Open Sesame!

Whether we’re Home Chefs or Pros, we all have our little secrets when it comes to correcting mistakes in the kitchen: like trying some lemon juice when we’ve made something too salty. We learn these tricks from our mothers and grandmothers, or find them by scouring culinary journals. But sometimes we almost stumble onto something that works. That’s what happened to me one day – I ‘happened’ onto a new trick when I was in the midst of a culinary crisis. And it worked so well that I thought it would be unfair of me not share it with you.

Several years ago I spent an entire day working to develop a Bolognese sauce. (Over the years, Bolognese has become one of my Signature recipes. But that was only after spending a great deal of time, effort, and resources trying to develop the perfect sauce.) When you work hard on a recipe, perhaps the worst thing that can happen is that you’ve created a disappointment. To me that’s even worse than creating a failure. When something’s a failure, you know it’s time to just throw out whatever it is and start over. But if it’s a disappointment, then that carries over on so many levels. You’ve disappointed yourself, your ingredients, and your guests.

On this particular day, I just couldn’t get the flavors of my sauce to come together. All the vegetables I had used – onions, carrots, zucchini, red bell peppers, summer squash, celery, kale, garlic, and tomatoes – had come straight from the garden, so I knew they were fresh. The tomatoes were a little acidic, but otherwise the vegetables were at their prime. Yet I just couldn’t seem to balance their flavors blend into that uniquely Bolognese flavor I was looking for. It wasn’t an outright failure, but I was certainly disappointed in the results.

I couldn’t consider throwing out all those gorgeous vegetables, so I was determined to make it right. As I stared at my pantry, I found some toasted sesame oil staring back at me. Sesame oil has a very intense, deep, rich flavor. (Whenever I do use it in things like hummus and stir fry, I use it sparingly or else it can take over the flavor of a dish.) At this point in the Bolognese process, I thought I had nothing to lose, so I gave the sesame oil a try. I put a few drops into the sauce, mixed it well, and let it stand. When I came back and tasted the sauce a few minutes later, I was astonished to find that the sauce was PERFECT!

What the sesame oil had done was to bind together all the spectacular flavors of the vegetables. It had created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. It had turned a disappointment into something spectacular. And it had done so without making itself obvious.

Since that day, toasted sesame has become one of my ‘go to’ ingredients. When I am disappointed in the flavors I’ve created – whether that’s a sauce, or a gravy, soup, stew, or even a braising liquid - I simply add a few drops (never more than ¼ teaspoon) into the pot. And Voila! I’ve got the perfectly balanced flavor I was trying to achieve.

I’m not sure you’ll ever find this advice anywhere else. I doubt that you will ever hear a professional chef recommend that you add sesame oil to your Bolognese or chicken gravy. But if you find yourself in a bind and need to come up with a kitchen fix of your own, you might want to give this one a try. I swear by it!

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