Too Many Cooks: How Do You Get to Flavortown?

February 21, 2014

You'll be hearing from the staff at Food52 in Too Many Cooks, our group column in which we pool our answers to questions about food, cooking, life, and more. 

In the last excruciating weeks of winter, when we've just about given up on wearing nice shoes to work, it's tempting to throw in the towel in the kitchen, too. But simple winter comfort food doesn't need to be bland or boring -- it might be mashed, and creamed, and relentlessly roasted, but even the most basic pantry meal has hope.

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Next time you hear the word "boiled," don't roll your eyes. Because with a dash of this and a sprinkle of that, you can rescue even the most uninspired meal. With this in mind, we asked our team:

What's your go-to remedy when your food turns out a little bland? 

How do you get to Flavortown when your winter staples have you bored? Do you turn to Sriracha? An armful of herbs? All soy sauce all the time? Tell us in the comments!   

Merrill: Lemon juice, herbs, red pepper flakes, and good olive oil are my go-tos. Also Pecorino, when appropriate.

ChristinaZa'atar is lovely on just about anything -- eggs, chicken, greek yogurt (or lebne if you're me), roasted veggies, et cetera. I've recently been meyer lemoning the heck out of everything too. Come see me at my desk if you want a wedge.

Amanda: Red pepper flakes, piment d'espelette, or Tabasco, depending on the dish. Grated cheese. Cholula. Lemon. Or I just put an egg on it.

Kenzi: All the acids. +1 on the egg, for a runny yolk can fix most things.

Brette: Red pepper flakes or smoked paprika. And recently I've been turning to sherry vinegar often. Probably because it's the prettiest bottle in my pantry.

Kristen: Lemon and salt. Every once in a while it fails, but usually it doesn't.

Jackie: Add a little kick -- I use hot sauces I collect from wherever I travel, including my favorite: ghost pepper hot sauce from New Orleans. It tastes good and warms you up from the inside out. 

Lauren K: +1 lemon juice, pepper flakes, and Pecorino. Also: Cholula orr Secret Aardvark hot sauce from Portland. Dashes of vermouth or white wine. Brown sugar.

Lauren L: Nudo's lemon olive oil, Sriracha, +2 put an egg on all of it.

Karl: +2 lemon juice. I also have a bunch of pre-made rubs on hand, some made at home, many store-bought. Hot sauces: yes! I like Sriracha, Clancy's Fancy, and recently this has become my new favorite

Danny: I have a secret weapon in the form of Garlic Gold. There's nothing that that, plus a healthy serving of Louisiana Lightning Strike, can't fix.

Posie: Vinegar of any sort. Jane's crazy mixed up salt. These insane and cool chef's essence sprays. And in my opinion, cardamom: sweet food, as cumin: savory.

Rémy: I had a reputation in college as the girl who carried sriracha in her backpack. When hot sauce fails, there is nothing that some some sort of vinegar cannot fix. 

Julie: A fried egg, some balsamic vinegar, or a shot of Sriracha usually does the trick!

Marian: Lauren K, I've been putting vermouth in things too! Most recently, vegetable stock. It makes me feel sly. My go-tos are heaps of Parmesan, plus all the stuff everyone else said: lemon, red pepper flakes, black pepper, Maldon. Eggs on everything. 

Catherine: Ginger, citrus, mustard, or soy sauce, depending on what the dish is. Also vinegar. Also sometimes maple syrup? And wine, of course.

Michael: Red Boat Fish Sauce.

Joy: I was lucky enough to get Torrisi's Spicy Sauce as a Christmas gift this year (thanks, Marian!) -- and I've been putting it on everything. It's so good, and just hot enough that I can't dump the whole thing on some oily pasta, which is what I really want to do.

Stephanie: Lemon juice and eggs are my go-tos too. Also kecap manis.

Rachel: I have been messing around with two Provisions products lately: chili salt and porchetta salt. My other go-to is seasoned rice vinegar.

Gabriella P: I douse my food in either Sriracha or Cholula. Sometimes both.

Lauren M: Dijon mustard or Noble Tonic Sherry Vinegar for a little zing, and Greek yogurt to make anything extra creamy and tangy. Also, cumin on anything simmered or stewed.

Gabriella M: Same as the other Gabriella! And if I'm going for extra spicy, this Bad Brains sauce or green El Yucateco. I also frequently turn to red pepper flakes, lemon, a fried egg, or sometimes a little honey.

