Some things are so trendy that I’m embarrassed to use them. Others smack of “gourmet,” a characterization I spend every waking moment trying to avoid. I consider tamarind paste and pomegranate molasses to be this year’s poster children for the ACWMFASFF (the American Council of Well-Meaning Foodies Against Succumbing to Food Fads). Both have undeniable merit and significance, but they are also ubiquitous culprits in all those recipes across our land that are simply too busy. Past poster children include anything with sun-dried tomato in it, anything with the word pesto in it, infused oils, Laura Chenel’s frozen curd goat cheeses, argan oil, anything with the Silver Palate label on it, jarred bruschetta toppings, dipping oils, and everything Stonewall Kitchen makes.
These 10 things, however, are indispensable. Required. Delightful and delicious. Get them.
- Saba. Saba, the color of red wine with a slightly thicker texture, is also called vincotto, because it’s re-squeezed and cooked wine grape must (the leavings of grape pressings), most often from central Italian bulk winemakers. But it’s also found in the south and in Sicily. It evolved centuries ago, when most people were so poor that sugar was a chimera, and saba was used as a sweetener. But it’s not just sweet —it’s complex. It’s like a wine sauce made out of sorghum, if that makes any sense. I use saba as a pan deglazer: It’s heavenly in a deglazed sauce for scallops, for foie gras, for pork chops. A beautiful braising medium for beef in a dish like brasato di manzo, and for pork shoulder or pork tenderloin. Add it to vinaigrettes. Dee-lish with vodka and club soda.
- Sardines. There is no sardine on the planet that can compare to the vintage sardines of Brittany. I hesitate to mention them, as they are so rarely found here, but once you have tasted them, once you appreciate how sardines improve in the tin with time, you just can’t imagine how rewarding a few saltines, some slices of onion, and cold beer can be.
- Preserved lemons. Lemons become otherworldly when pickled, an entirely new fruit-cum-condiment that, when sliced and tucked under the skin of any kind of poultry, results in birds of paradise. The flavor and fragrance delivered by preserved lemons is not just lemony, but exotically lemony —you wonder how this dish could have come out of your very own kitchen. Mince it for couscous or rice or a vinaigrette; swirl it into pan leavings from a sauté of fish or scallops or prawns; fork-press it into a gremolata of parsley, garlic, and olive oil, and use it in our Moroccan Charmoula Dressing.
- Harissa. For the same reasons as preserved lemons. In Tunisia, harissa is a sacrament. Tunisians make their own harissa, from hot chiles grown in situ that are strung, garlanded, and festooned in nearly every house, then seeded and crushed and combined into a thick paste with sea salt and any combination of caraway, cumin, coriander, sometimes mint, and garlic and olive oil. North Africans would never dream of buying commercially made harissa, but there are several perfectly acceptable examples widely available here in specialty food shops, even supermarkets. I have a jar or tube of harissa on the table constantly in order to bombard my taste buds, to stun myself. Try it with baked potatoes, roasted onions, french fries, beef stew, short ribs.
- Goose fat or duck fat. To fry or sauté something in goose or duck fat is a revelation —chicken thighs, for instance. Goose and duck fat deliver that indescribable umami, that fifth perception of flavor that is usually referred to as “savory.” I cherish bacon fat as much as the next man, but bacon fat from the omnipresent coffee tin on the stove is for popcorn.
- Serious anchovies. Let’s get this straight, once and for all. If you don’t understand anchovies, you’ve got some seasoning to endure if you ever want to consider yourself committed to food. Serious anchovies are indispensable for stews, for vegetables (Mediterranean Braised Chard, anyone?), for soups, and for innumerable pasta dishes. Is there anything more satisfying—anything—than an aglio e olio sauce for pasta that features not just crushed or minced garlic and good olive oil, but also a couple of chopped fillets of anchovy and a dab of harissa? Forget about supermarket tinned anchovies. Forget about the anchovies that pizza parlors use. Serious anchovies taste like adult candy. The proof is to sit before a couple of olive oil–packed fillets from companies like Roque (Collioure, France), Ortiz (Pays Vasco, Spain), or Recca (Sciacca, Sicily). (It is a myth that serious foodies opt only for salted ‘chovies. They’re going to be irretrievably salty and bony and scaly, no matter how much you fuss with them!). A handful of marcona almonds. A glass of cold fino sherry. Crusty bread. The lights will go on for you.
- Membrillo. The eons-old “fruit cheese” of Catalonia and Valencia is quince paste. I cannot serve cheese and charcuterie without it. Unless the fruit at hand is so seasonal, so dripping with its own nectar, so perfectly ripe and maybe even trailing its own leaves, I say fruit is boring. Quince paste is so sweet that it makes your teeth hurt, but with grand cheeses it is divine; and as an accompaniment to rustic stuff like cheese, salami, ham, pâté, nuts and olives, and crusty bread, it is far more enticing and memorable than anything I can think of.
- Salted capers from Pantelleria. Brined capers are but cosmetic. No flavor. The salted capperi from the island off the southwestern coast of Sicily have been famous for centuries. It’s a cinch to wash away the sea saltiness. (Unlike the cinch it’s not to wash away the salt from salted anchovies.) I love to fry them in olive oil to add to various things. They work nicely in our take on remoulade. Capers are meant to boost flavors. Pantelleria capers are meant to have a life of their own.
- Pignoli (pine nuts). Toasted until brown, they are a welcome ingredient with rice and with cooked vegetables. Try them in our Linguine with ‘Squash Noodles,’ Pine Nuts, and Herbs.
- Dried porcini. A secret weapon to boost flavor without being superfluous. Perfectly paired with pancetta in our Fettuccine with Porcini and Pancetta Cream.