Base Flavors – Building Blocks of Great Cooking

Anyone with ragged, cherished family recipe cards handed down and copied through generations knows about base flavors. Those ingredients that seem out of place listed next to garlic and onions, are indispensible to the finished dish, binding flavors together and laying underneath it all like the long pull of a lone base string amidst a hundred person orchestra.
Three of my favorite base flavors are below. They’re shockingly easy to use and with a bit of practice, will utterly transform your cooking.

If you’re from anywhere in Amercia that’s not the South, chances are ham hocks are foreign to your home cooking. Don’t let them be. The hock, known as a pork knuckle, is the extreme shank of the pig. It’s not something you’ll eat on its own much. There isn’t a whole lot of meat and what’s there is tough to get at and tough to eat. But it is insanely great for building delicious dishes. Add chunks of hock to anything you’re going to simmer for a long time. The payoff is a concentrated, meaty flavor that turns broths and sauces into silky, rich, heady liquers.

Strattu is from Sicily where it’s long been a secret ingredient of grandmothers everywhere. It’s a super concentrated tomato paste and by super concentrated I’m not kidding: it takes ten pounds of tomato sauce to make one six ounce jar. It’s simmered so slowly for so long, there’s hardly any moisture left, just a very, very concentrated paste that explodes with tomato flavor. Start your next sauce- with a half a spoonful of strattu and olive oil and see what happens when you unleash this monster. The great thing about it is that, unlike ham hocks, which take hours of slow home cooking to extrapolate flavor, strattu is ready to go right from the jar. You get all the benefits of slow cooking without actually having to do the slow cooking.

Finally, anchovies deserve some attention. I’ve been on a crusade for years to bring this great fish out of the culinary closet. People usually see them as despicable pizza toppings and claim they hate them. But the same folks probably never realize that they’re part of their favorite foods, including Worcestershire sauce, remoulade or caesar salad dressing. A small anchovy added to the pan early on in sauce creation dissolves so diners are none the wiser. What it leaves behind, though, is a base flavor that adds enormous depth to the finished dish.