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Think Beyond Anchovies: 5 Flavor Brighteners to Buy Right Now

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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

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!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Weeknight Cooking, Quick and Easy, On the Cheap