FLAVOR BOMB

By Trent Blodgett

Have you ever tried to recreate your favorite restaurant’s seemingly simple dish and you just couldn’t get the flavors right, couldn’t figure out what separated it from just “good” to over the top? What’s that secret ingredient that the chef doesn’t quite divulge, even after, with sparkly eyes across the restaurant bar, you muster up the courage to beg for their recipe as he/she slips in to get a much needed post-shift drink? They graciously rattled off the recipe and you diligently jotted it down. What could have gone wrong? Chances are, their secret ingredient was a flavor base, something so automatic that they simply forgot; forgot to mention that is, the onions, garlic, and spices listed at the beginning had been previously sautéed together for quite some time.

In fact, most cuisines have a base or stock that provides a backbone that, without its addition, gives the impression the dish is simply “missing” something. Japan uses Dashi, a simple stock made with Kombu seaweed and dried Bonito flakes. In Mexico, a blend of charred onions, peppers and tomatillos provides deep flavor for salsas, sauces, and marinades. Thailand and Southeast Asia have their curries, which are full of spices and herbs that are pounded and crushed before adding to soups and stir-frys. In Spain and France, where they make some of the richest bases, they simmer diced aromatics in oil for hours to achieve a deep rich color and flavor, thus creating the delicious base called Sofrito for Spain’s national dish Paella, or Mire Poix for France’s famous braises and stews.

Even if you aren’t a super experienced home cook, having a great flavor base on hand will not only make cooking easier, it may inspire you to cook more, as the convenience of a ready-made “flavor bomb” will make even the simplest dishes come alive.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to make three of my favorite go-to bases to have on hand when inspiration strikes and you don’t have a lot of time. Make a large batch in advance and freeze into ice cube trays or pint containers. Break the ice cube trays into ziplock baggies to have ready-made portioned flavor at your fingertips.

You may be wondering, why not just buy one of the many available at the store? Unfortunately, store-bought sauces and flavor bases are often loaded with MSG, salt, additives and synthetic flavor enhancers. If you make it yourself, you’ll know exactly what’s in it, and can start playing around with adding your own twists, making it your kitchen’s new secret weapon, not to mention cutting a lot of time out of your prep. Weeknight dinners will never be the same!

OVERALL TIPS/THINGS TO REMEMBER

  • The best tastes are achieved by layering flavors. For example add the onions first, as they take the longest to caramelize, then the garlic, then the spices.
  • Spices can easily burn, so it is essential they are added after everything has caramelized, so their flavors “bloom” in the oil quickly.
  • For many of these bases, once the onions begin to simmer and release their juices, you don’t have to baby the pot, just keep the heat low and stir occasionally.
  • Chopping by hand is preferred, or a quick pulse in the food processor (don’t puree), or, feel free crush and mash with a mortar and pestle.
  • The smaller everything is minced, the quicker it will cook, but also, the easier it will burn.
  • If you do “over puree” your ingredients by mistake, more water from the vegetables will be released. Don’t worry, you can still recover this by turning up the heat at the beginning to cook off the excess moisture. Just remember to turn it down when it begins to caramelize.
  • Double or triple the batch and freeze into ice cube trays to have ready-made “flavor bombs” available at a moment’s notice.
  • For smaller batches, it will keep for up to a week in a sealed container in your refrigerator.
  • The larger the batch, the longer your onions will take to caramelize. You can increase the heat to speed this process, but stir more often so even cooking is achieved.
  • Feel free to add more oil, even submerge the ingredients in oil if you like, to create very even cooking. If you use this method, be sure to strain the ingredients over a bowl, and save the oil! This delicious aromatic oil can be used for sautéing, basting, dressings and sauces.
  • You can use a skillet/sauté pan or a pot. Keep in mind the high sides of a pot trap moisture and will take your ingredients longer to caramelize. A sauté pan caramelizes much faster, but also requires you to watch it more closely.
  • If browning too quickly or sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and stir, this will help it cook evenly.
  • These recipes are guides and do not need to be followed exactly. Feel free to put your own creative spin on things!

LONG-TAIL SUNSET CURRY PASTE

This simple base is fairly quick but packs a punch of flavor for stir-frys, curries or even as a marinade.