Lindsay-Jean: +1 for vinegar. All of the vinegars. And +1 for Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt! My grandmother (named Jane) used it all the time, and now it's the one pantry ingredient I make sure to never run out of. 

Maddy: Lemon juice, Tabasco, red pepper flakes, freshly cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. Also, butter.

Laura B: A touch of rosemary-infused olive oil, and a bit of kick from some red pepper flakes or dried chilies of some kind! Lemon zest, too.

Tell us in the comments: What are your go-to flavor enhancers?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Abby @ Happy Food Happy Home
    Abby @ Happy Food Happy Home
  • AntoniaJames
  • Sewassbe
  • susan
  • walkie74
Julie Myers

Written by: Julie Myers

Perpetually hungry. Will travel for food.


Abby @. February 24, 2014
Does butter count? Lots of butter? I think that's just the winter blahs setting in.
Also lemons, grapefruit, blood oranges, and limes. Citrus is helping me grasp at the coming spring. Spring!
Julie M. February 24, 2014
Butter always counts!
AntoniaJames February 24, 2014
Tamarind: in quick chutneys with chopped dried apricots (or sour dried cherries) + onion, raisins, apple, whatever,

or in this sauce, which goes on any and everything:

Dill pickle vinaigrette using chopped homemade kosher dills (made with white wine vinegar, adapting Paul Virant's best-ever kosher dill recipe in "Preservation Kitchen") and their pickling juice.

Quick pickled chopped chard stems, also inspired by Virant (see for more details on the concept), using red wine, red wine vinegar and maple syrup.

Pickled Tomato Vinaigrette - blend cherry tomatoes pickled last summer in wine vinegar, with some of the brine + fresh parsley, etc. Instant summer. (Another keeper inspired by "Preservation Kitchen")

Citrus vinaigrette made by infusing wine + wine vinegar with orange + lemon peels, while simmering the segments gently in the same liquid, then blending the latter with the infused liquid plus a dab of Dijon mustard. Inspired by Virant's Mandarin Aigre-Doux.

Dried sour cherries in and on everything imaginable.

Those are just a few. Incidentally, this is the winter version of how I typically eat, year round. ;o)
Sewassbe February 22, 2014
Acid, salt (either straight up or from something like green olives or pecorino), alliums, and the smokey flavors of Smoked Spanish paprika and chili powder. Sometimes spicy heat from hot sauce, cayenne, or straight up old-fashioned black pepper.
susan February 22, 2014
Salt,Sweet,Heat,Acid,Fats. helps enhance flavors

walkie74 February 21, 2014
My hubby's favorite is red chili paste, which I found in a 10 lb jar for $20. I prefer salt first (in small amounts), then pepper or oil (olive, mostly).
Lincoln B. February 21, 2014
Salt, Parmesan, Parsley, Lemon

Depending on the dish and the flavor I'm looking for, one of those four always do the trick.
jbban February 21, 2014
I made the dukkah from Jerusalem and have been putting it on everything, especially any leftovers, baked sweet potato, and porridge (!).
amysarah February 21, 2014
My frequent remedies are a hit of acid (i.e., lemon juice, various vinegars, lime, etc.), red pepper flakes, anchovies....but my sister and I long ago deduced the fundamental reason everything my grandmother cooked was so delicious: if you take virtually anything, from a piece of chicken to shirt cardboard, and add fat (butter, schmaltz, bacon grease, etc.) and a pinch of sugar and/or a good sprinkling of will be tasty.
Bea February 21, 2014
You are so right about that, my Mother and Grandmother did the same thing too. You had to have that pinch of sugar, how funny. I had forgotten about that.
Bea February 21, 2014
I always go for Tony's Creole from La. or Fiesta Brisket from Tx then lemon, maple syrup or soy sauce. If none of that works take 2 Tylenol and go to bed!
lastnightsdinner February 21, 2014
Salt, vinegar, anchovies, lemon.
Sarah C. February 21, 2014
My husband and I have a saying, "if you like it, then you shoulda put an egg on it" because a runny egg makes good things even better. We often eat somewhere (or even something at home) and start dreaming of how good the leftovers would be with an egg on top!
Julie M. February 24, 2014
That is hilarious.
Pegeen February 21, 2014
I can't think of anything to add to the staff's great tips except using the juice from a jar of pimento-stuffed green olives or capers and caper juice, anchovies, citrus zest.
Bea February 21, 2014
My son does that! We just had that conversation last night. Great idea.