sauteing them, while David Burke of Park Avenue Cafe in New York City rubs shrimp with his pungent homemade curry powder. The method is simple: The toasted ingredients are pulverized in a blender and strained. They can be stored in small jars like ordinary spices and used to imbue simple dishes with complex flavor instantly--to make a crust on seared or grilled foods, to transform ordinary tomato ketchup into a sophisticated sauce or to lend an extra boost of flavor to soups, sauces and stews.
Making sauces is no longer the time-consuming and laborious process it once was. These days they are more often quickly made of fresh ingredients with an eye toward clear, vibrant flavor. The classic definitions no longer apply. Vinaigrettes, broths and juices are commonly employed as sauces. Salsas, comprised of everything from mangoes and cherries to roasted peppers and olives, are in effect chopped salads, providing texture as well as an intriguing mix of sweet and savory flavor.
Denver chef Kevin Taylor makes a sublime sauce of juiced red peppers that verges on being a soup. It is not only perfect on filled pastas, such as tortellini and ravioli, but with grilled seafood as well, which he serves at the Zenith American Grill. Susser explodes the traditional notion of ketchup by making his with spiced pureed mango, which is delicious with crab cakes and tuna burgers as well as grilled fish, pork and chicken. Chef Gray Kunz of Lespinasse in New York creates a yogurt sauce with a mix of subtle Asian flavors, such as cumin, coriander and lime, that has become his signature.
Artisanal balsamic vinegar, although enormously expensive, is perhaps the ultimate ingredient in simple cooking. Unlike its commercial counterpart, it is more a rarefied condiment than vinegar. Made by hand and long-aged, the true artisanal balsamics are judged by a consortium of the best producers, guaranteeing quality. Look for the words: aceto balsamico tradizionale and consorzio produttori and "Made in Modena or Reggio" on the label. Only a limited amount may be sold.
Its fierce expense (from $40 to more than $100 a bottle) is offset by its intensity: You need only a few drops to add extraordinary flavor to a surprising array of dishes, from grilled and fried foods to thin shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and ripe tomatoes or to buttery apple tarts, caramelized custards, fresh cherries and fine vanilla ice cream.
Use this sauce from Gray Kunz of New York's Lespinasse on all kinds of seafood and vegetables.
GRAY KUNZ'S YOGURT SAUCE 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds 4 coriander seeds 1 cardamom pod, outer husk removed 1 cup plain yogurt 8 basil leaves, finely chopped 1/2 jalapeno chile, minced, or more to taste 1 teaspoon grated lime zest, or more to taste 1/8 teaspoon sugar Dash salt Freshly ground pepper
Toast cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds in small skillet over moderate heat, until fragrant. Set aside to cool slightly. Grind toasted spices to fine powder in blender or spice mill. Strain powder through small sieve into bowl.
Combine yogurt, basil, jalapeno, lime zest, sugar, reserved toasted spice powder, salt and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 1 cup.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 10 calories; 22 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; trace fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.06 gram fiber.
This salsa is excellent with richer meats, such as pork, squab, quail, lamb and chicken. Inexpensive cherry pitters are available at kitchenware stores.
FRESH CHERRY SALSA 1/2 pound ripe cherries, pitted and halved 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar 1 teaspoon sugar 1 tablespoon slivered orange zest 1 tablespoon minced basil 1 tablespoon minced cilantro 1 to 2 teaspoons lime juice, optional Freshly ground pepper
Combine cherries, vinegar, sugar, orange zest, basil, cilantro, lime juice and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Cover and let stand 30 minutes before serving. Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 6 calories; trace sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.02 gram fiber.
This salsa can also be made with nectarines, peaches or papayas.
MANGO SALSA 1 ripe mango 1/4 cup finely diced red onion 1 teaspoon minced serrano chile, or more to taste 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1/3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped basil, optional Freshly ground pepper
Remove peel from mango with vegetable peeler. Slice around pit to remove flesh with thin, sharp knife. Slice flesh into 1/4-inch-thick strips, and then crosswise into 1/4-inch dice.
Place chopped mango in medium bowl and add onion, chile, lime juice, cilantro, basil and pepper to taste. Combine. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes about 2 cups.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 5 calories; trace sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.08 gram fiber.
