Hitting the Sauce: Making Your Own Condiments
If your refrigerator is anything like mine, the shallow top shelf and part of the door are occupied with jars. I am a total sucker for condiments, especially exotic things like tamarind paste and wasabi, but also the mundane mustard and mayonnaise, and endless tiny bits left in the bottoms of jars containing Hollandaise, bought for an eggy brunch and ignored ever since. In our family habit of moving house every two years or so, I have to admit that’s just about the only time these jars get inspected, rejected, recycled. They just crouch in the fridge, awaiting attention, lasting – seemingly – forever.
When was the last time you read the label on any of those jars? Never, if you are me. These handy flavorful additions to various dishes simply seem to BE, needing only to be purchased. I lived happily in this mode until about two weeks ago, when having promised my husband a bowl of fragrant, foreign “tom yum” soup and all the shops having closed for the night, I realized I had no “tom yum paste.”
I was stopped in my tracks. What on earth WAS “tom yum paste,” other than a jar of something that made coconut milk into soup? Our daughter was out for dinner and it was a rare opportunity to serve something she doesn’t like, so I could hardly go back on my word. It was but the work of a moment to look up “tom yum paste” and find that, in fact, I had all the ingredients right in my fridge and pantry. The two Thai words simply mean “boiling” and “hot and sour/spicy.” I could do that. Dinner was saved.
Tom Yum Paste
3 tbsps chilli garlic paste
2 hot red chillis
zest and juice of 1 lime and 1 lemon or 1 minced stalk lemongrass
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsps Thai fish sauce
½ tsp sugar
1-inch knob ginger or galangal root
1 shallot (or ½ banana shallot)
handful cilantro/coriander leaves
Tom Yum Soup
Tom yum paste
2 cans half-fat coconut milk
2 large handfuls chestnut mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 lb large prawns, peeled and heads removed (frozen is fine, but defrost them)
8 scallions/salad onions, thinly sliced, both white and green parts
juice of 1 lime
handful cilantro/coriander leaves
1 red chilli, diced
Tom Yum Paste
Place all ingredients in a blender or chopper and blend until a nice paste.
Tom Yum Soup
Place the tom yum paste in a heavy saucepan with the coconut milk and 2 cups/500g just-boiled water. Bring to a light simmer and add the mushrooms, shrimp and scallions. Simmer just until the shrimp are cooked, about five minutes. Do not overcook.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the lime juice, cilantro and chillis. Serve immediately.
(This soup is also delicious with chicken, either diced or minced)
The next day found me at the grocery store, where I made a beeline to the foreign-food section to find a jar of tom yum paste. And lo and behold, in addition to all the wholesome and easily procurable ingredients I had used, the stuff in the jar contained words that puzzled me. Xantham gum? What is that, and why didn’t I have any in my cupboard? Maltodextrin? No idea.
I moved along to the other sauces occupying my condiments shelf. Some labels were kind enough to list not only these mysterious words but to put them in some kind of context, like “thickening agent” or “anti-caking agent.” And let me tell you, no jar of anything in this modern world is complete without at least one ingredient described as a “stabilizer.” Everything, it seems, needs stability. Now I can understand wanting a stable relationship, even a stable income. But MAYONNAISE? Really? Stable Bearnaise sauce? This was getting scary.
Don’t even get me started on “natural flavors” or “flavorings.” Did you know that as of 2011 the European Union no longer requires food manufacturers (and therefore labellers) to distinguish between real and artificial ingredients they choose to call “natural” flavors? The regulations include terminology like “flavor substances” and “flavor precursors,” all of which raise my eyebrows. The FDA is just as murky, allowing the word “natural” to apply to a myriad of processes, all of them man-made (by people called “flavorists”), none of which would qualify as “natural” to any normal human’s understanding of the word. These are serious loopholes.
