9 Ingredients to Turn To When You're in a Cooking Rut

March  9, 2016

Dear Food52,

I’m in a rut. I feel like I keep making the same dishes over and over, and adding the same spices to them. Like I’ll cook black beans with cumin, or put pesto on pasta. I eat a lot of eggs covered with Sriracha. I want to build out my pantry to include more ingredients that will add a lot of flavor to simple weeknight dishes—what should I buy?

Bored of Bland

Hi there, Bored,

So you know how motivational speakers and corporate coaches are always like, Work smarter, not harder! Be efficient! And you’re like, Yeah, buddy, but what about this inbox that’s carrying the weight of the world, how do I work smart about that? Well I have some good news for you and that news is that in the kitchen, working smarter simply means stocking up on ingredients that will do a whole lot of legwork for you.

These ingredients—the flavor brighteners and the zippy doodads of your pantry and fridge—will keep you from having to, say, spend an hour on a Tuesday night making perfectly caramelized onions or slow-roasting whatever you’re going to slow-roast. Want to make your pasta taste better but don’t really feel like spending the time to make sauce? Grab the harissa! Bored by your salad but don’t know what it’s missing? Toss in a bursting handful of fresh herbs and a few strikes of lemon zest!

Arming yourself with as many of these smart ingredients as you can afford will make life so much easier when dinnertime comes around and you want a meal that’s both exciting and expedient. More time to deal with that inbox.

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Here's my list:

1) Lemons

First: Please do not use lemon juice from a bottle. It’s not nearly as flavorful as the real thing, not nearly as potent. But real lemons—and their zest!—make so many things better. Squeeze a bit of juice into a dull-tasting soup (something like white bean and kale?) right before you take it off the heat. Squeeze it over any sort of cooked protein. Over sautéed greens. Over a boring salad. Over anything that needs some zip.

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Top Comment:
“preserved lemon dressing is a challenge in emulsification but so good on almost everything!”
— Elana C.

Zest, too, makes everything better: salad dressings, desserts, PASTA, roasted vegetables—it gives the bright flavor of lemon without the sometimes-overpowering acid of juice.

2) Harissa

Buy yourself a jar of harissa when you need a special treat and you’re at a fancy grocery store. It’s got a bit of lush smokiness and a good kick of spice that isn’t too sharp or piercing. You get the flavor of ingredients that have been cooked for a long time, to their fullest potential, without having to do it yourself—a small spoonful can make a 20-minute meal feel like something much more complex.

Smear it on bread, toss it with buttered pasta, rub it into your vegetables before roasting, dollop it onto grains, or serve it as a condiment for grilled meats.

3) Gochujang

Another red paste; this one’s made from fermented chiles, funkier and tangier and smoother than harissa, and devised farther east. Gochujang can be used as both condiment and sauce ingredient; use it anywhere you’ve already used soy sauce and want to add a little something extra.

Add it to grain bowls, breakfast burritos, scrambled eggs, even noodle soups! Mix with some mayonnaise and then spread onto your next sandwich.

4) The Italian Pantry: olives, capers, canned artichokes, roasted red peppers

Keep these things stocked up so that the next time you’re making pasta or pilaf or pesto or piccata or soup (yes, chop up your oil-cured olives very fine and nice and swirl them into soup, why not), you don’t have to do much more than scatter something salty or rich or both to add a jab of flavor.

Blitz your olives then mix them with softened butter and spread them on toast. Now you’re fancy! Blitz your artichokes with parsley, lemon, Parmesan, and garlic. Now you’re innovative! Fry your capers before you use them as a garnish. Now you’re happier.

5) Fancy Olive Oil

My favorite way to dress vegetables is to blanch or boil them, then nearly drown them in a high-quality olive oil, the kind that actually tastes like something. Then I’ll sprinkle on some salt and maybe some pepper and red chile flakes, a squeeze of lemon. Same with beans—they love a good smothering. In most cases, fancy olive oil will add a lot of flavor (and a good slick of fat) without overpowering the thing you’re trying to dress. And it makes any sort of toast all the better.

Here’s a particularly fun way to use your good oil: Spill a stream of it over some good greek yogurt, then add a pinch of salt, for a different sort of savory breakfast.

6) Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs like parsley and mint and tarragon add flavor to salad in such a dramatic way you’d think they were lifting the salad on their shoulders and then jogging triumphantly towards your dinner table.

Use whole or torn leaves as a garnish everywhere you can imagine them—green salads, bean salads, sandwiches, pasta—or chop them and swirl them into a wan soup at its last minute.

7) Parmesan Cheese (the real kind!)

A blanket of Parmesan serves as a very large Band-Aid on top of any sort of dish that could theoretically be served in Italy: cooked greens, pasta, salad, soup, red sauce, sandwiches, and so on and so forth. Buy the good stuff and shred it with your Microplane. Or shave off wisps with a vegetable peeler (particularly great for salads) or tear off chunks with the tip of a paring knife (lentils, I’m looking at you). Shave it over roasting broccoli before its last few minutes in the oven to make a cheesy little armor for each tree.

More: When your Parmesan cheese is down to the rind, make broth.

8) Preserved Lemons

First up: Making your own preserved lemons is maybe one of the easiest at-home DIYs you can find. And then you can chop up a little corner of lemon any time you want to add that briny-citrusy punch to whatever it is your having.

Works particularly well in Middle Eastern dishes, of course, but also in salad dressings, scattered over vegetables, served alongside cooked meats, blitzed into pesto, chopped over pasta, or even used as a pizza topping. Tuck some into your savory galette! Add it to a steak sandwich! Pair it with your fish!

9) Espelette Pepper

The best thing I ever learned from Rachael Ray was to put nutmeg in savory dishes. She always promised that when you did, people would take a bite and look up to the sky quizzically and say Hmm, what is that? Espelette does the same thing in a slightly-less-surprising way. It’s sweeter and richer than your plain old chili flakes, and also finer, which means they won’t add texture, just a rich bit of something extra when you need a magic pinch to save you from blandness.

What ingredients do you rely on to make simple meals more exciting? Share with us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Radish
  • Sarah E Daniels
    Sarah E Daniels
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    Kaitlin Bray
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    Elana Carlson
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Radish March 10, 2016
Glad to read you again , Marian.
Sarah E. March 10, 2016
Quickly read "Italian Pantry" as "Italian Party." Same thing though.
This is great.
Kaitlin B. March 9, 2016
Such a great article! Many things I already do, but lots of new tricks too! Thank you, Marian!
Elana C. March 9, 2016
preserved lemon dressing is a challenge in emulsification but so good on almost everything!