Although cooking great food is really about science, art and intuition, cooking really good food often isn’t much more than collecting a handful of what I call cheap tricks. A cheap trick is generally some sort of exceptionally useful cooking technique or rule of thumb that I’ve uncovered during my culinary journey. It’s cheap because it’s ridiculously easy to do and it’s a trick because it results in food becoming more stunningly delicious than you could have imagined. I’ve found my cheap tricks to be so versatile that you can string them together like pearls around a dish, regardless of where that dish is from, and you’ll always result in (authentic-tasting) deliciousness.
I’ve designed a simple pasta dish to showcase five of my favorite cheap tricks. Some are obvious, others are less so. All of them are incredibly helpful, especially when I walk through the them with our pasta dish in mind.
Thoughtfully Chosen Ingredients
Being thoughtful about how you select ingredients is not just about picking, say, the freshest tomato—although that’s all well and good. It’s about selecting the right fresh tomato for a specific dish, in our case a pasta dish. A tomato is right for a dish given a particular outcome in mind. It’s also about storing the tomato appropriately to best assure excellent flavor upon use and using that tomato as close to ideal ripeness as possible.
Take my example as illustrative, finding myself in Chicago during winter. You might ask why I would even want a tomato during winter; shouldn’t I be eating locally and seasonally? In principle, yes, but in practice it’s easier said than done. If I were to eat “locally and seasonally,” that would consist entirely of canned, pickled or frozen items or items grown in hydroponics for about five to seven months per year. Keep in mind, Chicago is cold and sometimes I just want a fucking tomato. So kill me.
But anyway, I come to the produce section of my grocer with a particular goal in mind for my dish: I want rich tomato flavor obviously, but I want it to be accompanied by a balance between sugar and acid. My tomato options, however, are rather lackluster at this time of year and at most consist of four options: Some form of sweet vine ripened tomato, an acidic varietal of plum tomato, a very sweet cherry tomato and perhaps a beefsteak variety. Unfortunately, though, the vine ripened tomatoes look chemically ripened, pale with no aroma to speak of. The beefsteaks are bruised and picked through.
I apparently have no perfect options, but with my goal in mind, I select the best examples available of acidic plum tomatoes and sweet cherry tomatoes. By combining the two together in my dish, I will achieve the balance of acid and sugar that no one tomato available to me could have achieved alone.
Because my tomatoes were shipped from far flung locations (as is common in Chicago during winter), they don’t have the deep tomato flavor I can expect from locally produced summer tomatoes. They aren’t bad, but they aren’t amazing either. So pairing a milder olive oil and cheese with them is in order. The fresh oregano looks wilted, so I’ll opt to use the high quality dried oregano I have at home. I can also add in some basil because that is looking quite fresh today. And so it goes, through each of my ingredients, building to the most thoughtful end.
Given that I live a short walking distance from 10 grocery stores in my urban oasis, it’s reasonable to purchase the ingredients I need on a daily basis. If it weren’t, I would need to store my ingredients appropriately. My tomatoes would go on the counter (not the refrigerator) and my fresh basil in a glass of water like fine roses.
In practice, being thoughtful doesn’t take much longer and doesn’t require that much effort. It just requires that you be mentally present at the grocery store and at home, engaging with your ingredients rather than passively checking items off a list while listening to a podcast. And that’s the cheap trick. It’s probably not what you’re doing and making the change will result in everything that you cook tasting far better. So just do it.
Bring the Umami
Umami, the illusive fifth taste, is confusing but essential to delicious food. Umami not only provides a meaty, savory taste to foods, but also harmonizes, sustains and amplifies existing tastes in a dish. Basically, umami (in just the right amount) is food magic.
Unfortunately for us all, there is no one ideal level of umami in a dish that will make for perfect deliciousness. This is also not merely a matter of taste or a difference of opinion. It turns out that as you increase the amount of umami in a dish, the more savory elements begin to overwhelm the tastes and flavors of your other ingredients, substantially obscuring nuances. The level of umami that begins to obscure rather than highlight tastes and flavors differs from dish to dish, based on the ingredients you’re working with. Fresher, assertively flavored ingredients such as basil, for example, tend to have a greater ability to absorb umami and retain their nuance. However, more savory ingredients such as meats or mushrooms, or delicately flavored ingredients such as Italian parsley or ginger, tend to have their more nuanced flavors quickly overwhelmed by excessive umami.
