Think Beyond Anchovies: 5 Flavor Brighteners to Buy Right Now

March  4, 2015

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: Save yourself from bland, repetitive meals with these 5 pantry flavor enhancers.

Lemon Caper Vinaigrette

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If you’re a regular on this site, you know that you should have some anchovies in your pantry. You know you should have miso paste and Parmesan cheese hanging out in your fridge. You know you should have Dijon mustard within arm's reach for speedy vinaigrettes, and curry paste prepped for an impromptu comfort meal. 

I am not here to debate the necessity of these pantry stalwarts. I am, however, here to give you 5 more ingredients you should invest in. Yes, this is a column aimed at helping you spend less money in the kitchen, but hear me out. These may seem like ingredients you'll use sparingly, but once you realize their versatility, you'll be putting them in everything (fish sauce caramel, anyone?). Shell out a few more bucks now (tip: hit up your ethnic grocery stores), and you'll wonder at how fast you use these staples up. 

Basil Thai Stir Fry

1. Fish Sauce

In all likelihood, you're no stranger to fish sauce. It's the ingredient adding a pungent bite to your Asian takeout, so rich and unapologetically funky that it seems almost indecent. The "fish" in fish sauce is our old friend the anchovy, which is fermented and aged with salt -- and, occasionally, sugar -- before being strained and bottled. When it comes to fish sauce, price often does indicate quality. Buy mid- to higher-priced bottles -- don't worry, a little goes a long way. Vietnamese fish sauce is lighter in color and milder in flavor than Thai varieties, so keep that in mind when you're purchasing.

If the adjective "funky" scares you away, don't let it. Start incorporating fish sauce gradually into your culinary repertoire with familiar dishes, like pad Thai and stir-fry, and before you know it, you'll be adding it to everything from brussels sprouts to chicken noodle soup.


Peanutty Udon Noodles

2. Sambal Olek 

Am I the only one that's not completely and totally enamored with Sriracha? (Hold your rotten tomatoes, please.) I'd much rather reach for a bottle of sambal oelek, a paste made with chiles, garlic, ginger, lime, salt, and sugar. Find it in the international aisle of your grocery store, or make your own. Then add it to peanut sauce for super spicy, slurpable noodles, or mix it with yogurt to make a dip for sweet potato fries. Mix with tahini, lemon juice, and canola oil for a zippy vinaigrette, or toss it on olive oil-dressed kale before roasting for spicy kale chips. Or just drizzle it over leftover pizza.


Tuscan Ribolitta Stew

3. Tomato Paste

You probably already have a can of tomato paste in your pantry. It's the adorably tiny one you opened to make bolognese and then relegated to your fridge, covered in plastic wrap, and forgot about until spring cleaning. First off, you should always buy tomato paste in a tube, not a can -- that way you can use what you need, when you need, without the waste. Next, you should be using tomato paste in much more than ragu. Tomato paste is made by cooking down tomatoes with olive oil and salt into a thick sauce, which is then strained and roasted for several hours. It adds a deep, caramelized flavor wholly unlike the bright acidity of canned tomatoes, which means that it actually pairs well with its canned cousins.

Use tomato paste to intensify the tomato flavor in dishes like shakshuka, or add a squeeze to curries and wintry soups. For a twist on tomato sauce, heat a spoonful of tomato paste in a saucepan with garlic and olive oil, then toss with spaghetti and pasta water and top with fresh parsley. 


Radish and Pecan Grain Salad

4. Sherry Vinegar

Sherry vinegar is, you guessed it, vinegar made from sherry, a fortified wine from Spain that's one of our teacher's pets. Though still bright, tangy, and sinus-clearing as all vinegars, sherry vinegar retains a round, nutty flavor from its origin wine. It's not as sweet as balsamic, not as tannic as red wine vinegar, and not as fruity as apple cider vinegar. Sherry vinegar is also quite potent, so a little goes a long way.

Whisk sherry vinegar with olive or nut oil, garlic, and smoky paprika to make a vinaigrette. Toss it with roasted vegetables and toasted nuts or pour it over grains (I like farro and barley), thinly shaved vegetables, and dried fruit. Bonus: Both options make for a stellar Not Sad Desk Lunch. Drizzle a little sherry vinegar over soups to liven them up, or add a splash to the final stages of caramelized onions to add depth. One final word: beets.


Zuni's Pasta with Preserved Tuna

5. Capers

Fun fact: Capers are actually pickled flower buds. For me, these little salty nuggets are the highlights of every dish, the marshmallows in my Lucky Charms. Pair them with citrus zest and canned fish for the ultimate pantry pasta, or smash them with lemon and mustard for a Genius vinaigrette to pour over everything from greens to grilled fish to chicken breast. Add them to all your salads: leafy green salad, egg salad, lentil salad, chicken salad, grain salad, etc. I also love adding capers to roasted cauliflower and tossing the whole mess with apple cider vinegar. It's best eaten cold straight from the fridge in overflowering spoonfuls.