Tomato ketchup pales in comparison to Allen Susser's mango version, which he serves at his Chef Allen's in North Miami Beach.
ALLEN SUSSER'S MANGO KETCHUP 4 ripe mangoes 1/4 cup raw or light-brown sugar, packed 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/4 cup white wine or cider vinegar 1 tablespoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper Dash cinnamon 1 clove
Remove peel from mangoes with vegetable peeler. Slice around pit to remove flesh with thin, sharp knife. Cut into 2-inch chunks. Combine mango flesh, light-brown sugar, wine, vinegar, ginger, salt, allspice, cayenne and cinnamon in food processor. Process about 1 minute until coarsely pureed. Scrape mixture into heavy saucepan. Add clove. Simmer mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until well reduced and thickened, about 1 hour.
Scrape mixture back into food processor and process until ketchup is perfectly smooth and velvety. Pack ketchup into clean dry jars with lids. Refrigerate 24 hours before using. (Ketchup can be frozen or refrigerated several weeks.) Makes about 1 quart.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 13 calories; 38 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.12 gram fiber.
WILD MUSHROOM OR ANCHO CHILE KETCHUP 1 1/2 tablespoons Wild Mushroom Powder or 1 to 2 teaspoons Ancho Chile Powder 1 1/2 tablespoons hot water 1/2 cup tomato ketchup (preferably low-sodium)
Mix Wild Mushroom or Ancho Chile Powder with hot water in small bowl. Set aside to steep about 5 minutes. Stir in ketchup. Let stand about 30 minutes to let flavors develop. Makes 1/2 cup.
Each serving contains about: 12 calories; 104 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.31 gram fiber.
Use this as a rub for meat or seafood to be grilled, or to season soups, sauces and stews.
Wild Mushroom Powder 1/3 cup dried porcini or cepes
Break mushrooms into 1/2-inch pieces. Process in blender or food processor until reduced to fine powder, about 1 minute. Let powder settle before removing lid. Strain through fine sieve. Makes about 1/3 cup.
Ancho chiles, relatively mild, sweet and dried, can of course be found at most upscale and Latino food markets. They also make one of the most versatile cooking powders. Rub on poultry, seafood or beef before cooking.
Ancho Chile Powder 3 dried ancho chiles (about 1/2-ounce each)
Break chiles apart with fingers. Discard stems and seeds. Dry chiles at 200 degrees about 1 hour until very brittle.
Process in food processor or blender at high speed until reduced to fine powder, about 1 minute. Let powder settle before removing lid. Strain through fine sieve. Makes about 1/3 cup.
This essence of red peppers from chef Kevin Taylor of Denver's Zenith American Grill is sublime on filled pastas like ravioli and tortellini, as well as grilled fish.
KEVIN TAYLOR'S RED PEPPER SAUCE 4 sweet red peppers 1/2 cup dry white wine 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice Salt
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as Italian parsley, basil, cilantro or chives
Halve sweet red peppers and remove stems, ribs and seeds. Slice peppers into 2-inch strips, then juice peppers in electric vegetable juicer.
Combine pepper juice and white wine in small saucepan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer about 20 minutes until sauce is reduced by half. Whisk in oil, lemon juice, salt to taste and herbs. Serve at once. Makes about 1 1/4 cups, enough for 1 pound cooked pasta.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 20 calories; 16 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.07 gram fiber.
This marvelous curry powder from cookbook author Sandy Gluck is made with sweet pungent spices and is a far cry from commercial curry. Use it to crust seafood, poultry and lamb. First, season desired food lightly with salt and sugar. Rub enough curry powder onto surface of the food to form a light crust; shake off excess. Sear in a hot non-stick pan with a little oil or grill over hot coals.
SANDY'S CURRY POWDER 2 tablespoons coriander seeds 2 teaspoons cumin seeds 1 teaspoon black peppercorns 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 1 teaspoon ground mustard 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Combine coriander, cumin and peppercorns in small, heavy skillet. Toast over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant. Stir in fennel, turmeric, mustard, ginger and cinnamon.
Scrape mixture into blender container and process at high speed until reduced to fine powder. Strain through fine sieve. Makes 1/3 cup.
Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about: 4 calories; 1 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.11 gram fiber.