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Je Ne Sais Quoi "Ammo"

I've evolved an unusual cooking philosophy. I use a grr-animals approach of modularity. I think in terms of protein, carbohydrate, and fat (in the correct balance), and try to use only the healthiest, least processed, least glycemic instances of each. This means abandoning ambition of doing the sort of cooking one finds in restaurants, but I've never seen the point of recreating restaurant cooking at home (it's unhealthy, it fails to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility inherent in home cooking, it almost always falls short, and, finally, that's what RESTAURANTS are for!). More on all this here: http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2009/08/h...

That's a standard athletic diet, and while I've gotten healthy and lost weight on it, I've also been bent on making it delicious (something few athletes achieve). I do so via three measures: 1. I further restrict myself to really high-quality, delicious ingredients (i.e. a CERTAIN tofu, a CERTAIN broccolini, etc.), regardless of cost or hassle (I make it back via fewer restaurant bills), 2. I cook with great care and attention, and 3. I have a repository of agents which add je ne sais quoi. Thing is, really really perfect brussels sprouts steamed and served really simply may be delightful once in a while, but, generally, more complexity is needed, and if you're not going to "cheat" with lots of fat and salt, you need ammo for achieving this.

So here's a list of my je ne sais quoi "ammo". All these things can be added in versatile ways to a host of ingredients, and they add that certain something without throwing off the nutritional balance (or dominating the flavor). These are subtle coloring agents.....secret ingredients....ways of developing a signature style to your cooking. Please add on your own suggestions!

Armenian pomegranate molasses
Za'atar
Philippine kalamansi lemon soy sauce
A range of high quality miso pastes (e.g. from South River
)A really good tamari (e.g. South River's miso tamari)
Apple cider (especially cider just beginning to turn)
White wine (especially riesling)
Very high quality spices (e.g. Penzey's ground cumin)
Pumpkin butter (I like Muirhead Pecan Pumpkin Butter http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/580511
)Ginger (my trick is to cut with a potato peeler)
Mexican mole pastes
Anything from the onion family
Black mustard seeds (pop them in a bit of hot oil to launch any pan cooking)
Finely-diced very ripe pear (which dissolves, adding body and flavor)
Hummus (not as an ingredient, but served alongside simple steamed vegetables for dipping)

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    1. re: southernitalian

      Those are the two things that immediately sprung into my mind.

    2. I'm a chile head and a great believer that a good level of spiciness can perk up anything... so one of my favorite ammos is sliced fresh chile peppers in oil, available at many Asian supermarkets. They are absolutely fantastic, VERY hot, and have a pure flavor Sriracha can't reach.

      1 Reply
      1. re: linguafood

        Regarding linguafood's chile-head suggestion, I'd add the "universal condiment" to the list. Simple and lasting - chopped chiles of various kinds put into a jar, covered with salt and left for a couple of weeks. A spoonful or so added to almost anything makes it better!

        Here's the original post.

        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4273...

        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          Love aged sherry vinegar.

          How about tamarind paste (or block, however it comes)?
          Sriracha sauce?
          Ground porcini powder?

        2. in addition to many of the fine suggestions above:

          anchovies
          Merlot vinegar
          cider vinegar
          dijon mustard [le fallot brand]

            1. re: greygarious

              Thanks for the link. But a lot of the suggestions in that thread (e.g. smoked paprika, lavendar salt, old bay) don't apply here. As I said, I'm looking here for versatility and non-dominating flavor; behind-scenes players that add je ne sais quoi rather than blast you with flavor. If you used those things on a near-daily basis, it'd get awfully monotonous. The stuff I listed is more subtle and versatile.....at least IMO! :)

            2. I thought "Je Ne Sais Quoi" was French for "card with no money in it"?

              9 Replies
              1. re: John E.

                My translator shows "what do I do."

                1. re: bushwickgirl

                  I was trying to be funny. I saw that phrase and answer on a birthday card once. I don't remember if it was a card I gave or received.

                  1. re: John E.

                    I thought it was funny as well. I've gotten a few of those empty cards...

