What jars and pastes can I rely on for instant flavour?
Jo, Stroud, Gloucestershire
There’s a fine line between basic and brilliant, and the secret is often in the sauce – or paste or condiment, for that matter. “There are a few things I keep handy to inject quick flavour, umami and seasoning,” says Pippa Middlehurst, whose new book, Simple Noodles: Everyday Recipes, from Instant to Udon, is out this month. “They can be very versatile, so long as you know where to use them.”
One case in point is miso. While the Japanese fermented soya bean paste “has many traditional uses, such as miso soup or to season ramen or nabe”, Middlehurst also adds a tablespoon to spaghetti with chopped garlic and butter “for a super-quick meal with high-impact flavour”, and also tosses some through tomatoes before roasting.
Another shortcut to building flavour is Japanese curry roux. “I always have these blocks in the cupboard,” says Middlehurst, who dissolves it in water, then adds carrots, potatoes and often protein. If you’re after something “more involved”, serve the sauce with katsu (“I like pork katsu tonkatsu”) or use the roux as a base for curry udon – “an addictive and hearty soup with thick, slippery udon”.
The holy trinity of garlic, ginger and chilli will also see you right. “Garlic-ginger paste is my absolute go-to,” says Sanjay Aggarwal, author of Spice Kitchen. He adds it to almost every curry and stir-fry: “It’s a huge time-saver, and no flavour is lost from not using fresh.” In the same vein, Aggarwal also keeps a jar of chopped chilli to hand, to make “awesome” jams, combine with butter “to spice up” prawns, or simply to add to pastas and pulses. “You can dip into it for just a quarter-teaspoon without the hassle of chopping up a whole chilli and wasting the rest.” If, however, you’re in the mood for a “funky, fermented heat”, Dara Klein suggests Calabrian chilli paste: “It brings a very spicy acidity, which I love,” says the chef behind Tiella at the Compton Arms in north London, who puts it to work in all sorts, from soups and stews to sauces and salads.
Another of Klein’s go-tos is colatura di alici, a fermented anchovy extract “similar to fish sauce”. She says: “It dates back to Roman times, and is pungent, powerful and provides loads of flavour and depth to seafood crudo, salads and fish.” Pomegranate molasses, meanwhile, will make even the simplest ingredients sing. “It brings a deep acidity combined with a little sweetness,” says Saghar Setareh, author of Pomegranates and Artichokes. Those characteristics make this sticky syrup ideal for giving sauces and meat dishes (“especially poultry”) a helping hand. “There’s also fattoush,” Setareh says, “for which the dressing is made with olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of sumac and pomegranate molasses, which really adds depth of flavour.”
When Aggarwal was growing up, his mum made “an incredible tamarind sauce for pav bhaji and other Indian dishes. I remember her spending ages cooking down the tamarind, sieving it, then making the actual sauce.” While the results were unsurprisingly “amazing”, when Aggarwal is tight for time yet wants that “lovely, sweet-sour flavour” for, say, prawn pad thai, he turns to shop-bought tamarind paste. Mum’s the word.