Nifty tricks take a dish from bland to bold

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 23, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Roasted cauliflower with pesto

Chef Lenore Pinello roasts cauliflower “steaks” at high heat to a delicious, caramelized finish. As a bonus, she scatters the trimmed outer leaves on the baking sheet as well — they turn crispy and flavorful. They’re so addictive, she calls them “potato chips.”

Serves 4

For the cauliflower:

1 head cauliflower

Olive oil, for brushing

Salt and pepper, to taste

For the pesto:

Makes 1 cup

2 large cloves garlic

1 large bunch fresh basil (about 2 cups, packed)

2/3 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Make the cauliflower:

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash cauliflower and remove the large outer leaves, reserving the tender ones for roasting. Trim bottom of cauliflower to make an even base.

2. With a sharp knife, slice the cauliflower vertically into inch-thick “steaks.”

3. Brush a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil. Spread cauliflower “steaks” on the baking sheet. Scatter trimmed outer leaves between the cauliflower wedges.

4. Roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

5. Carefully flip the “steaks” and return to the oven for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown. Remove from oven.

Make the pesto:

1. In a food processor, chop the garlic. Add the basil, salt and pepper to the processor bowl.

2. Pulse until finely minced, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl when needed. While the processor is running, add olive oil in a slow stream until a paste forms. If you prefer a thicker pesto, use less oil.

Nutritional analysis per serving: xxx

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Sofrito shrimp over cornmeal

In Cuban cuisine, a pool of hot, buttery “harina” (cornmeal) makes a delicious bed for sauteed shrimp, Creole-style crab or meat picadillo. Here, we offer our version of Cuban shrimp and grits, a comfort dish that’s a cinch to make with fine cornmeal.

A word about the sofrito: To enhance garlic flavor, use a mortar and pestle to pound garlic, salt and herb into a paste before adding to the skillet.

Serves 4

For the sofrito:

6 to 8 cloves garlic

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

6 to 8 cilantro stems with leaves (short, tender stems only; can use parsley instead)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 large white or yellow onion, finely chopped

1/4 green bell pepper, finely chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon dry cooking sherry

For the cornmeal:

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 cup fine cornmeal

1 to 2 tablespoons butter

Fresh ground black pepper

For the shrimp:

1 pound fresh shrimp, cleaned, with tail on

Splash of dry cooking sherry or white wine

Make the sofrito:

1. In a mortar, add garlic cloves and a sprinkling of salt. Pound with pestle until a paste begins to form. Add cilantro and pound into garlic mixture until ingredients are thoroughly muddled. Set aside.

2. Heat a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. When hot, add oil. When oil is hot, add onions and green pepper. Saute until onions start to turn translucent. Add garlic-cilantro paste and stir together with a wooden spoon.

3. Add tomato paste and stir to combine. Add sherry and black pepper and combine well. Set skillet aside.

Note: This sofrito can be used as a base for soups, stews or sauces, as a saute base for meats and veggies, or simply to doctor up canned beans.

Make the cornmeal:

1. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add salt. Slowly add cornmeal while constantly stirring. Add butter and stir.

2. Reduce heat and allow cornmeal to cook and thicken, stirring often. Fine cornmeal will cook quickly. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed. Cornmeal should be the consistency of thick oatmeal. If too thick, add water, stir and cook till combined. Set aside.

Make the shrimp:

1. Heat sofrito skillet over medium-high heat. If pan is too dry, add a touch of olive oil and heat up.

2. When pan and ingredients are hot, add shrimp. Quickly saute to coat the shrimp with sofrito. (Shrimp will cook very quickly, so stay close by.) Add splash of sherry or white wine and allow it to sizzle as you stir skillet. Remove from heat.

To serve: Spoon cornmeal into center shallow bowl. Top with sofrito shrimp. For an added flavor kick, drizzle with extra virgin oil and add a sprinkling of chopped cilantro or parsley.

Nutritional analysis per serving: xxx

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Grouper with gusto

Chef Lenore Pinello sears a simply seasoned fillet of local fish in a skillet with a little oil. It goes from fresh and simple to fresh and fabulous with a drizzle of basil-infused oil.

Serves 4

For the grouper:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds fresh grouper fillets (or any fresh, local fish)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Basil oil (see instructions)

1. Add oil to a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add fish, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and let it cook.

2. After about 6 to 8 minutes, carefully lift one side of the fish to make sure it has seared to a deep golden color. Once it has, gently flip the fillets and cook for an additional 5 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of basil oil.

