Whether you are holed up in town or country during this period of social distancing, the glory days of stockpiling will soon give way to the boredom of being stuck with diminishing supplies and mundane ingredients. I don’t know about you, but I am not so sure I can look at another image of empty store shelves.
For one, they fan the flames of alarm and anxiety. Two, they are simply not helpful. Why do I need to look at empty shelves? It is far more interesting to examine which foods are left by the stockpiling masses: Canned beets, mustard oil or fresh rutabagas?
The sooner we figure how to use these leftover products, the better. What better day for experimentation than Mondays? It is becoming apparent that in order to make these meals the highlight of the day, you will want to make use of three key ingredients to survive the long haul together in the kitchen: spices and dried herbs, umami assets, and nut/seed butters. You may already have these ingredients. If not, it may still be possible to order online or pick up nearby at stores or from friends.
This is the first in a three-part series to identify and prioritize key ingredients to make your Meatless Monday meals memorable during the lockdown. They will help to transform mundane ingredients into delectable dinners.
To begin with, let’s talk about spice blends. Whereas fresh herbs may deliver a fresh and wet, front-of-mouth taste experience, dried herbs deliver the kind of layering that brings out the complexity of flavors. You may have some of these ingredients already and can blend them into these culturally iconic blends. Take any one of them, together with salt, oil and roasted root vegetables (like potatoes, turnips, rutabagas or beets), and you have a dish with which to design a meal around.
Spices: Dried herbs last forever and provide a splash of flavor if working with limited ingredients. Since they are dried, it takes heating them up (usually in oil) to release the flavors. Whether you are cooking in deference to Italian, Indian or French cooking, you will want to pursue similar strategies. Heat the pan, add oil and herbs. Once they begin to emit a scent, add other ingredients: beans, peas, carrots, potatoes, you name it. Whatever you have on hand will take on dramatically different flavors.
Chinese Five Spice: This distinctive element to Chinese cooking brings a scent of authenticity to even the most mundane noodle dish. The five ingredients are star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and fennel seeds.
- While traditionally used as a rub for roasted meats, feel free to roast whole carrots or turnips in a mixture of oil, water, and salt. Or, make a quick and easy noodle dish with chopped celery, mushrooms and whichever seeds or nuts you have on hand.
Garam Masala: This complex Indian blend of spices consists of ingredients that typically roasted whole, then ground down into a powder. You can purchase the blend, or make it yourself. You might already have many of the ingredients in your larder: Cumin, coriander, green and black cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, fennel, mace and dried chili. Noticeably absent is the other key Indian spice, turmeric.
Herbes de Provences: France’s Herbs de Provence is basil, fennel, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, tarragon and thyme.
- Try the mix with an omelette or roasted potatoes. Uncooked, they are also great atop a salad of fresh tomatoes sitting in olive oil, or in a vinaigrette dressing with whichever oil and vinegar you have on hand for a green salad.
Za’atar: This Middle Eastern blend is made with thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac and mixed with toasted sesame seeds and salt. Versions vary from region to region.
- It is the toasted sesame seeds that stand out and add original flavor to grilled cheese sandwiches, yogurt, sautéed mushrooms, and of course atop flat breads or cooked under the broiler, drizzled atop pita or Lavash breads with olive oil.