I don’t know if I would say that I have mastered basic cooking. I mean, don’t you have to be able to successfully cook a pot of beans before you can say that? But I think I have enough experience that I can focus on things that are a little more advanced, or “taking it to the next level” as my husband would say. For me, this means feeling comfortable playing around with recipes and making them your own. And a big part of that is understanding how different ingredients work together. (And just as importantly, which ones don’t work together!)
I am developing my own intuition about these things, but when I need some ideas or reassurance that what I am about to throw into the pot won’t ruin my dinner, I love to consult The Flavor Bible. I highly recommend that you check it out and add it to your culinary library In the mean time, here are some of my favorite combinations. While none of this is particularly groundbreaking, I hope it will inspire you to experiment a bit with new ingredients or to think of new ways to use some of your old favorites.
Also… I decided to stick with my own photos for this, and came to the realization that even though these are some of my favorite ingredients, I don’t have many photos of them. This means I have not cooked with them enough since I started this blog. So, expect to see more recipes with these ingredients soon!
The best thing about this threesome? They require pretty much zero effort to play nicely together, and rarely result in relationship troubles. Layer slices of tomato, mozzarella, and basil leaves, drizzle with a little olive oil (and balsamic vinegar if you want), season with salt and pepper. That’s it. No heat required.
If you have a little more time, throw tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil in between two slices of bread or on pizza dough. Or roast cherry tomatoes and add them to pasta with little balls of mozzarella and sliced basil.
Have I mentioned that I miss summer?
2. Cilantro + Lime
Recently my sister-in-law stated that she often cooks by smell, and I realized I tend to do the same thing. If you ever watch me handling fresh cilantro, there is a 96.3% chance that you will see me holding it up to my nose. (Don’t worry, I’ll wash it before I do anything else.) I know there are people who hate the smell (not to mention the taste) of cilantro. Once, in fact, I almost got in a fight with a dude at the grocery store who was loudly complaining about how the fragrant cilantro was permeating the entire produce section. (It was, and it was amazing.) I don’t understand the cilantro haters.
What makes cilantro even better? Lime. And I love the smell of lime just as much. Last week after cooking Black Beans with Apple Salsa, I couldn’t figure out why my hands smelled so good, and then I realized the last thing I did before we ate dinner was squeezing a lime wedge over my food.
Obviously, lime and cilantro are found together in a lot of Mexican dishes. Some of my favorite recipes where they both really shine are Bon Appetit’s recipe for Coriander Chicken Tostadas with Refried Beans and Grilled Fennel and ceviches like the one I made last summer. For a veggie option, check out Creamy Cilantro-Lime Slaw. (Greek yogurt can be used in place of the sour cream if you want to lighten it a bit.) You can find a similar but even lighter slaw as a part of the recipe for Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Cabbage Slaw (the tacos are awesome, too).
To get a quick cilantro and lime fix, stuff a bunch of fresh cilantro in a margarita, similar to how mint is served in mojitos. I would say it is way better than a mojito, but that is only because mint is to me what cilantro is to cilantro-haters.
3. Orange + Cardamom + (sometimes) Pistachio
This flavor combination always reminds me of some of my favorite desserts at Indian and Afghan restaurants. I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s awesome. This Mascarpone Tart with Honey, Oranges, and Pistachios takes advantage of all three ingredients. If you’re more of a cake person, try Olive-Oil Cake with Candied Oranges.
Or, if you’re feeling a little lazier, try this: take a bowl of store-bought rice pudding (preferably Kozy Shack) and stir in some grated orange zest, ground cardamom, and chopped pistachios.
4. Butter + Shallots + Thyme
I haven’t necessarily used these guys together that much, but when I was sautéing mushrooms the other night and was hit with the aroma of melting butter, sizzling shallots, and fresh thyme, I realized I need to keep them in mind more often. Imagine of all the things you could do with these as a starting point: Corn on the Cob with Shallot-Thyme Butter, Salt-Roasted Potatoes with Roast Shallot and Thyme Butter. For a main course, think about slathering a good steak or chicken breast with this trio.
5. Chocolate + Cinnamon + Cayenne
I’ve gotten to the point that if chocolate does not have a little sea salt or spiciness to it, it just doesn’t taste quite right to me. And I think it’s funny that people still seem to be weirded out by the idea of putting cayenne in chocolate. Didn’t Juliette Binoche already sell everyone on the idea more than ten years ago in Chocolat?
Anyway, if you are one of the people who has yet to taste chocolate spiked with chile, please give it a try. As I’ve mentioned before Dagoba’s Xocolatl drinking chocolate is amazing, and takes just a few minutes to prepare. For those of you willing to put in a little more effort, try Chocolate Chile Bread Pudding. Or for one of the most decadent sundaes you’ve ever had, try this combination: brownie + vanilla ice cream + Mexican Chocolate Sauce* + Chipotle-Cherry Whipped Cream. (Brownie optional.)
*This recipe calls for Mexican chocolate. If you cannot locate it, try a substitution suggested by a helpful Epicurious reviewer: per 8 ounces of chocolate, stir in 2 tsp cinnamon and 8 drops of almond extract.
Oh, the other cool thing about chocolate and pepper? They go so well together that they are willing to take turns playing the supporting role and letting the other one shine. Just like chile enhances chocolate, adding a little chocolate to a savory dish like chili or chicken mole will add depth without making it seem like you melted a Hershey bar over your chicken. I don’t have any particular recipes to recommend at the moment, but I will almost** guarantee that if you sprinkle a little cocoa powder or chopped bittersweet chocolate into your favorite chili recipe, it will make all the other spices and flavors pop a little more.
**Between my statistical training and the influence of my attorney father, I am hesitant to absolutely guarantee anything without an extensive contract. I accept no responsibility for failed dinners or disappointed diners. But if you give this a try based on my suggestion and love it, I will happily take the credit.