Tuesday, November 29, 2011

And The Secret Ingredient Is...

Witamy!  The secret ingredient in any dish is the flavor enhancer you don’t tell anybody about!  Recently we were in the Kielbasa Factory, our favorite Polish deli, www.kielbasafactory.com, and just perusing the shelves of imported condiments.  We saw this display of Mushroom Bouillon from Poland and bought a box, along with all the other Polish goodies that fell into our shopping basket.  Laura tried it in a recipe that contained mushrooms as one ingredient.  KAPOW!  The depth of flavors that came out of that dish, after adding just a few ounces of the mushroom bouillon, was like night and day.  Not only was the flavor of mushrooms more intense, but all the other ingredients tasted more pronounced as well.  I guess it must have something to do with the chemical effect that flavor enhancers have on food.  Salt is a flavor enhancer which chemically brings out flavors, so that’s why under-salting any dish leaves the other ingredients tasting bland. 
On another shelf at Kielbasa Factory, was a bottle of Maggi.  We used to keep a bottle around in the fridge but pitched it a while back because it was several years old and had all this disgusting crud dried up inside the cap.  Sound familiar?  But I remember that my Mom was a big fan of Maggi, putting a few drops in many dishes.  The label is pretty crazy because there’s not much “natural” about it.  By itself it tastes like a very intense mix of soy and meat extract, though it contains no soy.  Maggi has been around since 1872 starting in Switzerland.  It has since become a well-known part of everyday culinary culture in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and in Poland.  A few drops in soups, stews, gravies, dark sauces, etc, go a long way.  I just can’t get over how much better foods taste with just a few drops added to the recipe.  It’s magic! 

We do a lot of shopping in a Latino/Asian supermarket where the fruits and vegetables are cheaper than in our local American grocery store, plus they carry a lot of European products as well.  One of the Latino seasonings is Sazon – a unique blend of spices and seasonings that enhances everything from spicy soups to hamburgers to chili.  The box says it’s “magic in a packet” but the ingredients include coriander, annatto, salt, MSG, and a lot of artificial stuff I can’t pronounce.  But it does enhance our flavors noticeably, and whenever we’re cooking spicy, Sazon get’s added liberally.
So the bottom line is that using flavor enhancers can be the key to unlocking amazing flavors, and whether or not you reveal you secret is totally up to you...We won’t tell!

Here is a Polish-style Beef Stew that is a great example of how a basic dish can be kicked up a few notches by using a flavor enhancer.  Smacznego!

1 ½ pounds sirloin, or other good stewing beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large onion, diced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups strong beef broth, from bouillon cubes or ready-mixed
    Optional:  2 ounces of mushroom bouillon or 5 drops of Maggi One 1-pound can chopped tomatoes, unflavored
2 green peppers, diced
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 tablespoon flour
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a large skillet.  Salt & pepper the beef cubes.  At the same time sauté the onions and brown the beef cubes on all sides.  The onions should be golden.  Transfer to your favorite pot and be sure to scrape all the brown crud from the skillet and add it to the pot – that brown stuff is solid flavor.  Add the bouillon, tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber, mushrooms.  Add mushroom bouillon or Maggi, if desired.  Cover loosely; bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until meat is tender, up to two hours depending on the cut of meat used.  Watch that the liquid does not all evaporate.  Add water as needed.  Just before serving, mix in the flour and sour cream to thicken the sauce.  Sprinkle parsley over the top.  Serve with a mixed salad, your favorite green vegetable and a hearty red wine.
Serves 4 to 5

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