                  2. re: bushwickgirl

                    Literally, it's "I don't know what", though the connotation is more often "I don't know how to explain/characterize/describe it".

                    1. re: greygarious

                      "A certain something" is a good translation I think.

                      1. re: greedygirl

                        It certainly is a good translation when applied to this thread!

                        1. re: bushwickgirl

                          "A certain something" is the best translation. The "something" being something good.

                          1. re: oakjoan

                            Il n'est pas nécessairement une bonne chose.

                      2. re: greygarious

                        I used to be a French major, back in college, now that I haven't used it much, I am learning Espanol to communicate with my housekeeper, but usually when I don't know a word, it comes to me in French first, then I have to figure out the Spanish.

                        Right now, I'm having trouble thinking of the French - C'est vrai, - that's what I was trying to say to your translation. But I kept coming up with - Es verdad, - which is the Spanish!! I think my head's spinning......!

                  3. Lemon or lime juice right before serving--often used lightly enough that people do not recognize it.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Bada Bing

                      Yes, really any sort of acid, citrus, vinegar, used sparingly, brightens food flavors without a noticeable bite. So I guess I could say that citrus is my ammo.

                      1. re: bushwickgirl

                        I used to do this, too, but stopped for some reason. Think I'll start again; I especially like the vitamin C....

                    2. I have to second fish sauce, as southernitalian mentioned. And adding/adjusting for acidity of a dish right before serving, especially with citrus as bada bing said.

                      Also:
                      -Good balsamic vinegar
                      -Dried chili peppers
                      -Dried mushrooms
                      -Worcestershire sauce
                      -Sesame oil - I know it's an oil, but you need literally like 1 ml of the stuff in an entire dish to set it off
                      -Toasted almonds - I use toasted almonds (or other nuts) in MANY of my blended sauces or chutneys - it can apply to many different dishes and makes all the difference in the world

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        Dried mushrooms are a good one. Porcini or polish mushrooms are the best, but it is fun to play with other dried mushrooms. Some of the Chinese stuff is just for texture and doesn't add flavor.

                        Smoked vegetables. You seem to be headed out this way and I can only HIGHLY suggest stopping by Ferry Plaza on Saturday morning and getting Tierra Vegetables smoked onions. They have smoked tomatoes but they didn';t do much for me. A brief response by Melanie about the onions.
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3365...

                        These are extravagently expensive, but seriously, don't limit yourself to one pack.

                        Speaking of things smoked, Lapsang souchong tea adds a nice smokey flavor to food. Infact almost any tea, even herbal can give a little boost. At a place in Berkely, there's this tea shop that has the lovliest blood orange tea that uses real dried oranges and other things. I also can give a lovely tint to some dishes.

                        If you do make it that way, in the Ferry Building, Far West Fungi has some interesting dried mushrooms that aren't seen often.

                        Ohh ... and The Apple Farm's aged balsamic apple vinegar.

                        But if you bought only one item in the Bay Area it should be those smoked onions. Worth the hassle of FP. Worth the trek in general. Then again, they can be ordered through the mail
                        http://www.tierravegetables.com/order...

                        1. re: rworange

                          I was too tired to think of the name or search last night, but another great thing is zhug.

                          Whole Spice makes a terrific one and for my tastes I think they are better as a whole than Penzy's.
                          http://www.wholespice.com/category.as...

                          They do some other nice blends too, but the zhug is the one I like the best and buy over and over. The only thing I haven't liked was their berber. It wasn't red and the stuff at the cheapo Etheopean markets is better. The hibiscus powder didn't do much for me either. It was a better concept. Dried hibiscus works better.

                        1. "I use a grr-animals approach of modurality".

                          Translation, please.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: greedygirl

                            "Grr-animals" is a brand of children's clothing that allows you to match components via animal tags, though the term has entered the language to signify any sort of simplified modular approach. That's the approach I described in my posting, and expanded upon in the Slog articles linked to in that posting.

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              Sorry, Jim, but I'm none the wiser. Call me old-fashioned, but i prefer plain English, especially when it comes to food.

