by: Jillian Fraioli
Our family has strong traditions, which results in cooking the same dishes every holiday season. We rejoice in this repetition. For most of our adult lives, we have been flung far and wide across the world. The food traditions in our family are what hold us tight in the arms of our loved ones and our ancestors. It’s what brings our heart, and sometimes our hardest memories, to the forefront to be held and cherished.
But every January, without fail, this gal who can barely eat leftovers (that’s a topic for another day) starts to feel a thousand small deaths as each meal approaches. I need new. I need fresh. I need to experiment.
Winter greens, anything not meat, fresh flavors, like ginger and citrus and peppers and herbs — these are what I invariably begin to crave. I want to travel continents in my kitchen and spice up everything, not just my wine.
This is when I turn to my favorite ingredients. These items might seem a little off the beaten path, but trust me, it’s worth it to build them into your pantry. Most of what I list below are what are known as “umami boosters” — the fifth taste that we’re often looking for in a satisfying dish. To me, every dish should have at least three of the five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, and every meal should include all five to be deeply satisfying.
Umami, the hardest-to-describe flavor, comes from glutamates and nucleotides. It’s not new, it’s just now finally part of the conversation we have when we talk about cooking. Umami can come from fermented and aged foods, even fungi. Its most nefarious source has been MSG. This is the undeniable “savory taste,” and we find it in mushrooms, fatty steak, aged cheese, tomatoes, seaweed, and vegemite/marmite, to name only a few.
Below, I give you a small glimpse of what I keep on hand at all times to add new flavors and umami to my own cooking. These ingredients are my workhorses, and what I think of as the “stars” of my pantry.
As an added bonus, this is also the perfect time to see what spices need to be used, replaced, or just plain tossed. I usually rotate my herbs and spices and condiments between Christmas and the New Year, letting me further explore and use up some forgotten items that encourage me to explore new recipes.
Refresh Your Pantry!
- Fish sauce: In the last few years, this has become known in culinary circles as the “magic bullet.” You can add a few drops to soup, stock, casseroles, greens, sauces, or gravy (!), and it deepens the umami and adds a new layer to your cooking.
- Star anise: I use this in stock, rice, soups, stews, spaghetti sauce, and in chicken and pork dishes. It’s powerful, so I break up the stars into bits and only use a little. It gives dishes a warmth and depth not unlike cinnamon can, but with a very different flavor, more licorice-like. Be sure you remove it before serving up your meal.
- Miso paste: To me, this is the holy grail of umami. Yes, you can add it to soup, but I use it most often in marinades like the one below; I roast all my veggies in it, add it to my mashed potatoes, use a teaspoon in all my salad dressings, and all my meat marinades (it rocks in hamburgers!). It makes one heck of a glaze. It’s salty, but once you get used to it, you realize the caramel flavors and sweet notes make recipes otherworldly.
- Aleppo pepper: This is my new favorite addition to my pantry. I literally put it in everything. It’s not “hot,” but it carries some heat. It’s slightly smoky, and believe me, it’s very addictive. It has an earthy undertone with a fruity tang that is as delicious as it sounds. I use it on everything from roasted vegetables, salad dressing, cocktails (try rimming a glass with it!), and almost every poultry recipe.
To play with all of these items, I keep my pantry well-stocked with soy sauce, coconut aminos, mirin or rice wine vinegar, kombu, bonito, several tubes of tomato paste, anchovies, parmesan, dried porcini, and Worcestershire sauce.
As far as spices go, I always have these on hand: fresh ginger, bay leaves, za’atar (please try this, it’s tangy, nutty, and herbaceous all at once), cardamom pods, Garam Masala, saffron, turmeric, Penzy’s spice blends (they’re so good, you should try all of them! My favorite is “Florida”), roasted cumin, nutmeg, and herbs de Provence.
Ginger Miso Tofu with Winter Greens
This tofu has even my “I will never eat that” people gobbling it up — so try it once, even if you have picky eaters.
Serving options: You can serve this “bowl” style with roasted vegetables, rice, barley, or quinoa, soba noodles, and the winter greens salad, and layer or mix it all up! I’ve used leftover edamame, sweet potatoes, parsnips, or whatever grains I had on hand, and it always turns out delicious.
One container of extra firm tofu
*extra firm is necessary or the tofu will fall apart
For the Marinade/Dressing:
2 TBS honey
3 heaping TBS white miso paste
1 TBS Sriracha, or Sambal (garlic chili paste)
4 TBS coconut aminos
1/2 TSP fish sauce (optional)
2 TBS mirin or rice wine vinegar
1 TBS finely-minced fresh ginger
Garlic chili paste
Rice or soba noodles
Winter greens salad
Toasted sesame seeds, pepitos, roasted cashews
Heat your oven to 400 degrees.
Whisk the marinade in a bowl, saving three tbsp for the Winter Greens Salad.
Marinate the tofu in the dressing — two hours to overnight for best results, but if you forget (like I often do), you can toss it gently, coating it well right before baking, and it’s still delicious.
Place tofu on lightly-oiled roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown and firm, flipping the tofu halfway through. (I usually line my pan with parchment for this!)
When hot out of the oven, sprinkle the Aleppo pepper on top for added kick and flavor.
Winter Greens Salad
3 shoots of green onion, diced, whites and greens
I tend to buy big containers of baby kale in the winter, as we can’t grow it year-round.
Or, you can chiffonade one bunch of kale; I prefer lacinto (dinosaur) kale for this.
Put kale and green onion in a large bowl (with enough room for your hands!). Add in three tbsp of the tofu marinade and massage well (three to five minutes, depending on your kale).
Top with toasted sesame seeds, or roasted and smashed cashews, or pepitos.
Bio, Headshot, and social media have not changed!
Jillian moonlights in her own kitchen as Executive Chef. She comes from a long line of at-home chefs, making Sunday sauce and homemade pasta as soon as she was knee-high with Grandma Fraioli. Jillian used to work at such illustrious restaurants such as Emeril’s Fish House in Las Vegas (where she was a Pastry Chef), and both in the front and back of the house of Serafina and Tango in Seattle. She ended her career in restaurants many lives ago and now supports women-owned businesses. You can follow along with her cats and knitting (and sometimes food), if that’s your jam, on Instagram @yarnologie.