Kimchi Fried Rice

Are there more flavorful favorites that I have omitted from my complete master list? Most certainly. Preserved lemons keep forever in your fridge (make your own!) and ensure you're never more than a pot of couscous away from a Moroccan-inspired meal. Add kimchi to your scrambled eggs or fried rice for a sour, addictive funk. Keep a can of chiles in adobo in your pantry and you're always prepped to make spicy chilaquiles. Sometimes it's a wonder my meals do not entirely consist of condiments.

Do you have an ingredient you turn to every time your meal is missing... something? Tell us in the comments!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Bruce W. April 17, 2018
marmite (truly) make a paste with beer/thyme/black pepper rub into red meat (duck/lamb/beef) marinate umami bomb
Danuta G. March 14, 2018
seems I'm adding my 2 cents' worth a few years after the fact, but you posted this article on FB here's my contribution: horseradish in a jar! Love the stuff, and add it to sauces (a rich brown gravy for red meat - throw in a couple of spoons of horseradish and it lifts the gravy to new heights!). Mix with mayonnaise and olive oil as a salad dressing. Add to barley/couscous for a new flavour enhancer...or, if you're nuts about it like I am...just slather it on anything from eggs to veggies (mix into a white sauce and drizzle over roasted cauliflower or brussel sprouts..OMG!! OK, I stop at oatmeal, but I do add a bit to yoghurt for a fresh, original flavour!
Melissa Y. June 30, 2016
Nutritional Yeast and Liquid Aminos are great umami boosters, and not just for vegans! They add a great depth of flavor to ground beef (add them to your burger meat before smashing them on the grill)!
adje B. February 18, 2016
I love all your recipes thanks
Shelley March 25, 2015
Sambal Oelek is sooo superior in flavor to Sriracha! Glad someone agrees with me. I go through a big bottle of it every two months! My Sriracha? Been sitting in my cabinet forever, unused.
Sammi March 13, 2015
Make your own 'capers' by pickling nasturtium seeds :)
Sheron A. March 6, 2015
Marmite. Great umami addition to many dishes
Gregory S. March 6, 2015
Shelley March 5, 2015
Absolutely right on target, especially sambal olek Vs. sriracha, which is so sweet.
ReneeA. March 5, 2015
Even easier way to store tomato paste - put the leftover from the can straight into a freezer weight zip top bag. Flatten it out and press out as much air as possible and seal it. Freeze it flat and then you can break off frozen chunks and re-seal the bag whenever you want!
mylas June 30, 2016
AriH March 5, 2015
Sambal oelek doesn't contain garlic; there are other sambals that do, but not oelek.
mscate March 5, 2015
I'd include chinese rice wine. I love it in cooking
Esther S. March 5, 2015
I had all of these in my pantry or refrigerator (even the kimchi and chiles in adobo), but I was surprised sesame oil wasn't on this list. It's a magical oil that, with only one or two drops, makes everything taste better.
jane.coombs88 March 5, 2015
Love sambal as well. My new fave are some of the Penzy's spice blends.
Darcey T. March 5, 2015
Once opened, how long will the fish sauce keep in the fridge?
Catherine M. March 5, 2015
Smoked paprika. Adds so much depth to almost anything. Also, the Caribbean (Trini) standby of "green seasoning" - a blend of onion, bell pepper, celery, scallions, and parsley or cilantro with vinegar or lemon juice. Throw in the food processor, freeze in ice cube trays - instant dash of "something more".
Carla March 5, 2015
Yes, ice cube trays would work just fine, too. Once frozen, pop the tomato cubes out and put them in freezer bags. Nothing wrong with tomato paste in a tube, if you don't have the room, but it is a LOT more expensive than tomato paste in a can.
Carla March 4, 2015
It is not necessary to buy tomato paste in a tube, if you have a little bit of room in your freezer. After you have used what you need from your little can of paste, portion the rest of the can into tablespoon-ish size blobs on a saucer or small pie pan and freeze until solid. Pop it off the flat surface (a butter knife or small spatula is handy here) and put it into a small freezer baggie. Whenever you need it, a blob or two is readily accessible and melts right into whatever you are cooking.
Catherine L. March 5, 2015
That's a great idea! Or you could put it in ice cube trays!
Darlene March 5, 2015
I put extra tomato paste straight into a freezer bag, spread the paste outwards, and then freeze the paste flat in the bag. I'm always able to snap off the amount that I need for my next recipe. :)
savorthis March 5, 2015
I do the same with tomato paste and chipotles. Ditto coconut milk.
jill_nusser March 4, 2015
Love sambal oelek! Thanks for the great list.