How to make your food taste better!

“Sauces. I’ll say it my bowls taste lame.”

I recently asked a bunch of my friends what they’ve been eating for dinner recently (it was for my job, sort of) and found myself of the receiving end of a veritable outpouring of sentiments requesting sauces.

It would seem that many of my friends have taken to a pretty respectable if slightly boring style of eating - a grain bowl (farro, rice, quinoa, etc) topping with a bunch of roasted vegetables and maybe some protein. This makes me happy because it hopefully means that they will live for a long time (so many vegetables!) but it makes me sad to think that they are so regularly eating food that leaves them uninspired.

At first when I started thinking about answering this question, I was like great, no problem, I’m going to pull up all these cool recipes that I always read and bookmark. But the reality is that I am kind of a sauce-slacker. I feel like in the food world it is super trendy to be like “oh my gosh, I made this sauce from scratch during my 9-hour marathon meal prep session and I’m going to put it on everything and life is going to be perfect.”

To me, this is unrealistic for several reasons.

  1. I feel like usually those sauces are herb-based and, to be quite honest, fresh herbs are not really in my budget. this is partially because…

  2. I never seem to use up all of these sauce before they turn brown and weird and gross. that’s the truth and i’m not ashamed to admit it.

  3. I also don’t have a food processor or even a blender that works very well so it’s hard to make these sauces.

 condiment lineup.

condiment lineup.

FRESH

Zhug - Zhug sauce (pronounced zoug) is a Middle-eastern sauce made from cilantro, chiles, and garlic. Think pesto, but with no cheese and more spice. It’s a very trendy sauce right now, and pretty easy to make if you have a good blender or food processor. BUT Trader Joe’s also sells a really good version that you can keep in your fridge for about 10 days before it goes bad. It’s great with Mediterranean flavors on a grain bowl, but I also love it on toast with eggs or avocado, stirred into hummus, or into a chicken salad for an excellent sandwich. Here’s a great recipe if you want to make it yourself.

Salsa - I always keep a jar of salsa verde in my fridge. I prefer verde to regular tomato salsa because I think it tastes fresher, with a little more acid. This is my favorite (it’s very mild!). I love it on rice and beans with some roasted sweet potatoes - a very unglamorous meal made very delicious.

Garlicky yogurt - Use a garlic press or a microplane or just chop the hell out of a big clove of garlic and stir it into plain yogurt. Add a pinch of salt, some black pepper, and maybe a squeeze of lemon. This is delicious on anything, basically. I love it with fried eggs and toast, or with harissa-roasted vegetables. Use it as a counterpoint to something spicy for a cooling, creamy effect. (Think sour cream.)

Lemons - Keep a couple of lemons around is a great way to wake your food up a little if it feels a little…dead. Just squeeze a little over your food to freshen it up, or thinly slice, toss with olive oil and roast with vegetables for a caramelized, sour effect.

 love a good chile product.

love a good chile product.

SPICY

Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp - Anything that is at all vaguely Asian (or even not) is improved by this sauce. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that literally every person I have showed this to is obsessed and addicted. It is crunchy, a little spicy, salty, and very savory. You can get it online but it’s more expensive - you can find it at basically any Asian grocery store. I love it on any food that is asian inspired - noodles, tofu, stir-fries - and many that are not (scrambled eggs!!!)

Calabrian chiles - (See the photo at the end of the post.) This is the only semi-luxury thing that I’m going to recommend. I became addicted these chiles when I was working at an Italian restaurant, and they’re still a go-to cooking staple for me. I like them chopped up and cooked into the base (when you’re sautéing your garlic/onion/carrot at the very beginning of cooking, add a teaspoon or too for a nice backbone of heat). Calabs (as I tenderly call them) are great in tomato sauce or any kind of soup, or just chopped up on top of a simple pasta. They’re spicy, but with a fruitiness and tang from the little bit of vinegar in their curing liquid. The oil is also delicious and great for cooking. They’re harder to find - look at specialty Italian grocery stores or just buy these online, already chopped up and super easy to use. For reference, this is what I have in my fridge. No exaggeration - that’s how much I love them.

Sambal oelek - I was introduced to sambal through a friend’s love of Indonesian cooking, but it’s a great way to add heat to your food without tons of other flavor. Sambal is pretty pure chile, not tons of vinegar or other flavors - it gives the clean flavor of cooking with fresh chiles without having to actually buy fresh chiles all the time. It’s widely available - look in the international section of any grocery store.

Harissa - Harissa is a middle eastern chile paste made garlic, red pepper, chiles, vinegar and salt. Some versions have a little preserved lemon for good measure. I have recently tossed it with carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli and brussels sprouts to add a little heat and flavor to the ingredients in my bowls. You can buy it as paste, as a spread or as a dry spice blend. This is what I have in my fridge currently, but Trader Joe’s also makes a good one.

SAVORY -

Tahini - At this point, I feel like tahini is as common as nut butters - it’s another fairly shelf/fridge-stable item that can be used to amp up an average bowl. Here is a great recipe for a Lemon Tahini dressing that you can keep around. I also like this buttermilk tahini ranch recipe, for which I do not use a blender. (I just whisk.)

