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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'Tis the seasoning to be jolly - adding some pop to your meals

I was very surprised when I posted a random Facebook comment that it was fun to cook with whiskey salt, and received quite a few replies telling me that people have never heard of it (even those who live not far from where the whiskey salt had originated) One thing led to another, and eventually I felt the need to pull together a small list of sources, where you can get fun ingredients to experiment with.

One thing to remember is - quality costs money. But it is also worth paying for. Good seasonings, sauces and condiments do cost more than what you get off the shelf at the grocery store. The good news is that quality ingredients can be used in very small quantities to make a difference in flavor, so one container will last you quite some time.

Let us begin with the one that started all this trouble - the whiskey salt. This little bottle comes from the fabulous Scottish Gourmet. I mentioned this seller (as well as others to follow) in my Yummy Gifts article. In case you are wondering, whiskey salt will not make you drunk. What distinguishes it from the regular salt is a certain softness of the primary flavor and a smokiness that comes from the whiskey. It comes in large granules, so you can either grind it up to get a more even flavor distribution or use it as is for little salty bursts. It's particularly good on steak, but works well with other meats too. Another good application is to make garlic or cheese toast with it - delicious!

Scottish Gourmet offers many other delights - quite a few of them with the same touch of whiskey as the salt, such as, for instance, the whiskey vinegar. If you drink it straight out of the bottle, the 12% whiskey will probably make itself felt. However, it would be a damnable waste of something that is much better in moderation. Try working it into salads and marinades and remember - a little goes a long way.

There is a reason Cooking Enthusiast calls itself "the passionate cook's resource". If you are a passionate cook, you'll find a lot of things to fall in love with there. If you are not a passionate cook, peruse the web site and you'll become one. In addition to some fabulous kitchen gadgets and books, they offer some incredible foods, sauces and seasonings. We are still enjoying a bottle of Mexican vanilla I gave my husband for last year's Christmas, and this year I've added the exotic salts collection to our spice rack. The first thing that strikes you about the set of little containers is how pretty they look. This is not your average white salt you get in a paper bag. This stuff looks like it belongs with the gifts of the Magi. All of the salts are very different and should be used in tiny quantities. Cyprus salt, for example, comes in the shape of white flakes that look like snow, and one flake can be enough for a serving of rice or pasta - it's that strong.

Natural oils are good for you. Most of us have olive oil and vegetable oil in our kitchens, but not much beyond that. To continue deriving the health benefits while adding some variety to our meals, we started expanding our oil assortment to include peanut oil, almond oil and white truffle oil. Cooking Enthusiast's black truffle oil is definitely something I'd like to play with.

Somehow, there is no middle ground with the truffle oil - people either love it or hate it. I personally enjoy it a great deal, provided I use it in great moderation. I've added truffle oil to salads with balsamic vinegar. Those of you who struggle with leafy salads, because it feels as if you are eating grass, might want to try that. Truffle oil has a very earthy flavor to it, so the greens don't taste nearly as grassy. I have also used it as a supplemental oil with stir-fries. ...Meaning, I would cook the ingredients with olive oil, but then dribble a little bit of truffle oil onto the mixing spoon and stir everything with it just as the stuff was almost done.

I grow a lot of my own herbs - rosemary, parsley, basil, mint, thyme. I also enjoy finding interesting herb mixes by good quality sellers. If you are like me in that respect, Bittersweet Herb Farm is a place for you. You can certainly enjoy their ready-made offerings, like sauces, marinades and marmalades - everything they sell is organic and delicious. Or you can go half-way - get a pre-mixed seasoning combo to make your own dip, or get a flavored oil to make your own salad dressing. We always make a point of visiting Bittersweet Herb booth when we make it to the Craftsmen Classic show in Greensboro - they always have a ton of samples out for tasting.

Sometimes there is no time or energy for a made-from-scratch French dessert based on your great-grandmother's recipe, and all you have on hand is your basic brownie mix. To keep from feeling guilty for stooping to prefab, get a tin of this. Yes, you can use Mariebelle's as nature intended - for making hot chocolate. But you can also add a little bit of it to a store-bought brownie mix. The difference is quite dramatic. Place a piece of that brownie on one of your nicer plates, dollop with sour cream, and take a bite - suddenly, it doesn't feel store-bought at all. Yes, it's cheating - but so worth it!

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