We're eating at home a lot more these days, probably eating a lot of the same meals. Maybe we're throwing together the basics just to get by. Either way, sometimes you realize that while what you made is perfectly serviceable, it's not wowing you. Perhaps it only needs a little bit more at the very end.
When we find ourselves in that situation, we turn to our refrigerator and pantry shelves for just the right condiment. Here's what we're loving right now.
I love a popular of-the-moment condiment as much as the next person. These days, however, I've been relying extensively on something decidedly less trendy: pepperoncini. Yes, those pickled peppers you're more likely to find at a deli than a hip restaurant have become a staple of my pandemic cooking. And all I need to do is grab a cheap jar at the grocery store. The Mezzetta brand is my go-to.
Pepperoncini hit a lot of the notes you want when finishing a dish: Salty, crunchy, acidic, a little spicy. When I find something lacking, often the answer is to toss on a couple (or more than a couple) of the rings. I've taken to including them in my cold bean salads, where I also use the brine in the dressing. I add them to a cold plate of the "green pasta" with kale pesto I routinely cook for my son, turning it into an impromptu pasta salad for myself. They go in omelets, grilled cheese, quesadillas and tacos. They're right at home on top of a pizza or nachos, in sandwiches or a regular green salad. It's easy to overthink things in the kitchen, and believe me, I frequently do. Sometimes, though, going for a simple classic is just the ticket.
- Becky Krystal
I had tasted it in many dishes, but it wasn't until I was testing food writer Todd Kliman's powerhouse Miso-Parmesan Pasta with Chili Crisp recipe that I fell in love with this blend of chiles, peppers and onion. I ended up with a 24-ounce jar and I thought to myself, "What am I going to do with all of this?" I needn't have worried. Soon, I was scraping the bottom of the jar with a spoon to retrieve the last bits, and ordering another.
I have added the slightly spicy sauce to stir-fries and dumpling dipping sauces, stirred it into rice, tossed it with sauteed eggplant, squash and broccoli and rubbed it into shrimp before broiling. (I have not tried it on ice cream, as some have.) Kliman recommended Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, which was created by Tao Huabi, founder of Lao Gan Ma Foodstuff, who is much celebrated in China. There are other varieties that might include fried pepper, shallot or garlic bits mixed with other bold-flavored ingredients. The condiment's international popularity has sparked homemade recipes online and store brands, including Trader Joe's Chili Onion Crunch.
- Ann Maloney
Basbaas Somali Foods' Coconut Cilantro Chutney
Basbaas means "chile" in Somali, but this velvety chutney isn't hot. Crushed coconut, fresh cilantro and lemon juice form a base that gains heat from green chiles and additional pungency from onions and vinegar. It's mysteriously warming and cooling, refreshing and deep.
I first tasted this chutney, created by Hawa Hassan, entrepreneur and co-author of the forthcoming "In Bibi's Kitchen," several years ago. Initially I thought I would use it as a dip or side, but its complex and layered flavors make it perfect with almost every savory thing. I've used it on eggs, fish and shellfish, chicken, fried tofu, grilled and stir-fried vegetables, fresh tomatoes, roasted squash and sweet potatoes, as a marinade for meats, alongside fried dishes, stirred into chicken soup, atop stewed beans, in yogurt, and with quinoa and other grains. This year I plan to try it on grilled corn on the cob, tossed with rice noodles and as a salad dressing, thinned with more lemon and olive oil. Note: Due to the pandemic, orders from Basbaas Somali Foods are experiencing shipping delays.
- G. Daniela Galarza
The pandemic has made me jones for oomph and pizazz: The kind of sleight-of-hand brio that fancy restaurant dishes reliably provide. And now I count on the door of my refrigerator for the heavy lift. Sure, with saucy condiments – a squirt of harissa or dab of sambal oelek – but preserved lemon seems to be the go-to more often than not. It's got tang and salt and a plush unctuousness that shouldn't be relegated to Moroccan tagines.
Without the harsh pucker of fresh lemon, a tiny dice on the top of bean or chickpea soups provides a high note. It adds a subtle spin to a salade Nicoise vinaigrette and, rinsed to remove a bit of the salt, it may be chopped and used to contribute a pleasantly bitter edge to pound or loaf cakes (the flavor melds especially well with almond and ginger). Then use a bit of the lemony brine in Sunday morning's bloody mary.
