Text Me When You’re Done: A case for aftertaste
October 30th, 2023
Making a condiment is not a matter of science but rather of the heart. Erika Houle on five flexible recipes that favor extraordinary flavor.
Introducing Text Me When You’re Done: a column all about sharing what you want with who you want. We’re inviting contributors to tell us about the things they always turn to as a way of explaining who they are—the works of art, articles of interests, or other tangible elements that they refer to as a way to understand them. First up is Erika Houle on taste, in every sense of the word.
Part of my personality is defined by salt. ‘Coarse’ and ‘flakey’ are descriptors that I identify with. When a savory recipe calls for a pinch, I interpret it as more of a punch. On occasions when others generously cook for me, I can’t help but season the entire meal before taking a first bite. At dinner tables everywhere, excusing myself to return with whatever mill or shaker I can find comes as second nature.
People take notice. The other day at school, while presenting a plate of fish to my chef instructor, he sampled a small piece and paused for what felt like an eternity. “I hate to say it,” he said, “but it’s a little over seasoned.”
Be still, my quivering chin. Four months into a culinary arts program, I’m far from becoming an expert on exactly when and where I’ve crossed the threshold of too much sodium (an inherently impossible and totally subjective task, anyways). What I’m now preoccupied with is finding ways to bring more involved layers of flavor to the plate. Less finishing salt, more je ne sais quoi. What that means in terms of the perfect bite—beyond sufficient seasoning, and in my personal opinion—relies on sauce. On decadent dips, silky-smooth spreads, and multidimensional dressings that make even the strongest aftertaste a pleasurable experience.
I think of the essay in Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds titled “Night Treats for Her,” in which she summarizes her ideal snack during the quiet hours as a condiment on its own: “I drool for scoops of dripping colors,” she writes, in regard to syrupy fruit preserves, dismissing their bread and baked counterparts entirely. “I want to bite into the things that they say are too sweet to have just on their own.” On the savory side of that spectrum, I know exactly what she means—there is no greater joy than taking a spatula to a food processor still coated with fresh hummus and doing the dishwasher’s work. Each time I return to Edna Lewis’ recipe for “Rich Wild-Mushroom Sauce,” steaming hot and loaded with heavy cream and black pepper, I wonder if it would ever be appropriate to serve it as a soup. Watching Yotam Ottolenghi’s MasterClass on mezze spreads, I’m reminded of the first time I tried muhammara, a heavenly spiced and textured pool of blitzed walnuts, red pepper, tomato paste, and pomegranate molasses I ate with a spoon.
Studying traditional French cuisine means spending a lot of time with what are known as the “mother sauces:”: béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise, tomato, and velouté—each of which provide a base for endless offshoots. I love them all dearly, and refer to them regularly, but at home I’m more prone to keeping the textbook closed and working with what I’ve got. A steady surplus of garlic has yet to fail me (as the scent that reemerges from my pores never fails to remind me).
One of the best parts of making any dip, sauce, or spread is that no matter how complicated the recipe might be, it’s almost always easy to customize. Unlike baking a dessert, or achieving the right sear on a protein, making a condiment is not a matter of science but rather of the heart. Got a pickle lover in your life? Have them choose their preferred ratio of ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard for a special burger or french fry sauce, then stir in loads of extra diced cornichons along with a splash of brine. For someone who’s forever in search of spice, a homemade hot sauce featuring whatever peppers look best at the farmers’ market amounts to a very sweet gift. If you, like me, obsess over using up ingredients before they go bad, quickly blanch and shock your near-wilted herbs and blend them with oil before straining through a coffee filter to create the most gorgeous emerald green drizzle over just about any dish.