Nuts - Nuts can definitely be pricey on that post-college budget, but I buy bags at Trader Joe’s or Costco and keep them frozen until I need them (nuts do go bad!). Before I use them, I always toast them by tossing them into a dry cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and stirring regularly until they’re fragrant and darkened. Chop them up and add them to salads and bowls for a little extra flavor and texture and healthy fat! I love walnuts, almonds and pecans, though hazelnuts also feel quite luxurious.

Breadcrumbs - not a sauce, obviously, but I always keep around a container of Panko breadcrumbs, which you can buy at any grocery store. A toasted garlic breadcrumb makes everything seem 50% better - Finely chop garlic or pass through a garlic press - I do about 2 large cloves per quarter cup of crumbs. Put a good glug of olive oil in a cold pan, and add the garlic. Heat it over medium, and as soon as the garlic starts to bubble, add the breadcrumbs. Toss well to mix everything and cook, stirring constantly, until breadcrumbs are nicely toasted and darkened. Add this to a kale salad for some good texture, or throw on top of pasta, sprinkle onto a piece of salmon. Breadcrumbs up the ante anywhere there isn’t any textural variation.

I think the best way to improve the flavor of your bowl experience is to let a certain part of the world inspire you. A rice bowl with broccoli and sweet potatoes can be Middle Eastern inspired (add zhug, garlicky yogurt and some toasted nuts), Mexican (add some refried or black beans, some salsa and maybe some cheese), or Italian (add parmesan, black pepper, and some diced Calabrian chiles.). Instead of having a kale rice bowl with chicken, make a fried rice with everything chopped up and fried together, seasoned with soy sauce and topped with some chile crisp or sambal.

 if you know me, you know my Calabrian chiles.

if you know me, you know my Calabrian chiles.

I hope this is helpful! Do you have a question that you think I can helpfully (or unhelpfully) answer? Send me a text because we’re probably close friends since you’re reading this blog. OR email me at maddy@awomanwhoeats.com, send me an Instagram message or comment below!

The tools I bought for my kitchen

When I graduated from UNC in May, I moved to Birmingham and my friends seemed to spread like warm honey across the eastern seaboard. As people moved, there was a lot of advice traded - which cheap Amazon bed frame wouldn’t fall apart immediately, how to find an apartment in New York City, how to sell shitty furniture for way more than it’s worth on Craigslist. I also received the following email:

“Hi Maddy,

I need some help buying pots and pans.

First: thank you for your service to me, and really mankind, for your dutiful know-how on such a niche topic.

I am (obviously) trying to not spend too much money so am planning on going to get a cast iron from the junkyard and then piece together the rest from marshalls or good online sales.

Essentials are:

  • 12'' inch cast iron

  • nonstick skillet (8''-12''

  • Stainless steel skillet (10'')

  • large stainless steel pot

  • sheet pans

  • sauce pot

Wish list items are:

  • dutch oven

  • pyrex baking pans

  • assorted baking dishes

Anything to add or remove? I would love your expertise!

Best,

Claire”

We’ll go ahead and ignore the fact that one of my most intimate friends signed her e-mail to me “best” - what is she, a sociopath? Whatever.

I spent a good long time trying to figure out how to organize and furnish my new apartment where I live (alone!! a dream!!). For my 21st birthday, my parents gave me a set of nonstick pots and pans. Before I moved, my dad came by, took one look at them and told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to throw them away because they were definitely flaking into my food and were going to make me die of cancer, like, yesterday. He was 100% correct so I threw them all away and ordered new ones when I moved to Birmingham. Everything I am recommending here are things that I actually own or have used in someone else’s kitchen.

For $110, you can get started with some really good basics that will take you far.

These four items will equip you to cook tons of stuff - soups, grain salads, delicious pasta sauces, roasted vegetables - even an entire chicken! I know the ticket price can feel really high to set up a whole kitchen - as friends or family if they have things they can lend you or give you as you’re getting started. The idea here is to set you up with basic things that will truly last a long time. There’s very little that I hate more than buying shitty stuff that I have to replace in like 5 minutes.

 some good basics and a mirror selfie

some good basics and a mirror selfie

12-inch cast iron skillet

A well-seasoned cast iron can take the place of almost anything else - you can bake in it, cook an egg in, and roast a chicken or a head of broccoli. They can go from stove top to oven and are nice enough to put on the table for a fancy-ish meal if you’re trying to impress your parents/a date/yourself. The one I’ve linked to here has a 2-handle design, which I actually think is much more comfortable than the normal pan design, since these can be fairly heavy.

4-quart saucepan

This is big enough to cook a pound of pasta or a good amount of rice, and the bottom is thick enough that you won’t scorch your food, which is a concern if you get something with a thin base. I’ve also used this to deep-fry things, make cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, and poach a chicken breast.

cutting board.jpeg

Cutting board

One big plastic one that you can use for everything and easily clean. Small cutting boards are a hustle. Don’t get hustled. If you find that this slips around, place a damp paper towel underneath. Done.

