Foodie Gift Ideas, Part 2 (aka My Favourite Ingredients in the Kitchen)
I started writing this before Christmas after I wrote my Gift Guide with my Favourite Kitchen Gadgets but never got around to finishing it. I have had quite a few people ask me where to buy Aleppo chili flakes recently, so I thought it would be nice to highlight some of my favourite ingredients in the kitchen.
One of my favourite things to give or receive are new ingredients. I enjoy having a cupboard filled with isoteric ingredients, although it sucks when you will be moving as often as myself. For gifts, though, I have one main caveat: they must be non-perishable (at least until opened) because fridge space is prime real estate in my kitchen. Furthermore, for all those ingredients, I have to know what to do with it! Part of my pleasure is a massive search to find the new best recipe, but if you are sharing an ingredient that you already love, gift it along with your favourite recipe.
1. Aleppo pepper chili flakes
I originally purchased these in Turkey (200g for a measly $2) and this has revolutionized my cooking. I am still a spice wimp, but these peppers are low on the Scoville scale (the pepper hotness scale). They are mild like Ancho peppers but have a fruit, smoky flavour. I always state that I use Aleppo pepper flakes in my recipes because if you use regular chili flakes, you need to halve the quantity to get the same level of spiciness.
Where to buy: Check your Middle Eastern grocers, or even better, find a Turkish grocery store. They can also be found in well-stocked spice stores, like Penzey’s and Kalustyan’s in the US. For other mail-order options, there are a few available on amazon.com. Locally, I have bought Aleppo chili flakes from Marche Istanbul on Dufferin and Akram’s shoppe in Kensington Market. I have yet to check out Burak Supermarket but I imagine you could find them there, too. The Spice Trader also seems to sell it but it is quite pricey.
Recipes: What do I NOT use Aleppo for? I use it anywhere one would use chile flakes. Here are some suggestions:
Indian Eggplant and Lentil Curry (Dal Bhat Meets Baingan Bharta)
Sea Weeds and Greens Salad (aka Kelp Noodles with Wakame and Radish Sprouts)
Braised Cabbage with Chorizo Seitan Sausage
Mango, Black Bean and Quinoa Salad
2. Pomegranate molasses
This is another Middle Eastern condiment which I enjoy for its sweet tartness. A little bit will go a long way and I love using it for salad dressings and infusing an extra dimension into soups and stews. I haven’t tried it but you can make your own homemade molasses from pomegranate juice. I prefer Cortas’ brand as they can vary in sweetness.
Where to buy: I find this has gone a lot more mainstream, because I’ve found it big box grocers like Loblaws and No Frills. Otherwise, check out Middle Eastern grocery stores. Locally, I have stopped paying attention to where I’ve found it, but I have spotted it at Super Khorak, Friends, and Sunny’s, usually around $5/bottle.
Turkish Bulgur, Pomegranate and Almond Salad
Turkish Eggplant, Tomato and Lentil Stew with Pomegranate
Muhammara (Syrian Roasted Red Pepper and Walnut Dip)
Iraqi Pomegranate Stew (Shorbat Rumman)
White Bean and Barley Salad with a Tomato-Pomegranate-Tarragon Sauce
Pomegranate-Lime Asparagus Quinoa Salad
For those who love sweet-sour as much as I do, tamarind also falls into the love category. Rob likes to remind it that fresh tamarind looks like poo, but you can’t tell by looking at the pulp or concentrate. It definitely tastes so much better and is the key ingredient for authentic pad thai. There are a few ways to buy tamarind. The blocks of tamarind pulp are cheap ($1) but you need to soak and strain it before you use it. It can be stored indefinitely in your pantry, though. Rob and I have converted to using tamarind concentrate, though, since it is easier to use and more consistent in its taste. You do not need to dilute the concentrate. We store the concentrate in the fridge.
4. Mosto cotto
Balsamic vinegar is my vinegar of choice, and once I tried mosto cotto, there was no comparison to the cheapy store-bought varieties. Mosto cotto (also known as saba), is a a condensed balsamic vinegar made with reduced Concord grapes and then aged for at least 12 years. Mosto cotto is an expensive balasmic vinegar, but still considered a poor man’s balsamic vinegar. Compared to the traditional balsamic vinegar it doesn’t compare: it is a thicker syrup with a deep, complex and sweet flavour. Use it anywhere you use balsamic vinegar, preferably a bright fresh salad.