They are easy to make yourself – scrubbed lemon wedges or slices packed in a jar with heaps of kosher salt – but there are plenty of commercially available options, and they last for months. Mina and Sanniti jar them whole, which can be a bit messier to use. Sadly, Trader Joe's Preserved Tunisian Lemon Slices have been discontinued – a single round, chopped, was usually the right amount to bring the zing.
- Laura Reiley
A glance inside my refrigerator fairly screams my taste in accents. Zoom in on just the front right panel, where sriracha obscures a bottle of ketchup, prepared horseradish is easier to reach than mayonnaise and zestier mustards outnumber light ones. Basically, I lob what's bold on anything that needs a charge. My main preoccupation throughout the pandemic: anchovies suspended in olive oil in a glass jar. (Call me clumsy or impatient, but the tabs on my tinned fish snap off with disappointing regularity.)
Chopped anchovies on sliced tomatoes create the perfect, no-cook summer salad; minced anchovies add brine and brawn to so much more than the expected Caesar salad dressing or tapenade. Don't take just my word. "Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produces headier flavor than anchovies. It is an exceptionally adaptable flavor that accommodates itself to any role one wishes to assign it," writes Marcella Hazan in "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking." When added to a dish during cooking, the little fillets basically dissolve, leaving behind a nice, non-fishy oomph. Just remember not to add anchovies to very hot oil, which can harden them and render them bitter, counsels Hazan.
I can't think of a more versatile secret ingredient to have on hand, and it doesn't take much to make a good impression. Chefs use anchovies to elevate sauces, deepen the flavor of beef stew, add complexity to tomato sauce and sauteed greens, and raise the profile of whipped butter. Spread the last on toast, sliced into strips, for a snack with a twist. You're welcome.
- Tom Sietsema
Sneak a peek into my pantry and refrigerator and you'll instantly know I have a condiment problem. Jars of this and that take up about half of the space in either, leaving less than enough room for day-to-day produce and actual food. There are homemade preserved lemons, various chile pastes, vinegars, ferments (at least three kinds of miso) and a kimchi I've been aging for over a year so I can make jigae once the weather turns cold. But the thing I've been reaching for the most, even trying as an ice cream topping (not bad) is a jar of furikake.
Furikake is a Japanese seasoning usually made up of crushed nori (a type of seaweed), dried fish, sesame seeds, mild chile (sometimes), sugar, salt and often MSG. It's commonly served over cooked rice, fish and other foods. I've gone further these past few months, using it on top of pasta and fried rice, as part of a savory granola and yogurt bowl, and on avocado toast, to name a few. I'm eager to try it with okonomiyaki and yakitori. And I bet it would be spectacular with coconut rice and salmon.
- Olga Massov
You could call tahini a condiment, an ingredient, a spread – it's contextual. This summer, I've eaten the sesame paste in almost every context. Swirled into sweet baked goods such as brownies, slightly sweetened up as a dip for fruit, whisked into sauces and dressings to bind quite literally anything from our produce subscription bag.
That's where tahini has come through as more than just a nutty, creamy addition to anything. Whenever we're stumped figuring out what to do with any array of vegetables, the answer is tahini sauce. Whenever we want to use up the stems of tender herbs, the answer is, again, tahini sauce.
- Kari Sonde
I've long been a red salsa guy, which I attribute to the mediocre Tex-Mex restaurant visits of my youth and game days on the couch with the jarred variety. I gravitate toward chunkier salsas that you can pile onto sturdy tortilla chips. But when I tried the Salsa Verde Cocida from Roberto Santibañez's "Truly Mexican" cookbook, it was a revelation.
This salsa is bright and tangy – a credit to the sheer volume of tomatillos called for in the recipe – with just enough jalapeño heat at the end. Best of all, it's incredibly easy to prepare. There's no roasting or messy pepper peeling and seeding. You just boil the tomatillos and peppers, toss them into the blender with garlic, cilantro and a couple of spices, and pour the salsa back into the pot to cook.
And then? You can put this stuff on everything. Santibañez's chilaquiles are a must, but eggs, tacos, quesadillas, beans, crispy potatoes, steak, pulled pork and even salad greens are better with salsa verde poured over top. Use it as the sauce for baked chicken or enchiladas, or just keep a cup and a bag of chips next to your desk/kitchen table for whenever the late afternoon hunger pangs arrive.
- Matt Brooks