As I learned from the fantastic food memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, many, many additives enter our food under many crazy sounding names, but most of them are made of corn. Kingsolver tells us chillingly, “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) owns up to its parentage, but lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol and xanthan gum, for example, are all manufactured from corn.” That is one powerful lobby.
I decided that for the foreseeable future, I would not allow my family to eat anything containing anything my great-grandmother couldn’t spell, pronounce, or buy. Of course it was stretching the point to think that my ancestors in Southern Indiana would have access to lemongrass, but you get my point. Somebody’s Thai great-grandmother could buy lemongrass, so it was fair game.
This experiment was easier than I would have thought. Our family doesn’t consume much in the way of processed foods to begin with (I exempt Cheetos from this claim because it’s only twice a year and Cheetos rule). But those pesky condiment shelves! Full of contraband. I threw everything out and started fresh.
Some of these projects were more satisfying than others. I’ll be honest with you: homemade mustard is a bit of a yawn. It tastes like all the mustard in a jar I have ever bought. But no additives! I’ll go for it.
Homemade teriyaki sauce? Heavenly! No HFCS, not even any sugar. The sweetness comes from pure honey, and did you know that if you buy local honey, eating it can give you an immunity to the local pollen? Fewer sneezes. Plus, the aroma of hot bubbling teriyaki, rich with soy sauce, sesame, ginger and garlic, makes your kitchen the coziest place on earth. It is divine on roasting salmon.
Homemade mayonnaise is wonderful just on its own, but also is the basis for two of my family’s favourite dressings: Blue Cheese Dressing, so luscious for slow-braised chicken wings or red cabbage slaw, and Tartare Sauce, without which fresh deep-fried haddock would not be worth eating.
The sauce I have been most used to purchasing is the classic, beautiful Hollandaise, a perfect marriage of butter, egg yolk and lemon. Heavenly simple and the crowning glory of a Sunday brunch of Eggs Benedict. What I love about making my own is missing out on the mysterious metallic aftertaste that accompanies the jar variety. That awful flavor must be down to some preservative or other.
Preservatives! Of course these bad boys are the reason for all this stuff in jars. People want things to last much, much longer in their refrigerators and pantries than any healthy foodstuff should be asked to last. My advice is to make just what you need, or a little more and plan a couple of dishes to use it. But the idea of something containing eggs (mayonnaise, for example) being able to stay “fresh” for months is really wrong.
My daughter’s hands-down favorite condiment is Bearnaise Sauce, in part because her hands-down favorite dinner is beef steak. Bearnaise is, it must be said, a bit fiddly, involving double boilers or something like them. But let’s be honest: how often do we eat steak with Bearnaise, so redolent with tarragon and rich with butter? Not often enough to buy a jar of it full of junk. Set aside 20 minutes and go for it.
Are you a fan of crispy duck, wrapped in pancakes with cucumber and scallions? We are, and I’ll tell you about our journey with this dish. It all started with ordering deliveries from Chinese restaurants in New York City, admittedly a wonderful thing to do. Then we moved to London where the glorious supermarkets here are much more advanced in their provision of fresh, ready-made foods than US shops. It is very easy to buy a box in the fridge section containing a half a roasted duck, waiting only to be heated in a hot oven, as well as a package of Chinese pancakes, a portion of cucumber and scallions, and a little pot of…plum sauce.
Since I loved roasting things, I progressed to buying my own whole, fresh duck and letting it spend the afternoon in a slow oven, then buying the pancakes at the local Asian shop. But the plum sauce? I eyed it on my condiments shelf with fear. What on earth could be in it? It felt like making my own soy sauce. Something to leave to the professionals! But not. Homemade plum sauce is simplicity itself, inexpensive, and so fragrant in its saucepan on the stove.
I leave it to you to skulk into your kitchen in the dark of night and read the labels on all the condiments you have hidden there. Then get a big recycling bag for all those jars, and get started. You’ll be so glad you did.
Do you make all of your own condiments?
Photo Credit: Avery Curran
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