Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Three Culinary Shadows

Three pantry ingredients I can no longer be without.  Each member of the trio brings an essential element, but lurking deeper within are mysterious savory subtleties.

I cannot be without molasses, balsamic vinegar and soy sauce.  I mix them together for marinades, glazes and vinaigrettes.  I use them as a triangular base to build bigger flavors.

They each come from different parts of the world, but combine to create something of a different planet entirely: sticky yet sharp, sweet yet earthy, salty and round.

Let me tell you what I love about each of the Three Shadows:

Molasses: The dark, syrupy by-product of extracting sugar from the cane.  White sugar bores me.  I prefer turbinado sugar for my dry rub and molasses for wet applications.  Molasses brings sweetness, but also a savory rich darkness.

Umami.  That fifth flavor, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  I like my ingredients to bring more than just one note to the song.

Soy Sauce: Fermented soy beans with roasted grain, salt and yeast.  Aged then filtered and bottled.  From wine and beer to salami, kim chi and bread, where would we be without fermentation?

For allergy reasons, we use Tamari gluten-free in my house.  I often use soy sauce instead of salt.  Together with molasses, it balances the sweet with salty while delivering its own version of umami.

Balsamic Vinegar: The boiled and aged pressings of Trebbiano grapes.  Reduced over the years in casks of various woods.  I'm not using the century old stuff here.  Just the $3 a bottle stuff.

It brings that necessary tangy acidity with its own sweet woodsiness.  I like vinegar for providing a penetrating sourness and aroma.  It adds tart to the sweet and salt of the other Shadows, again with its own style of umami.

Where's the Heat?

The only core flavor not represented here is spicy. Add it in your own favorite way.  A hot sauce of some sort would be appropriate.  Something smokey like a chipotle works well.  If simmering the Three Shadows into a thicker sauce, chili flakes or poblano peppers make a good fourth player.

Already Asia, Italy and the Caribbean are represented.  Pick a spice from anywhere on the globe you like.  You know the heat tolerance of your audience.  Don't burn them.  Just wake them up.

How Will You Use Them?

Play around as you like, but here are three ideas:

Vinaigrette: Add one part each to three parts of toasted sesame oil.  Heat the molasses first or it will be too thick to mix.  Add Sriracha or another chili sauce to taste.  Shake well.  Adjust the proportion of Three Shadows to suit your preferences for salt, sweet and acidic.  Put this on salad, cooked vegetables or whatever you like.

Glaze: Add the Three Shadows in equal parts to a saucepan.  Add dried or fresh whole chilies.  Apply low heat and stir often.  Reduce it to the consistency of honey.  Remove the chilies.  Then drizzle over your favorite cooked meats and grill quickly.  Do not allow it to burn.  Or place the cooked meat directly into the pan and stir to coat.

Marinade: Microwave the molasses until warm then stir in the other Two Shadows.  Add hot sauce to taste.  Consider adding dried herbs or a squeeze of citrus.  Place in a zip-top bag or sealed container with your meat.  Top off with apple juice, wine or beer.  For small pieces of meat, let rest in the refrigerator at least overnight.  For larger cuts, marinate for a few days if possible.

I will revisit my friends, the Three Shadows, with future recipes in more detail.  Until then, play around with them and enjoy.