                              1. re: greedygirl

                                It's "garanimals". Coordinating/matching items of children's clothing are indicated by tags that are meant to stay on the clothes, unlike tags on other clothing. It's intended to allow children to get dressed without an adult picking out what they'll wear on a given day. "Mix and match", to be less obtuse.

                                1. re: greygarious

                                  Yes, grey, I remember it that way too.

                              2. re: Jim Leff

                                I thought Grr-animals meant you were vegetarian... >_<

                            2. yeah right, toyo and kalamansi will surely add zhunasekwa to anyone's cooking - any particular brand? i truly believe many cooks should learn basic laroos-gastronomeek before worrying about flair and pizzaz.

                              9 Replies
                              1. re: epabella

                                Is this post meant in a friendly way? It sounds irritated to me, but I don't wish to misinterpret.

                                    1. re: Bada Bing

                                      actually, the purest "zhunasekwa" for me would be to faithfully follow an elizabeth david recipe down to the letter. the ability to render authentic "pwahvensahl" dishes is all the flair i seek. i'm still working my way thru a quarter of the recipes grand dame liz wrote out, i doubt i'll live long enough to master even a tenth of the dishes in the laroos-gastronomeek.

                                      and maybe having a picture of keith floyd in the kitchen will keep me in line as a cook, not to allow too much of my own ego into a dish that has been a tradition for several hundred years.

                                1. re: epabella

                                  Do you mean LaRousse Gastronomique?

                                  1. re: Phurstluv

                                    yes, but i like getting phonetical when it comes to the french - i love the food but i'm not too crazy about how their words are spelled with the english alphabet.

                                    1. re: epabella

                                      The French do seem to like cramming as many letters as possible into a word - I suppose a popular poodle name is Phaedeaux! ;-D

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        There is a pet store here in town called that (spelled almost that way)!

                                      2. re: epabella

                                        Understood. I just had to read it a few times to get it ;)

                                  2. For most foods you make, there is an arsenal of additions that can enhance but I don't think there's much that is across the board good (other than salt), eg. espresso powder/coffee enhances chocolate. When I use ground beef, I add finely chopped cabbage--it barely adds flavor but adds moisture and cuts fat and cost. Good quality cinnamon in many braised dishes adds a je ne sais quoi to it, as does ginger to many baked goods. You could get quite a lot of responses just limiting this question to one type of food.

                                    1. Layer the veggies - allow the first round of mirapoix (finely diced) to dissolve and the next, bigger diced, to be your normal base, but in a tasty veg broth instead of just water. Ditto potatoes in chowder or even veggie Kare (Japanese Curry).

                                      Dashi or Hondashi powder (make your own fresh for certain things, but use the instant powder for others). Salty, but you don't need much. My mom's secret killer ingredient for Borscht, believe it or not. Useful to put umami in all sorts of things.

                                      Maggi seasoning and Kitchen Boquet - not together, but essentially for the same kinds of things - sauces, soups, gravy. But then again, roux gravy is probably off your list. When I perfect the use of Konjac for gravy, I'll announce the discovery - I haven't seen a workable xanthum gum recipe yet, so I'm trying Konjac. In the meanwhile, use the flour, put a lot of mushrooms in it and call it healthy!

                                      Hey Jim - I know you said it's not about eating out. But that seems self-defeating to me, especially considering the essence of Chowhoundism (you still being the Zen master of CH and all). Howzabout another road trip, but this time you only eat/go to places with "healthful" food. Not veggie or organic or macro or any of that, but basically following your guidelines above. Show that it's a)possible b)there's healthful ways to do this and c)you have now built up the will and the ways to do the road trip right... or is it possible that there is no such thing as a healthy road trip? You go on a food road trip with the purpose of finding legendary foods, and like it or not, these foods are just not healthy for modern man.

                                      Applehome - http://applegigo.blogspot.com

                                      7 Replies
                                      1. re: applehome

                                        "is it possible that there is no such thing as a healthy road trip?"

                                        Correct. Eating at home is healthy. Eating out is exciting. Both can be delicious, but they're different sorts of deliciousness, and strategizing for best results within the limits of each scenario is, to me, the essence of chowhounding. As is the constant striving for balance among options.