I like to call this the “umami load” of a dish, or the amount of umami a dish can bear before the tastes and flavors start to be obscured. Concerning our pasta dish, although the tomatoes add some umami, they don’t add nearly enough. As a result, we need to find other sources.
Generally, I find there to be three easy ways to get umami into a pasta dish without much fuss. Those are: (1) Parmigiano-Reggiano (the real stuff that comes in giant wheel form and not the pre-grated Kraft bags), (2) high-quality canned anchovy filets (such as from the Spanish marker Ortiz) or (3) fine cured aged meats such as Prosciutto di Parma. You can include any or all of these so long as you don’t overwhelm the nuances of your dish. To ensure that I don’t, I limit myself below to respectable quantities of only anchovies and Prosciutto di Parma, but do as you will.
People don’t take enough time to get flavors out of aromatic ingredients (like herbs and spices) and into their food. Unfortunately, when someone says “you need to take more time” to do something, most people tend to tune that person out. But in this case, infusing oils over longer periods actually takes less time and effort, believe it or not.
Normally what people do is they put some oil in a pan and throw in their aromatics, like garlic, for example. When the starts to deepen in color, they throw some wine or stock in to slow or stop the cooking. Within minutes, it’s all over and the total time the garlic spent infusing the dish could be counted without having to take off you shoes. But what if, while you’re prepping other portions of a meal, you infuse oil in the oven? This might seem like an unusual way to infuse oil but this is basically a very precise and methodical way of achieving our goal. At the lower, more precisely controlled temperatures in the oven, we can extract the garlic over 30 minutes, achieving a far more deep and rich flavor than we could have ever achieved on the stove alone.
When the infusion process has been completed, you simply filter out the solids for use later in cooking or as a garnish and use the oil as normal in cooking. And, as I have previously illustrated in my Guide to Garlic, this process works with other aromatics such as herbs and spices and combinations thereof. If you’ve ever been stumped by why your food isn’t as deeply flavored as restaurant food, this cheap trick will solve the problem. You’re welcome.
Ethanol is the chemical name for regular old booze or drinking alcohol. Now, using booze in food is nothing new. But what many people don’t realize is how or why the booze is working. Most people seem to think that you add wine to a dish to get the flavor of wine into the dish—pretty straightforward. The outcome is a tastier dish, of course, but the reason that it’s tasty isn’t just because of the taste of wine, although that certainly may help. The actual reason that using booze in cooking makes food taste better is related to the chemical properties of ethanol itself. Namely, it’s an extremely potent solvent.
The solvent properties of alcohol allow it to quickly soak up more of flavors from food and, as a result, impart deeper overall flavor to the dish. So, you can just add a shot of vodka instead of a cup of wine to your food while cooking and get most of the same effect. That said, in many dishes, the flavors wine may impart certainly help to make the dish more complex.
For pasta dishes generally, I favor cooking with dry vermouth. This has advantages over dry white wine in that it’s more flavor concentrated and has a higher ethanol content while maintaining the same amount of titratable acid and sugar content as most dry white wines. I’ve also noticed that dry vermouths tend to be more consistent than vintage dry white wines. This will allow you to have a consistent tool at your disposal, rather than yet another source of variability (as tend to be the case with meats and produce which vary in their content of fat, sugar, acid, etc.). I use a California maker called Gallo, which is cheap and readily available in large cities across the United States. And for about $5 per bottle, it’s not only cheap but also delicious. So, in this case, we have literally a cheap, cheap trick!
Taste, Drink, Balance and Repeat
Every dish you make should be designed and prepared with balance in mind. (To better understand how to balance the tastes in a dish, see my Guide to Balance.) That said, given the variations between, for example, the fat content of meats and the acid and sugar content in tomatoes, balance can often go awry. The key is not to just haphazardly balance at the very end; you should have a good sense for where your dish will go before you ever turn the stove on. Rather, your goal should be to just add some minor finishing touches to your dish, nothing too drastic. A squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt or sugar, a drizzle of oil is all it should take for a well-executed dish. This might sound obvious, but just make sure you do it. People rarely do and it always shows.
