Updated on Tuesday, 15ᵗʰ February, 2022
Despite their status as base additives, the way you treat your flavour enhancers can go a long way to elevating the core ingredients of a dish. To adapt an old saying, your meals are only as strong as their weakest link, and it’s easy to overlook the important role played by base flavours.
Freshness and quality are buzzwords in any commercial kitchen. They are crucial when blending fats, salts and oils with other flavours. Tainted botanicals or herbs in second-rate olive oil are never going to cut it, so use cleaned and dried fresh herbs or quality dried products.
A robust, premium quality pure extra virgin olive oil is a vehicle for another flavour perspective; label it with a use by date. Rancid oil is not going to make anyone happy.
Using a natural sea salt from seawater that contains sodium as well as other important trace minerals—rather than common salt, which is just sodium chloride—will carry its own flavours as well as anything else you may add to it, be it aromatic dried rosemary, thyme, oregano or chilli flakes. Or, go all out and add onion powder, cumin, sweet smoked paprika, ground fennel seeds and cloves.
Using unsalted butter is always a better option and will not overpower any other element you put with it. Kombu butter is synonymous with chef Neil Perry, with little ramekins of the seaweed powder concoction making appearances at the various versions of the original Rockpool over the decades.
With the celebrated chef running what is said to be his final restaurant venture, Margaret in Sydney’s Double Bay, diners will continue to relish Perry’s obsession with seasonings, whether it be a main meal of wood-fired Eastern rock lobster tail laced with sambal butter or a simple side of slow-cooked peas with anchovies and doused in a base of chilli and garlic. And don’t worry: Perry assures diners they can always sit at the bar and savour fried chicken wings with one of those iconic little bowls of kombu butter.
Meanwhile, at Supernormal, on Melbourne’s famous Flinders Lane dining strip, Andrew McConnell explores his favourite corners of Asia with a catalogue of fabulously flavoursome dishes. A Hunan-style beef tartare is seasoned with a fragrant chilli oil, while prawn and chicken dumplings are elevated with a chilli and vinegar sauce.
Duncan Welgemoed’s recipe for corn salad with prawn salt from his award-winning Africola in Adelaide offers a double whammy, supplying both an oil and a flavoured salt. Fry prawn heads until crisp, add lemon rind and garlic, remove from heat and drain on paper towels. You can reserve the prawn oil for use in salad dressings and to season dishes. Put the prawn heads in a food processor on high with three teaspoons of sea salt and blitz to a fine powder. Refrigerate until required.
Prawns also get the royal treatment at the waterside Ormeggio at The Spit in Mosman, where Clarence River green prawns are cooked over charcoal flat bread and served with a green tomato emulsion and anchovy-infused Pepe Saya cultured butter.
The Stokehouse in Melbourne’s seaside St Kilda has been known to serve an impeccable sirloin with silky potato puree and a mushroom butter. Its saltbush and vinegar potato cake offers up a sublime local twist on the classic deep fried takeaway delicacy, while a burnt butter hollandaise provides a refreshing twist to a side dish of asparagus.
Meanwhile, Pierre Issa of Pepe Saya Butter revels in intriguing flavour infusions, including a maple butter that is rolled in vanilla bean then sunk in pure Canadian maple syrup. Even less predictable, but no less captivating, is the company’s collaboration with Oomite that results in a butter wheel of creamy, umami indulgence that goes delightfully on a slice of toast, across steak or through pasta.
It’s about complementing, not competing flavours. Let the individual quality ingredients shine.