There's an album in my phone titled "94s and more." It's shared with my husband, Sam, and consists of a collection of photos of home meals I've made that he's graciously graded with straight As. While the benchmarks for his approval might be arbitrary—add Zonzon's merguez or harissa paste to anything and it's pretty much guaranteed to make the cut—the takeaways are always beyond valuable. Making food for anyone you care about is about exactly that: taking care. It's about keeping curious, and tailoring recipes to meet the uplifting response you hope to receive, because there's nothing better. The same ethos applies at school, where grades are equally important, and where being able to adapt to what different chefs consider the right texture of risotto, doneness of green beans, or flakiness of biscuits are key to improvement. One of my teachers despises shallots, which lends to less mincing for béarnaise. Two are smokers that seem to prefer a heavier hand with seasonings and spices, which is apparently a thing, and one that I'm still trying not to take too far. My classmates and I all have our own inclinations, which is to say that successful team assignments and restaurant simulations rely on respect, honest feedback, and putting something forward that everyone feels proud of.
The point is that this is about taste, and more specifically, yours. Below you’ll find five loose recipes—none of which are uniquely my own, but my takes on things I’ve learned at school or online and in books from chefs and recipe developers I admire—that I believe will be delightfully potent additions to your fridge. Keep Heinz ketchup and beloved chili crisps stocked in the sidedoor, because every condiment serves a purpose, but I promise homemade and personalized versions will become front and center shelf essentials. Feel free to cut each recipe in half for a first try. Taste as you go, season as you please, and if any specific ingredient speaks to you—like salt, perhaps—I urge you to add more.
Red Wine Braised Bacon and Onion Jam Butter
The original recipe for “Red Wine Braised Bacon” comes from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters, which also includes instructions and ideas for salsas, divine sauces, and stocks that are “better than anything you can buy.” I’ve made it many times with various tweaks and substitutions (including whiskey rather than wine), before and after being influenced by the TikTok butter community. Here’s where I’ve landed.
- toasted baguette
- grilled cheese sandwiches
- soft scrambled egg
- heavy cream, parmesan, bucatini and some pasta water
- 1 white or yellow onion
- 12 oz thick cut bacon (reserve several pieces after cooking for a chef’s treat)
- generous pour of red wine
- equally generous pour of chicken or vegetable stock
- 4-5 dried bay leaves
- enough brown sugar for sprinkling
- splash of red wine vinegar
- minced parsley (and/or fresh thyme or rosemary)
- 12 oz butter, unsalted, room temperature/softened
- 2-3 pinches of salt
- Preheat oven to 380F. Cut onion into slices and nestle them into a baking dish large enough for the bacon and deep enough to hold the cooking liquid. Add bay leaves on top.
- Place the bacon in an even layer on the bed onions and pour in the wine and stock to mostly cover it. Liberally sprinkle with brown sugar, cover with tinfoil, and bake for ~50 minutes.
- Set bacon aside and discard bay leaves. Pour remaining liquid along with the onions into a sauce pan on medium high heat, add red wine vinegar, and stir and reduce until onions appear coated and caramelized and you’ve reached a jammy consistency. Adjust as you go—if it tastes too acidic or too sweet, add more brown sugar or red wine vinegar, respectively.
- Put the braised bacon back in the oven. Broil until crisp and set aside to cool.
- Finely chop the onion mixture and the crispy bacon.
- Place butter in a large mixing bowl, add onion mixture, bacon, minced parsley and a sprinkle of salt. Mix to combine.
- Place compound butter on a large piece of plastic wrap, and begin shaping it into a log. Wrap the log and continue rolling it into an even and compact cylinder. Twist and tie both ends in a knot and refrigerate.
- When ready to serve, slice into small medallions to melt over hot foods, or bring back to room temperature for easy spreading.
Avocado and Herb Yogurt Dip/Spread
One of my favorite things to pick up at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market is El Machete 1924’s Salsa de Aguacate, which this dip could absolutely never replace, but it’s a bright and creamy option for a quick snack (with pita chips) or pairing with a warm and rich meal. Use whatever combination of herbs you enjoy and have on hand.
- crudité spreads
- rice bowls
- roast chicken
- 1 ripe avocado
- 12 oz 2% Greek yogurt
- heaping pile fresh dill
- heaping pile fresh cilantro
- big bunch fresh basil
- big bunch fresh parsley
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- juice of 2 lemons
- 1 fresh jalapeño, seeds and pith removed (or not, for extra heat)
- fine sea salt, to taste
- Roughly chop garlic, herbs, and jalepeño and toss into a food processor. Add lemon juice and salt, and pulse until no large chunks remain.