The biggest problem can arise when you have been tasting repeatedly and can no longer tell what balance really is. This is called palate fatigue and the best way I have found to avoid it is to drink a pleasantly acidic wine or cocktail (for those who abstain, water works too). This helps to keep your taste receptors lively and fresh. So the process basically goes: Taste, drink, balance, repeat. Keep in mind, you should almost never be serving a dish without going through this final process. Said differently, you almost always need a last second squeeze of citrus or drizzle of oil to bring a dish into balance.
It’s time, though, to make these cheap tricks work for you in your cooking. Below is a simple and illustrative pasta dish that uses all five as described above.
Have a question? Ask me anything!
Ingredients – Serves Four
200 g (about 7 oz) artisinal packaged, garganelli emiliani all’uovo (with egg) pasta, my preferred maker is Pirro
50 g (about 60 mL or 2 oz) California extra virgin olive oil
1 medium (about 60 g or 2 oz) plum varietal tomato (such as Roma), diced
95 g (1 small jar or about 3 oz) Oritz anchovies in olive oil, drained and rough chopped
70 g (about 2.5 oz) Prosciutto di Parma, aged 12 months or greater, thinly sliced, then rough chopped and separated
140 g (about 125 ml or 0.5 cups) dry vermouth
50 g (about 6 to 8 cloves) garlic, thinly sliced
4 g (about 1 rounded tbsp) crushed red pepper
2 g (about 1 tbsp) dried oregano
10 – 12 medium (about 100 g or 3.5 oz) cherry varietal tomato (such as Super Sweet 100), sliced in half
200 g (about 7 oz) fresh mozzarella (made with whole fat cow or buffalo milk), cut into 1 cm (about 0.5 inch) cubes
2 medium sprigs Italian basil, leaves only
Flake sea salt, such as Maldon, to top pasta if additional saltiness is desired
Fine Italian extra virgin olive oil to top pasta if additional richness is desired
- Preheat oven to 150 °C (302 °F). Combine the sliced garlic and olive oil in a small, oven safe ramekin and ensure the garlic is entirely submerged in the oil. If required to fully submerge garlic, add just enough additional oil. When the oven is at temperature, add the ramekin to the oven. When the garlic is at a steady fry in the oil, about 10 minutes, give the mixture a careful but thorough stir. Fry for an additional 5 minutes and add crushed red pepper and oregano, carefully stirring to fully integrate. At this point the garlic should start to brown slightly but evenly. Continue to fry in the oven until the oil has tinged red-brown, about 10 additional minutes. Separate the solids from the oil with a fine mesh strainer such as a chinois and set aside.
- Add the infused oil to a large pan and heat over medium heat to 225 °C (437 °F). Add anchovies in an even layer across the pan, stirring frequently, and cook until they just brown and begin to dissolve, about three minutes. Carefully add prosciutto evenly across the surface of the pan, making sure to the extent possible that the pieces only minimally stick together. Cook until just aromatic, about one minute.
- Add plum tomatoes and cook until aromatic, stirring rapidly but delicately, about one minute. Add dry vermouth and the reserved garlic mixture from oil infusion, stirring rapidly to create an emulsion between the oil and vermouth. Bring to a light simmer and remove pan from heat.
- Cook the pasta as indicated by the producer for one minute less than al dente. Drain and rinse in cold tap water, then set aside. Note that the longer pasta is set on the counter, the more the texture degrades. Finish the final step and serve with haste.
- Bring sauce back to a simmer over medium heat. Add partially cooked pasta along with the cherry tomatoes, tossing to coat well. Cook for one minute and remove from heat. Add mozzarella and basil and toss to coat well. Taste the sauce to note the balance, especially the saltiness. It should be umami-heavy, slightly salty and very rich to balance out the tomatoes. Plate in four portions. Top with additional flake sea salt and olive oil, as desired to balance, and serve immediately.