Pep talk

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor offers tips on how to give your winter cooking a lift

Sybil KapoorAt this time of year, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with cooking. I’ve been preparing the same winter ingredients in the same way for months, and the more bored I become, the harder it is to revitalise my food. I find myself making the same dishes repeatedly, until a cry of protest goes up: “Not black bean chilli again!”

Radical action is needed. For me, the answer lies in pepping up my food by thinking laterally. You need just two things: good quality ingredients and knowledge. Here is my foolproof guide.

As far as chilli-lovers are concerned, any type of chilli can be used to pep-up any type of food. I have drenched cakes in orange, chilli and vodka syrup, enjoyed chilli chocolate soufflés and chilli-spiced fruit salads.

A sprinkling of cayenne pepper in some scrambled eggs or a dusting of smoked paprika in roast aubergine, tomato and chickpea stew are equally delicious. The key is to match the flavour of your chilli to your dish.

Complex, smoky or tobacco-flavoured chillies work well with rich meat, vegetable and chocolate dishes. Peppery, zingy chillies are perfect for lighter fish, chicken, vegetable and fruit recipes. But there are no rules.

Top tip: The white ribs and seeds of chilli are very hot and can be added if extra heat is needed.

Fresh ginger will transform many oriental-influenced dishes, as it enhances the sweet, fresh qualities of food while negating the less pleasant fishy or meaty odours. I often add it to curries and stir-fries, but crucially I omit garlic, thereby creating a much fresher tasting recipe.

Finely diced ginger is also delicious simmered in an equal-part soy, mirin and sake dipping sauce and served with tempura—or brushed over griddled chicken, beef, scallops or fish.

Dried ginger imbues food with a hot flavour, so is best used in bittersweet puddings, biscuits and cakes such as steamed treacle pudding or chocolate ginger nuts. Add diced, preserved stem ginger for extra oomph.

Top tip: Always choose plump, smooth-looking ginger rhizomes for maximum juiciness. The skin can be bitter, so peel before use.

Citrus juice
The delicate acidity of freshly squeezed citrus juice, added at the last moment, instantly lightens many ingredients, making them taste surprisingly fresh and sweet, without the eater appreciating why. 

Taste some sweet fruit such as papaya, banana or ripe melon, then season it with a little lime juice and taste again. Its flavour will have transformed, becoming fresher and more intense, compelling you to take another bite. The same principle can be applied to griddled or fried fruit, such as apples, pears, pineapples or bananas.

Take this concept a little further by making a light sugar syrup seasoned with freshly squeezed lime, lemon, grapefruit or orange juice. You can imbue the syrup with spices or zest before adding the juice, then use it to macerate a cake, baba or fruit salad. Your mouth will zing with flavour.

Mixed citrus juices combined with a light olive oil make superb dressings. Seared prawns or an avocado, grapefruit and chicory salad will both taste irresistible.

Top tip: Use a light hand and add at the end of cooking, otherwise you run the risk of making it taste too sour rather than fresh and fragrant.

Citrus zest
Citrus zest is a magical ingredient that adds a subtle freshness to many different dishes: from umami-rich stews, to buttery cakes and puddings. Lemon zest is the most versatile, closely followed by orange zest. Both can be cooked or used raw, whereas lime and grapefruit zest have a tendency towards bitterness if cooked.

A blob of crème fraiche flavoured with lime zest gives a delicious spring note to smoked salmon, chicory and beetroot salad. Similarly, grapefruit zest can be folded into syllabub or beaten into a butter cream filling for an orange or lemon citrus cake.

The addition of lemon zest to a burger or meatball will add an addictive freshness, and myriad dishes benefit from a curl of finely pared lemon rind. I add it to everything from chicken pie to poached fruit and spiced sugar syrups.

Orange zest, fresh or dried, has a more complex, but equally wonderful flavour. It can be used in much the same way as lemon zest and is especially good in rich meat dishes such as beef, lamb or venison daube. Dried and crumbled, it will enliven spicy stir-fried chicken, meat, fish and shellfish.

Top tip: Avoid adding any bitter white pith when paring or grating citrus zest, as this will imbue the dish with bitterness.

Parmesan is like an exocet missile when it comes to seasoning. It’s high in natural free glutamates, which means it has a strong umami taste that brings out the sweetness in other foods. The easiest way to understand this is to eat some ripe pear slices with and without a few curls of good parmesan and see how your reaction to the pear changes.

It is then a question of matching it to the best foods. Sliced aubergine, white parmesan, plain flour, cayenne pepper and black pepper. I’ve also mixed parmesan into breadcrumb coatings.

Moderation is key—a little parmesan can go a long way, whether it is added to an omelette or scattered over a pea risotto. It’s delicious mixed into vegetable soufflés and roulades such as spinach soufflé or cheese and tomato roulade and adds an addictive savoury note to veal or pork balls, especially if they’re then simmered in tomato sauce.

Top tip: For extra flavour, save your parmesan rinds and simmer them in slow-cooked soups such as squash, onion, tomato or minestrone, as well as meat sauces for pasta.

Lastly, the careful addition of spice can be a great way to invigorate your cooking. Spice novices often make the mistake of adding too much and too many spices to a dish. The result is that the flavour of the main ingredient is swamped rather than enhanced.

If you don’t normally use them, try experimenting with one or two new spices such as saffron, cinnamon or cumin seeds. Try adding saffron to a few fish, chicken or rice dishes, experiment with adding cinnamon in place of a vanilla pod in custard dishes and season sautéed potatoes or green beans and tomatoes with cumin.

Top tip: When using spice, imagine the taste of your primary ingredient, then cautiously sniff your chosen spice and see if the two flavours work together.