ADDITIONAL TIPS/THINGS TO REMEMBER

  • Shallots need a bit more attention than onions when cooking, as they contain less moisture and therefore brown more quickly; they are not one to walk away from.
  • Add shallots, garlic, and ginger all together for this recipe, as they all cook quickly and can burn easily when minced small.
  • Be easy on your heat. You do not want to “fry” the ingredients but instead slowly caramelize them.
  • Use this base for curry sauce, to enhance your stir-fry, soups or stews.

Makes: ½ cup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

EQUIPMENT

Heavy bottomed pot

Wooden Spoon

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 Tbsp fresh garlic chopped fine or crushed
  • 3 Tbsp shallot chopped fine or crushed
  • 3 Tbsp ginger chopped fine or crushed
  • 1–2 Tbsp Long-tail Sunset Spice Blend
  • 3 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil such as canola, peanut or coconut oil

STEPS

  1. Heat oil to medium for 2 minutes.
  2. Add shallots, garlic, and ginger and turn heat to medium-low — keep a close eye and adjust the heat accordingly; stir frequently.
  3. Sauté for approximately 15 minutes until color begins to change to a deep caramel. If it is getting too dark, remove from heat before it burns, add a splash of water, turn it down and return to burner.
  4. Turn heat to low, add Longtail Sunset Spice Blend, sauté for 5 minutes or until fragrant.
  5. Use immediately or cool and store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze for future use.

MARRAKESH SITAR TAGINE BASE

This base is perfect for folding into cooked rice or adding a Moroccan flair to any stew, soup or dip.

ADDITIONAL TIPS/THINGS TO REMEMBER

  • Sauté the onions for 10 minutes before adding the other aromatics.
  • Use this base for a tagine or any other Moroccan flavored stew or braise, throw a spoonful in sautéed veggies, a base for sauces or fold into any grain or pilaf.

Makes: 1 cup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

EQUIPMENT

Heavy Bottom Pot

Wooden Spoon

INGREDIENTS

  • 2.5 cups white onion, chopped fine
  • 2 Tbsp fresh garlic, chopped fine
  • 2 Tbsp ginger, chopped fine
  • 1 Tbsp Marrakesh Sitar Spice Blend
  • ½ cup olive oil

STEPS

  1. Heat oil to medium for 2 minutes.
  2. Add onion and turn heat to medium-low and sauté for 10 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and ginger; sauté for 20 minutes until ingredients reach a deep caramel color.
  4. Add Marrakesh Sitar Spice blend and sauté for 5 minutes, or until fragrant.
  5. Use immediately, or cool and store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week; or, freeze for future use.

MOMBACHO CAFE BACON SOFRITO

With the added depth of bacon, your pork dishes may never be the same! Great in rice, beans, braises, soups, and stews.

ADDITIONAL TIPS/THINGS TO REMEMBER

  • Starting the bacon in a cold pan with water will help to render more fat and fry evenly.
  • The bacon fat replaces cooking oil in this recipe and is unparalleled for caramelizing your onions and peppers.
  • Use this sofrito to make arroz con pollo, mix in with a can of beans or as a bean base, marinade, base for sauces, or toss in with your vegetables!

Makes: 1.5- 2 cups

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

EQUIPMENT

Heavy Bottom Pot

Wooden Spoon

INGREDIENTS

  • 12 ounces bacon, roughly chopped into ½” pieces
  • 2 red onions, chopped fine (about 2 cups)
  • ½ cup fresh garlic, chopped fine
  • 2 cups red bell pepper, chopped fine
  • 1 cup jalapeño peppers, seeded (or not, if you like it spicy) and chopped fine
  • 2 Tbsp Mombacho Cafe Spice Blend
  • ¼ cup water, more as needed

STEPS

  1. Add bacon and water to a cold pan and turn heat to medium. As the water evaporates, the bacon will fry evenly in its own fat. Let cook until almost crispy before proceeding to step 2. If water is evaporating too quickly, you can add more water or cover the pan with a lid.
  2. Reduce heat to low and add onions and pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally about 15–20 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and continue cooking, stirring occasionally for 10 more minutes. At this point, your ingredients should be nice and caramelized.
  4. Add Mombacho Cafe Spice Blend and stir well. Cook another 2–3 minutes.
  5. Use immediately, or cool and store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week; or, freeze for future use.

FLAVOR BOMB was originally published in Spice Tribe on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.