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Last month, we began what I hope will be an ongoing series on various flavourings and other seasonings which can be used besides herbs to enhance the foods we cook. This month, we have the second installment. I hope you enjoy it.
The oils we use in cooking are generally extracted by pressing various nuts, seeds, vegetables and plants. Usually, they are chosen based on the particular flavour you want to add to the dish you're cooking, although various cooking temperatures are also a consideration at times. Most supermarkets now carry a good selection of oils -- also try delis, specialty food stores and health food shops. Store your oils in a cool dark place away from light.
Olive Oil Considered one of the best for flavouring, it has become very popular the last few years and is easily found. The most expensive varieties are the "virgin" oils which are produced from the first pressing. Their colour can vary from a rich yellow to the deep green of the virgin oils. It is an essential ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, adding a rich flavour to foods that are fried or sautéed in it. Use only olive oil when making a French dressing. Drizzle it over freshly cooked pasta. In the Middle East, it's drizzled over hummus and yougurt to serve with kebabs.
Almond Oil and Walnut Oil These oils have very distinct flavours that can limit their use. They are usually used in salad dressings and in the making of mayonnaise. Since they usually have a low heat tolerance as well, they are seldom used in cooking.
Sunflower and Safflower Oil Prized because of their light neutral taste, these can be used in light dressings for greens.
Sesame Oil The Chinese include small amounts of this oil in most of their stir-fried dishes. It adds a slightly nutty flavour.
Soya Oil Widely used as a cooking oil, though its flavour isn't the best. It is, however, inexpensive and keeps well so it's great as a general purpose oil.
Palm Oil With its distinctive flavour, this is the base for most West African cooking. It has a high fat content, but is excellent for frying.
Corn and Vegetable Oils These are essentially tasteless. They are sometimes used as flavourings but most commonly used for cooking and frying.
Soya is among one of the oldest cultivated crops and has been grown in China for thousands of years. Highly nutritious, the beans can be eaten fresh or dried but are also used to make several products that are essential to Oriental cuisine as well as becoming increasingly popular in the West. The beans are used to make flours and oils and a milk produced from the flour is used in the making of tofu. Soy sauce and Miso are produced by fermenting the beans in a brine.
Soy bean flour is used in commercial cake manufacturing as well as in vegetarian cooking. Soy bean oil is preferred by vegetarians and is also used as a base for many margarines. The bean curd -- tofu -- is a staple in Oriental cuisine.
Good soy sauces are recognizable by the pungent aroma and their distinctive, robust flavour. If you shake them they will produce a foamy head that will hold. Soy sauce comes in a variety of colours and strengths from light to dark with the more potent generally being the darker, thicker ones. It is used as a condiment in much the same way as salt is in the West. Use it to enhance the flavour of all kinds of fish, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes -- especially rice. Miso is used in Japanese cooking to thicken soups and sauces.
Look for this series to continue next month and don't hesitate to contact me with your herb and flavouring related questions.
See you next month!