Easy ways to make your food enticing

Following these simple tips can make a difference between bland and flavorful food.

Quinoa 521 (photo credit: MCT )
Quinoa 521
(photo credit: MCT )
When I asked my India-born sister-inlaw, Mati Kahn, what makes her lentil soup so flavorful, she told me that after the lentils are just tender, she combines them with flavorings – sauteed onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes, celery, dill, fresh coriander and mixed spices – and simmers them only briefly with the lentils. By adding the flavoring mixture towards the end of cooking, when the lentils have already absorbed the water, the onions and garlic keep more of their texture and their sauteed flavor.
Adding flavorings at the last minute is a popular practice in Middle Eastern cuisines.
Cooks in Egypt prepare taklia by sauteing garlic in olive oil with ground or fresh coriander and sometimes with hot pepper, and add it to a pot of cooked beans, vegetables or tomato sauce. Deeply browned onions spooned over majadra give the simple Eastern Mediterranean dish of lentils and rice its charm. In the region around the Persian Gulf cooks finish their split pea soup with onions sauteed with dried mint.
To enhance lentils, dried beans, soups and curries just before serving them, a popular technique in India is to use a tadka, made of garlic sauteed in oil, or ghee (clarified butter) with spices – dried red chilies, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and often other flavorings as well.
Contemporary Western cooks also utilize sauteed aromatic vegetables to add flavor. Shallots sauteed in olive oil and then heated briefly with spinach, tomatoes and fresh basil, mint and parsley add a burst of flavor to the lentils cooked by Ellie Krieger, author of So Easy.
Cooked grains of all sorts gain from this technique. Nava Atlas, author of Vegan Holiday Kitchen, finishes a medley of cooked wild and brown rice with onions sauteed with celery and apples, as well as sweet spices and chopped pecans; she uses the fragrant rice as a stuffing for peppers. To finish her herb-flecked quinoa pilaf, she adds a saute of onions with garlic, gingerroot, mushrooms, broccoli and other vegetables.
Sauteed garlic and green onions added at the last moment punch up the flavor of Atlas’s festive black rice with corn and cranberries, which is seasoned with cumin, oregano, thyme, fresh coriander and lime juice. To further boost the flavor, she drizzles a little extra virgin olive oil over the dish just before serving it.
LEAH SCHAPIRA, author of Fresh & Easy Kosher Cooking, finds that pasta benefits from similar techniques. Her confetti orzo (barley-shaped pasta) is flavored with a medley of sauteed onions, mushrooms and tomatoes that cooks for a few minutes with spinach, garlic and soy sauce. To give depth of flavor to her salad of orzo and fresh dill, she stirs in diced carrots and garlic browned by roasting instead of sauteing, and dresses the orzo with lemon juice, olive oil, green onions, salt and pepper.
California chef John Ash, author of Cooking One on One, ensures that his zucchini soup won’t be bland by combining the cooked zucchini and their broth with onions sauteed in olive oil with spices – minced hot pepper, fennel seeds, cinnamon and cumin. After pureeing the soup, he finishes it with buttermilk and salt and pepper and serves it cold or at room temperature.
To add flavor to cooked beans, he stirs in sauteed mushrooms and sauteed shallots that simmer briefly with white wine and tomatoes, and a sprinkling of gremolata – a classic mixture of minced garlic, minced parsley and grated lemon zest.
Another useful way to boost flavor is to incorporate sauteed aromatic vegetables at two different points in the preparation of a dish. In the lentil and chard soup below, I leave half the sauteed onions and garlic in the pot to subtly flavor the lentils as they cook, and stir in the rest at the end for a more pronounced taste.
Try any of these techniques to enhance your soups, legumes and rice dishes. Simple tips like these can make a difference between bland and flavorful food.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Many like the classic formula of this Lebanese soup – lentils, chard, sauteed onions and garlic. Others relish the soup even more when they spice it with cumin, cilantro (fresh coriander) and cayenne. As with many lentil dishes in the Mideast, fried onions are a favorite finishing touch in this recipe, and so is lemon juice.
Some cooks make this soup more substantial by cooking the lentils with potatoes, noodles or bulgur wheat. You can substitute spinach for the chard.
Makes 4 servings.
11⁄2 cups brown or green lentils 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 3 large garlic cloves, chopped 4 to 6 cups water, or vegetable broth mixed with water 350 to 450 gr. (3⁄4 to 1 pound) chard, rinsed and chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 tsp. ground cumin (optional) 1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) pinch of cayenne pepper (optional) lemon wedges (for accompaniment)
Spread lentils on a plate. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones. Rinse and drain lentils.
Heat oil in a medium saucepan, add onion and saute over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes or until golden. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute. Remove half of mixture from pan.
Add the lentils and 4 cups water to the saucepan.
Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, adding more water if soup becomes too thick. Add chard, salt, pepper and cumin and simmer for 10 minutes or until lentils and chard are tender.
Return sauteed onion mixture to pan. Add cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne if desired. Serve with lemon wedges.
In this recipe, from So Easy, the cooked quinoa gains richness from onions sauteed in olive oil. Author Ellie Krieger describes the dish as “a perfect example of how to keep things interesting without going out of your comfort zone or working too hard. A traditional pilaf flavor combo of parsley and pine nuts flavor an exciting, new (but ancient) grain – quinoa – that cooks up tender and mild, just like rice.”
Krieger serves the pilaf as a side dish to accompany salmon with spinach but it would also be good with roast chicken.
Quinoa should be rinsed and drained before it is cooked.
Makes 4 servings; serving size: 1 cup
2 cups chicken broth 1 cup quinoa 1⁄4 cup pine nuts 1 Tbsp. olive oil 1⁄2 large onion, chopped 1⁄3 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put the broth and quinoa in a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer, then cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the grain is tender, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a large dry skillet over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove the nuts from the pan and set aside. Heat the oil in the same skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened and beginning to brown, about 6 minutes.
When the quinoa is done, fluff with a fork and transfer to a large serving bowl. Stir in the pine nuts, onions, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and serve.