- Cut avocado in half and remove the pit. Peel and cut each half into quarters. Add to the food processor with yogurt and blend until smooth.
Anchovy Garlic Dressing (But first, mayonnaise)
Making your own mayonnaise is truly something to write home about—the store-bought kind can’t compete. Plus, the more you make it, the stronger your whisking arm will become, and hopefully carrying heavier items around the kitchen will eventually feel like a breeze (something I’m still working on).
Once you’ve got your base, spread it onto sandwiches, turn it into a spicy sushi topping with the addition of sriracha, or mix it with fennel, green onions, hot mustard, and tarragon for a delicious chicken salad binder.
In this case, creating an anchovy and garlic dressing—loosened with vinegar and lemon juice, and loaded with ground pepper—is the move. My sister recently told me she likes her Caesar salads to scream of garlic, and I concur. The inclusion of anchovies, of course, is non-negotiable. A balloon whisk works best, as does keeping all of your fingers on the handle and off the wire loops.
- Caesar salad
- crispy fried or roasted potatoes
- leftover pizza or chicken wings
For the mayonnaise:
- 2 eggs (yolks only)
- 1 tbsp dijon mustard
- ~1.5-2 cups canola oil (depending on the size of your yolks—larger ones can typically hold up to 1 cup each)
- small splash of lemon juice
- small splash of water
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp champagne vinegar
- 2 tbsp dijon mustard
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- ~40 g tinned anchovies, drained and minced
- fine sea salt, to taste
- black pepper, to taste, but also, a lot
- In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks, dijon mustard, lemon juice and water until frothy.
- Slowly pour in the oil, little by little, while continuing to whisk, maintaining an emulsion until the mixture is thick enough to form peaks.
- Create a paste with the minced garlic and anchovy—adding a bit of coarse salt helps to smear and merge them together with your knife. Whisk in lemon juice, vinegar, dijon, the anchovy-garlic paste, and lots of ground black pepper. Taste and adjust if more salt, acid, or heat (dijon or black pepper) is needed.
- Store in the refrigerator, leaving some time for the flavors to mingle before serving.
Horseradish-Heavy Crème Fraîche Sauce
The first time I made this sauce was on New Year’s Day in 2022. We had it with a ridiculous but celebratory extravagant breakfast of beef tenderloin, thick buttered toast, and champagne, and I still can’t stop thinking about that meal. On a more regular basis, it tastes wonderful with almost any vegetable that’s been slightly charred. This recipe comes together in minutes and the payoff is endless. Should you rather use your homemade mayonnaise in place of the sour cream or crème fraîche, you have my full support. If you happen to have chives, thinly chop them and add those, too.
- grilled asparagus
- special occasions such as making it through another year
- ½ cup crème fraîche
- ½ cup sour cream
- ½ cup prepared horseradish (use a towel to squeeze out liquid)
- juice of 1 lemon
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp honey
- salt and pepper, to taste
In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients and taste for seasoning. This sauce, like the anchovy garlic dressing, only gets better with time in the fridge.
Soon-to-Be Pantone Color of the Year Pea Purée
Even for those less inclined to peas, this one comes as a surprise. The most enticing shade of green speaks for itself, and forming a silky bed of sweet and herby purée feels very adult—despite the fact that it’s essentially baby food. Anyways, it’s marvelous.
- black lentils and/or sautéed mushrooms with toasted breadcrumbs
- white fish
- your bare fingertip
- ~10 oz fresh English peas
- handful of fresh mint
- handful of fresh basil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or more until smooth
- juice of 1.5-2 lemons
- salt, to taste
- In a medium pot, bring water to a bowl and add a generous amount of salt. While you wait, roughly chop up the garlic and juice your lemons.
- Blanch peas for ~1.5 minutes, and transfer to an ice bath immediately.
- Blanch mint and basil for ~30 seconds and add to the ice bath.
- Remove everything from the ice bath and dry it off with a towel. Add to a food processor with butter, garlic, and lemon juice, and process, adding in the olive oil until desired texture is achieved.
- Take a moment to swoon over what you’ve just made happen. Finish with a dramatic chef’s kiss.