You’ve been there. You’ve had a long day, and suddenly you find yourself standing in front of an empty, or otherwise picked-over fridge, wondering what to make for dinner. Unwillingly, you pull out a bit of dry chicken breast or dig through your cupboards to find the ingredients for a simple, but tired, old dish you’ve made one time too many.
Fortunately, there are some simple pantry staples (many of which may already be in your cupboard) that you can keep on hand to instantly elevate any dish into a gourmet treat.
Perhaps the easiest way to level up your meal is by pairing it with a sauce. Sauces run the gamut when it comes to flavor profiles — sweet, spicy, cheesy — so chances are good that you’ll be able to find the perfect match for your usual recipes.
From all-purpose flour to your favorite spices, here is a list of staples you should keep stocked at all times.
● All-purpose flour
● Neutral oil (canola, vegetable, grapeseed, peanut, sunflower)
● Balsamic vinegar
● White or red wine vinegar
● Chicken stock
● Beef stock
● Your favorite spices (think of these like the toppings at a frozen yogurt bar)
The Mayo-based Sauce
Ingredients: Egg, mustard, white or red wine vinegar, salt, neutral oil
You don’t have to be a mayo fan to enjoy mayo-based sauces. Thick and creamy with a slight tang, homemade mayo can be combined with a variety of different spices and flavorings to fit almost any mood. Don’t be afraid to think beyond sandwiches and burgers either; mayo-based sauces also go great drizzled liberally over most proteins, veggies and grains, among other things.
For your base, you’ll need a cup of neutral oil (canola works well), one egg, one tablespoon of vinegar, one tablespoon of mustard, a quarter teaspoon of salt and a blender. The process of making your mayo-base is fairly straight-forward — simply blend your egg for 20-seconds, then add and blend the mustard, vinegar and salt for another 20, and then slowly add your oil — but it is a bit finicky. Mayo is created by emulsifying egg and oil, and adding the oil too quickly could cause your sauce to “break” and become curdled. To avoid this, leave your blender running and add the oil drop by drop. Once your base is finished, it is time to gather up some of your favorite spices and have fun!
The Balsamic Glaze
Ingredient: Balsamic vinegar
Sweet, fruity and sticky are the perfect adjectives to describe a homemade balsamic glaze. This reduction sauce is exceedingly simple to make. All you need to do is add balsamic vinegar to a small pot and simmer it until it reduces by about half and becomes thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. You can try mixing in other vinegars as well if you want to change up the flavor. Rice vinegar is a good choice, but don’t be afraid to try other kinds — or even small amounts of non-vinegar liquids. This sauce works well over just about anything — salad, chicken, fish and even tacos, to name a few. You can also try it as a marinade for your meats.
A Simple Roux
Ingredients: Butter, flour, milk, beef or chicken stock
Learn how to make a roux and you will be well on your way to having the skills to make several classic sauces.
A roux is a thickening agent made up of equal parts fat (usually butter) and flour. It is the base for three of the five French “Mother Sauces.” To make it, simply melt butter (or other fat) on the stove. Once the butter is melted, add your flour and whisk them together until they’ve reached your desired color. The longer the roux is cooked, the darker (and more flavorful) it will become. From there, you can add milk to make béchamel (white sauce), or stock for veloute (brown sauce) and stir over heat until the sauce thickens. Béchamel and velouté are the bases for a myriad of other sauces — for example, cheese sauce is made by adding cheese to a basic white sauce. Learn to make some classics, or tap into your creative side and experiment on the flavorings on your own.
Cajun Mayo Chicken
Total time: About 40 minutes
1 large egg
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon red or white vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup neutral oil
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oven is preheating, place chicken thighs on a baking sheet. Combine olive oil, thyme, basil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and paint each thigh with the resulting mixture. Cook thighs in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
While chicken is baking, crack one egg in a blender. Blend for 20 seconds. Add mustard, vinegar, salt and Cajun seasoning. Blend for another 20 seconds. While the blender is running, add your oil one drop at a time. A turkey baster works well for this. Once you are about halfway through the oil, you can begin adding it more quickly, progressing from drops to a thin stream.
Remove chicken from oven and smother in sauce. Roasted potatoes and rice make an excellent side.
Cajun Mayo recipe adapted from The Inspired Taste.