The keys to punching up your dinner are remarkably simple, and they're probably already in your kitchen. We've found that with a dash here and a dollop there, these five stars of the pantry will invigorate anyone's cooking and transform dishes from flat to flavorful.
Asian-Style Chili Sauce
Spices things up
For those who like heat, a robust chili sauce can enhance food of just about every variety. Add a spoonful at the end of cooking and you'll have fried eggs with a little fire and vegetables that smolder. Mix the sauce with sour cream for an instant dip, spread it on a sandwich, and use it to marinate tofu or shrimp for a stir-fry.
Try this: Toss the chili sauce with sauteed broccoli.
A dab of Dijon mustard can do more than flavor a classic vinaigrette. Its balanced acidity, slight heat, and zing go a long way in enriching pan sauces, enhancing marinades (see No-Waste Marinade), and creating a savory-sweet dip when mixed with an equal amount of honey.
Try this: Brush mustard on meat, such as a rack of lamb, before coating with herbed breadcrumbs.
Vinegar or Lemon
A touch of acid -- a splash of vinegar or a spritz of lemon juice -- as you finish soups, stews, meat, fish, or vegetable dishes awakens their natural flavors (and boosts taste with scant sodium and no fat).
Try this: Brighten white beans and kale with lemon juice, or give a hearty meat chili a kick with vinegar.
The Japanese coined the term "umami," that full, meaty quality that a condiment such as soy sauce contributes to a dish. But this ingredient lends a savory note to foods from any part of the world. A tablespoon or so will round out a marinade and intensify the aroma and color of a long-cooked stew or pot roast.
Try this: Add to cooking liquid for braising short ribs, or whisk into a vinaigrette.
Stands in for white wine
Next time you have to deglaze a pan, steam fish, or enliven a pasta sauce, but you don't have white wine on hand, reach for this cocktail classic. The fortified wine costs about $10 a bottle and keeps in the refrigerator for weeks.
Try this: Steam mussels in a little vermouth and saffron; the juices of the shellfish will meld with the wine for a delicious sauce to sop up with bread.