Guest Blogger: Carla Laureano
When you think of great cooking, you probably assume it means elaborate preparations and complicated technique. But as a food enthusiast, I believe the most enjoyable meal is comprised of quality ingredients treated simply—which should come as a great relief to beginning home cooks. Making great food at home is as easy as honing basic techniques and choosing good ingredients. And leveling up your cooking merely takes a few swaps. Once you make these changes, you’ll be wondering how you ever managed without them.
It’s perhaps the most basic seasoning in all cooking, and once so precious that part of a Roman soldier’s pay was a salt allowance (hence the word salary). And it’s still the easiest way to make food taste good—it makes sugar sweeter and it brings out the flavors of other spices. But if you’re sticking with fine iodized table salt, you’re missing out. I keep no fewer than four jars of different salts in my spice drawer and another several in my pantry . . . and regular table salt isn’t among them.
Kosher salt – The coarser granules are easier to handle while seasoning and hold moisture better than finer crystals, leaving meat moister and juicier. If you’ve thought chicken breast is dry by nature, it could very well be your choice of salts! This is the number one choice of chefs for salting food before or during cooking. My favorite brand is Diamond Crystal for its coarse but uniform granules.
Himalayan salt – You’ll see this sometimes misnamed as “pink sea salt”—it actually comes from the Himalayan mountain range, usually from Afghanistan. Himalayan salt gets its pink color from the minerals found in the mountains and contains essential trace elements that are often missing from a modern diet. You can find it in a range from fine to coarse. I like to use this in food that’s to be seasoned raw or cooked gently since it has a softer salt flavor that is often lost during cooking or beneath heavy sauces.
Sea salt – Like Himalayan salt, sea salt contains various minerals based on its place of harvest and can have a range of flavors depending on its original environment. I buy fine sea salt in bulk and use it in place of iodized salt for baking and salting cooking water. Larger flake salt (such as fleur de sel or Maldon) can be used as a finishing touch on top of any dish from meat to bread to chocolate. The crystal structure of flake salt dissolves slowly on the tongue and gives a hit of saltiness that’s surprising but not overpowering.
- Whole Peppercorns
Like any other spice, pepper loses its punch almost immediately after being ground. The difference between ground pepper sold in the jar at the grocery store and peppercorns ground fresh is like night and day: one has a vaguely peppery taste (and the tendency to make you sneeze); the other has a sharp, spicy flavor that makes it easy to understand why it’s called pepper in the first place. In fact, when I don’t want to use a hot pepper, freshly ground black pepper makes a good substitute. When cooking meat, I only use a good salt and freshly ground pepper, but my guests always comment on how flavorful the dish is. Magic.
- Whole-grain mustard
This is another swap that barely resembles the highly processed version at the local hot dog stand. It’s true that yellow table mustard has a mellow, inoffensive flavor, but is inoffensive really our highest goal as cooks? Whole-grain mustard, on the other hand, is robust and a little spicy, giving a punch of flavor to whatever it’s used in. Whether spread on a sandwich, used to make a pan sauce or rub, or whisked into a vinaigrette, it’s a serious upgrade to the pale yellow stuff most of us are used to.
- Balsamic vinegar
For the longest time, I thought vinegar only came in large plastic bottles and was used in the laundry. Then I discovered the world of vinegars. Like salt, I have no less than half a dozen in my pantry, each with its own unique flavor profile. However, if you can only have one, choose balsamic. Real balsamic vinegar of Modena is made from whole pressed grapes and then aged in a successive series of barrels, each made from different types of wood. The process is similar to that of aging brandy or sweet wine, giving a complex, mellow flavor that distinguishes it from the sharpness of distilled vinegar. It’s best used at the end of cooking, as it doesn’t hold up to heat well, though it can be simmered to gently reduce it to a syrup. Try it drizzled over rich meat or a fresh caprese salad. It also pairs well with berries: bruschetta topped with ricotta and fresh strawberries and sprinkled with balsamic vinegar can’t be missed.
Once, my only experience with maple syrup was the artificially flavored stuff used over pancakes; when I tried the real thing, it was a game-changer. I use this sugar substitute more than any other in my kitchen: to bring out the natural sweetness of veggies in sauces or soups, to flavor oatmeal, or in a quick vinaigrette (the fact it incorporates more easily than honey with oil and vinegar is a big point in its favor). And yes, swap out the Aunt Jemima’s for the real thing. Your French toast and pancakes will never be the same.
Now my secret is out: I’m mostly a good cook because I use good ingredients. Try these simple swaps for yourself and see if they don’t work miracles in your kitchen!
About the Book:
Denver chef Rachel Bishop has accomplished everything she’s dreamed and some things she never dared hope, like winning a James Beard Award and heading up her own fine-dining restaurant. But when a targeted smear campaign causes her to be pushed out of the business by her partners, she vows to do whatever it takes to get her life back . . . even if that means joining forces with the man who inadvertently set the disaster in motion.
Essayist Alex Kanin never imagined his pointed editorial would go viral. Ironically, his attempt to highlight the pitfalls of online criticism has the opposite effect: it revives his own flagging career by destroying that of a perfect stranger. Plagued by guilt-fueled writer’s block, Alex vows to do whatever he can to repair the damage. He just doesn’t expect his interest in the beautiful chef to turn personal.
Alex agrees to help rebuild Rachel’s tarnished image by offering his connections and his home to host an exclusive pop-up dinner party targeted to Denver’s most influential citizens: the Saturday Night Supper Club. As they work together to make the project a success, Rachel begins to realize Alex is not the unfeeling opportunist she once thought he was, and that perhaps there’s life—and love—outside the pressure-cooker of her chosen career. But can she give up her lifelong goals without losing her identity as well?
About the Author:
Carla Laureano is the RITA® Award-winning author of contemporary inspirational romance and Celtic fantasy (as C.E. Laureano). A graduate of Pepperdine University, she worked as a sales and marketing executive for nearly a decade before leaving corporate life behind to write fiction full-time. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and two sons, where she writes during the day and cooks things at night.