Where to buy: Look for it in high-end Italian grocers. I bought mine at Eataly while in New York City but Amazon.com also sells it. I don’t know where to buy it locally. Perhaps Pusateri’s? Maybe Pimenton?
5. Turkish red pepper paste (biber salçası)
Basically this is concentrated red peppers in a paste. This is one of those ingredients that took me a while to figure out how to use because you can’t simply swap it for tomato paste since it isn’t as firm. And it tastes different. However, recently I have been using it wherever I would end up pureeing red peppers anyhow – think soups, dips, dressings, etc. It comes in two version: hot (Acı) and sweet (Tatlı). I have the sweet version (Oncu’s tatli biber) and store it in the fridge once opened.
Where to buy: Pick this up when you search for Aleppo pepper flakes. Check your Middle Eastern grocers, or even better, find a Turkish grocery store. Locally, I have bought it from Marche Istanbul (not sure whether Burak Supermarket has it). Sunny’s carries both mild and hot versions.
6. Spanish smoked paprika
While the above ingredients are more likely to be new to people, smoked paprika is more common. New to you? Go out and try some already!! Spanish smoked paprika comes in sweet and hot varieties (and also non-smoked varieties which are more common). It adds a mild heatness and lots of smokiness.
Where to buy: Check out well-stocked spice stores, like Penzey’s. I really like the one from Safinter that I picked up at Whole Foods. Locally, I’ve spotted it at Pimenton, and in bulk at Better Bulk and House of Spice, but I bet larger grocery stores carry it, too.
Smoky Split Pea Soup with Roasted Garlic and Sage
Quinoa Falafels with a Cheezy Broccoli Bowl
Mexican Salad with Black Beans, Tomato, Avocado in a Creamy Tomato Sauce
Smoky Tempeh and Chard Stew
Moroccan Vegetable Phyllo Rolls with Balsamic Maple Sauce
Miso defies my rule of buying something non-perishable but is such a great ingredient. It is a salty paste made from fermented soybeans (also rice , chickpea or barley). Miso soups are fairly common and easy to make but miso can also be used for sauces, spreads, for meat, etc. There are many different kinds of miso, and not all are interchangeable, so it is worthwhile figuring things out as red misos are more salty, white misos less so. If trying it for the first time, stick with white miso. Maki at Just Hungry has a great primer on miso. I store it in the refrigerator and it lasts forever.
Where to buy: Check out Asian grocers, but it can be found in well-stocked grocery stores like Metro, Loblaws, etc. Locally, Sunny’s, Bestwin and T&T all carry it as well as health food stores like Whole Foods, Better Bulk and The Big Carrot (albeit more expensive).
Carrot and Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Six Shades of Red Soup (Beet, Potato and Red Lentil Soup with Dill)
Japanese Winter Stew
Dragon Quinoa Bowl with Roasted Vegetables and a Miso Gravy
Asparagus and Carrot Salad with a Miso-Walnut Dressing
Edamame Miso Dip (Hummus, Asian-style!)
Zesty Orange Cashew Spread
Baked Eggplant with Miso
8. Black salt (kala namak)
I am still fascinated by black salt or kala namak. More pink than black, this salt has been infused with sulfur, rendering an egg-like taste when used in cooking. Don’t use too much because it is salt after all, but its smell and taste are uncannily like eggs.
Where to buy: Please don’t spend a fortune on this. Go to your closest Indian grocer where you can pick up a small bag for $1-2. It will keep forever. It will be so much more expensive at spice stores. Amazon sells it, too. Locally, I’ve seen it at Sunny’s and at a multitude of the independent Indian/Bengali grocers on Danforth, near Victoria Park.
9. Dried heirloom beans
This one will get a post all to itself!
I am always looking for new ways to use my favourite ingredients. How do you like to use them? For those in Toronto, where have you found these ingredients?