Chef’s knife

This is a basic knife that you can use for almost anything. You only need 3 knives (I’m serious this is literally all I have). A bread knife and paring knife will be helpful, but if you’re on a budget, this knife will do everything! It’s not fancy but it will do the job - if you get really interested in cooking you might decide that you want something fancier or more customized to your hands, but this will do the job. Don’t get absorbed into the LIE that you need to buy a knife set - they will be worse quality and you don’t need them. DO NOT put your knife in a dishwasher - wash and dry it after every use or it will get dull much faster.

Then think about what you like to cook…

From here, I think it’s good to actually consider what you like to cook. I love to eat eggs - scrambled, fried, omelets, etc, so a good non-stick skillet is really helpful for me. If you eat a lot of meat - steak and chicken thighs and other things that are tastiest when they have a good crusty sear on them, then a stainless steel skillet might make more sense for you. If you’re big into meal prep with lots of vegetables or roasted things, I would go for some sheet pans. Eventually, you’ll want to have all of these things for a well-stocked kitchen, but unless you are ready to spend a larger chunk of money all at once, it is better to slowly get what you really need.

Sheet pans

2 sheet pans = endless options. Roasted vegetables, chicken thighs, cookies, cakes, something to keep pancakes warm on in the oven, a fan to help turn off the fire alarm or something to set on the stove to give you a little extra counter space. These will last a long time, won’t get warped, and cook things evenly.

12-inch stainless steel skillet

This is pretty much a workhorse. Again, I go 12 inches because you can put something small in a large pan but you can’t put something large in a small pan. Plus, crowding a pan (aka trying to fit more in the pan than you should) causes steam to get trapped in the pan, which makes your food get soft instead of crispy and delicious. Unlike your non-stick skillet, this can go in the oven.

12-inch (non-toxic) non-stick skillet

After extensive research (and owning several other brands of non-stick skillets for several years) I bought this skillet - it’s the only non-stick I need. It’s good for cooking eggs and other potentially sticky items, but won’t flake and kill you. A lot of non-stick skillets can’t take high heat, but this one can. I like the 12-inch option with a lid because I always like to have the option to cover my pans (to finish cooking a fried egg or steam some greens or whatever).

Dutch oven

I got a huge Le Creuset as a graduation gift, and I intend to use it for the rest of my life and also maybe my children’s lives. If you’re not quite as intense as I am about your kitchen, this version will be perfect for you. I actually advocate getting a 7.5 quart dutch oven INSTEAD of a really large stockpot, because the dutch oven can do everything the stock pot will do, but the stock pot can’t do what a dutch oven can (which includes but is not limited to braises, pastas, sauces, slow cooking, big batches of grains and chicken stock).

I hope this is helpful! Do you have a question that you think I can helpfully (or unhelpfully) answer? Send me a text because we’re probably close friends since you’re reading this blog. OR email me at maddy@awomanwhoeats.com, send me an Instagram message or comment below!

Hello again.

Hi!

It's been a long time.  How are you doing?  I'm doing ok.  It's been almost a year since I have made a peep on here and I'm ready to be back. Have you ever eaten too much pineapple and it burns the inside of your mouth and then you have to swear off pineapple for a while?  That's kind of what happened with me and this Internet corner. 

It's been a crazy year!  I wrote an honors thesis!  I graduated college!  I got a job! (At Food & Wine magazine.)  I moved! (To Birmingham, Alabama where the magazine is headquartered.)  I'm having a panic attack now just looking at that list! Whatever!

I want to tell the Internet about all of this, though. Part of the reason I took a break was that I've been a little frozen by the knowledge that there are just SO MANY voices out there talking about food.  As I was working on my thesis I went back and forth between feeling comforted and buoyed by that community and feeling like I couldn't say anything at all if I didn't have an unique point of view. That anxiety definitely infiltrated this space - I have often felt embarrassed about this website because I worry that I'm such a cliche - a girl with a blog about food and nothing original to say at all.

I think I let that anxiety overtake my natural urges to write the way I talk, and to talk about food.  I'm learning that I have so much to learn and I want to use this space to process some of my learning.

I get asked a lot of questions about food - via text and email and Instagram and on the phone with friends and family members. I love answering these questions - talking about food is my actual favorite pastime, so it brings me great joy to be able to share all this information I have swimming around in my head!

Do you have a question? A few examples of questions I’ve been tackling include -

  • How do I roast vegetables?

  • Why did my broiler set my salmon on fire?

  • What sauces can I put on my standard grain/vegetable bowl that I eat every day that will make it taste better?

  • What pans should I buy to outfit my kitchen?

  • Where should I go to dinner in Raleigh with my sisters? (Hey, mom.)

As you can see I am happy to share my strong and completely biased opinions about everything related to food! If you have a question, please text me. Let’s be real, you probably have my number. If you don’t, you can email me (maddy@awomanwhoeats.com) or comment below, or send me an instagram message.

For now though, I'm just saying hello, again. Let's call this a clean slate, like my new little kitchen in my sweet, southern apartment.

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