For basil oil:

1 large bunch fresh basil

1/4 bunch flat leaf parsley (yields a greener oil)

1 clove garlic

Pinch salt

1 to 1 1/2 cups olive oil

1. In a food processor, pulse all ingredients until combined. Transfer to a small saucepan.

2. Cook until just boiling and herbs start to crisp. Remove from heat.

3. Cool and strain through a fine-mesh sieve or strainer. The oil will be bright green. Store infused oil in a Mason jar or squirt bottle in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Nutritional analysis per serving: xxx

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Lavender lemonade

Culinary lavender gives this lemonade a heady, floral note.

Serves 4

6 cups water, divided

1 to 2 heaping tablespoons culinary lavender

6 lemons, juiced

Agave nectar, to taste

1. In a saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add lavender. Let steep for 10 to 15 minutes until water is fragrant.

2. Strain lavender water into a pitcher or carafe. Add juice of lemons. Add 2 remaining cups water. Sweeten with agave to taste. Serve over ice.

Nutritional analysis per serving: xxx

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Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Flavor is everything in cooking. Too often we complicate our lives, our pans, our kitchens with intricate recipes, complex methodology and expectations of knockout dishes. But truly knockout dishes are not fussy. Truly great dishes are flavorful.

And while achieving flavor can be as easy as salt, heat and timing, it seems a magical thing.

What better canvas to demonstrate the powers of flavor-building than the humble cauliflower? Untouched by heat, spice or sauce, it recedes into a bland, mildly sulfurous realm. But roast it in a 400-degree oven, dressed in the sheerest brushing of oil, salt and pepper, and it is exquisitely transformed.

Give it a smear of fresh basil pesto and you’ve added the exclamation point.

I am often reminded of the lovely sofrito cubes prepared by Rosa Torres, a family friend with mad cooking skills. Her extensive repertoire of dishes, inspired by her Puerto Rican roots, is firmly built in the principle that every dish deserves to shine.

To that end, she calls upon her trusty wooden mortar and pestle, and she pounds together a paste of fresh garlic and cilantro. She adds this fragrant mix into a sizzling skillet of olive oil and diced onion. After it all cools, she spoons the paste into an ice cube tray and freezes it for later use. One cube can exalt a simple soup, add a pop of flavor to a saute, take a random omelet from breakfast to dinner.

Making a good sofrito is not an exact science or an obligatory march of ingredients. It must have olive oil, garlic and onions. But the rest can be improvised. Add chopped green or red bell pepper, if you wish. Add minced cilantro or parsley, a smear of tomato paste, a splash of sherry, whatever your dish or whim calls for.

Like a good sofrito, there are many other flavor-builders. We explored a few of them in our borrowed Tequesta, Fla., “test kitchen” last week, where chef Lenore Pinello is the resident Flavor Saver.

That smudge of basil that’s left in the food processor after she makes pesto or infused oil? That becomes the base for a bright, herbal salad dressing. That dollop of honey that’s left in the jar? It becomes the balancing factor for a too-acidic condiment.

Good flavor is not confined to the fancy jars in gourmet shops. It’s ubiquitous, we concluded, and it’s always ready for its moment.

Finding flavor

Here are some of our favorite flavor hacks:

Amplify the garlic aroma

Add a clove of garlic to your saute oil as it warms in the skillet to infuse the oil with garlicky goodness. For even more flavor, smash that clove with the flat side of a large knife. Remove the garlic from the oil once it turns golden brown to avoid bitterness.

Grate-ful aromatics

To add an oomph of flavor to dressings and marinades, grate a clove of garlic or a small wedge of onion into the mix. The result is not overpowering; it simply adds structure to your dressing. The same is true with citrus. Grate the zest of a lemon, lime or orange into a saute for instant brightness.

Water works

Sometimes a touch of water added at the right time allows flavors to develop in a soup, sauce or saute. A splash of water can de-glaze a pan, capturing all its flavorful remnants.

And it can be key in a simple but sensational veggie soup: Gently cook slivered onions in a slick of olive oil until nearly melted, add a chopped veggie of choice (cauliflower, squash or carrots are good options), and cook at gentle heat; add water to just cover the veggies and simmer until soft. Add a pat of butter and puree soup.

Bones about it

When making chicken or beef stock, the key flavor-building factor is bones. More bones yield a more intense, flavorful stock or broth.

The drizzle

Finish your dish with a drizzle of good olive oil. Even if you used olive oil in your sofrito or saute, a touch of extra-virgin olive oil at the end adds a layer of flavor and allows you to taste the oil’s distinct notes. Go bold: Try Spanish olive oil for a richer, more pronounced flavor.

Instantly rich

Gently heat milk in a saucepan until just before its boiling point. Once a thin skin has formed on the surface, remove it from the heat. This process brings out a deep, rich flavor in the milk. In turn, this milk adds delicious depth of flavor to cafe con leche, cappuccino, gelato, shakes and other dairy treats.

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