                                        That road trip you're referring to (which was not my idea, fwiw) very nearly killed me. Massively unhealthy. I gained 25 pounds and got high blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol, and it was literally years before I regained my passion for food. For a sense of why, check out this slide show of all the things I ate during 9 weeks of continuous ingestion: http://www.chow.com/assets/2007/02/67...

                                        1. re: Jim Leff

                                          Wow, I think I gained about 10 pounds just watching that clip. It is possible to have a healthy road trip, although it might not a topic for this thread. It's challenging but it's about looking for the best and being happy with a few bites and not needing the whole thing. I've read, and it's the case for me, that the first 10% of the food gives you 90% of the pleasure. Think of Giada and how some of those food network people taste food but you don't see them eat it all (Guy Fieri aside). On a three week trip through the UK in the summer, I lost weight. I'd wake up early and get in a 6-7 mile run. I ate unlimited amount of good healthy food and then share a serving of the other stuff. Savor each bite. I never felt deprived.

                                          1. re: Jim Leff

                                            That's some amazing chowing. If I ever try that, I'll walk from place to place to work off the calories.

                                            I like how the pictures are timed to the music--the pictures are like 8th notes throughout the tune...

                                            1. re: Bada Bing

                                              Thanks, Bada Bing. There are a few benefits to being both a musician and a writer!

                                              chowser, I respectfully disagree. On this trip, I was eating the tiniest bites, and running three miles per day. And I've gone years trying to eat healthily while mostly eating out. I suspect you're either under 40, or have an unusual metabolism. I cannot maintain my weight and my health eating mostly in restaurants, and neither can most people post-40.

                                              Yes, you can drastically restrict your total calorie count, but that is not enough. In fact, it's often counter-productive, because you will likely burn muscle rather than fat. Nutritionalists and body builders (who are the real experts in weight loss, as they lose 15-25 pounds several times a year while "cutting) agree: it's not about minimizing calories; in fact, it's a struggle to get ENOUGH calories when you're eating clean (not processed, sugary, salty, fatty) protein/carbs/fats in proper balance. Weight lifters who are "cutting" , and civilians on smart weight loss plans, eat nearly constantly. Burning muscle is horribly counterproductive, since muscle mass is directly proportional to basal metabolic rate. See this: http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2009/08/h...

                                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                                LOL, definitely post-40 and have had a slow metabolism my whole life. I do believe everyone's body responds differently and I have to say I didn't sample the array of food you did in your trip. I don't have problems getting in enough calories (though the thought makes me laugh) probably because don't feel I need to eat clean all the time. As long as 80-90% of the food I eat is good, I enjoy the rest. Glad you're getting it under control--thanks for taking that challenge on for the rest of us. It helps us control what we eat when you've let us know what NOT to spend our calories on.

                                            2. re: Jim Leff

                                              I'm reaching for the tums just looking at the slides...

                                              1. re: applehome

                                                Yeah, I was definitely going for an ambivalent effect. My editor kept asking me why I'd chosen such sad music. I asked her to just trust me.

                                                I have trouble viewing that slideshow without feeling mildly murderous impulses toward the middle manager (no longer with the company) who assigned me the road trip (his typically light-handed response to my concerns about being off solo for nine weeks doing nothing but driving and eating with an impossible burden of daily reporting deadlines was "I'm not asking you to do this; I'm TELLING you to do this"). But, hey, I survived, and, after a couple of years, managed to get healthy again. Unfortunately, CNET/CBS, in its most recent design makeover, rendered my reporting of this Chow Tour pretty much unnavigable. Oh well.

                                                FWIW, the tale of this time of my life is being gradually told, re: this thread on Site Talk: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/582143

                                                The point I'm trying to make is that balance is essential. Nearly everything I ate on that trip was wildly delicious. But we are not foie gras geese. Health and balance are part of the overall formula for gastronomic enjoyment (and all other enjoyments). My quest is for DELICIOUS healthy balance, and I thank those who've responded to this thread with such great ideas!