Classy Cheating Confessions

anchovy paste

You know us ESers are wont to talk a lot of smack about cheating — cutting corners in the kitchen by using  pre-made “ingredients” that could just as easily be made from scratch. But even though we love to hate, you know we all do it, too, in our own ways. Whether I’m cooking from scratch or warming up leftovers in the toaster oven, these three pre-made standbys have saved many a meal.

1. Anchovy Paste: I first discovered this sketchy-sounding ingredient in a Gourmet recipe for steak with anchovy garlic butter, which really is already cheating, because you’re basically buttering a g-damn steak. How could that not be delicious? But the anchovy paste — which comes in a little squeeze tube and doesn’t look anything like anchovies — is pretty amazing. It’s basically pureed ‘chovies mixed up with some olive oil, spices, and I’m not really sure what else. It doesn’t taste nearly as strong and fishy as eating one of those little guys whole, but it adds a super-rich, almost creamy element to any dish. When I make a pasta dish that needs to be set off a little bit, I squeeze in a little bit bit of this stuff and it takes it to another level. I know some of you may be grossed out, but trust me, you wouldn’t even know it was in there! It doesn’t have that intense anchovy taste (especially if you use just a touch in a whole dish), but somehow it instantly makes any dish rich and delicious.

2. Truffle Oil: Yeah, yeah, I know. Truffles are more overhyped than sliced bread. But we all know there’s a reason why. And while ES isn’t bringing in enough revenue yet for me to keep a pinch of fresh white truffles in the cabinet at all times, I have been known to fall back on the oily version. I got a tiny bottle of it as a gift a while back and honestly, it’s made me ten times less creative in the kitchen, because any time I get to the end of a dish and don’t think it’s quite there, I just throw in some TO and call it a day. And you know what? It always makes it amazing.  Pasta? Potatoes? Breakfast cereal? It’s hard to find something that can’t use a little truffle oil. I think it’s as much the earthy, pungent smell as the taste that sets a dish off. When my little bottle ran off after about a year, I decided not to buy another one, just so that I would be forced to experiment more in the kitchen. But then my mom went and got me another bottle for Christmas. And I’m not mad at all.  The most amazing thing is that while it seems ridiculously expensive, it’s really not–because you use literally a drop or two every time, that tiny little $20 bottle is gonna last you a year, and trust me, it will rescue so, so, many meals.

3. Ajvar: I pick up this red pepper spread whenever I spot it at a Middle Eastern or Euro grocery store. It’s basically just roasted red peppers ground up with olive oil, various spices, and sometimes some eggplant too. I suppose I could make this myself, but I’m not convinced it would be a million times better. Any time I find myself preparing a fridge-clearing meal but don’t have any fresh veggies on hand, I reach for the ajvar jar. Boring bowl of polenta? Not with a spoonful of ajvar mixed in. Basic cold cut sandwich? Spread some ajvar on that baby. Cheese quesadilla? Yep, needs ajvar. It’s also possible that I sometimes just sit down and lick this good stuff up with a spoon.

Have classy cheating confessions of your own? What stand-by ingredients do you rely on to save a dish? Feed us back in the comments!

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  • gansie March 8, 2010  

    wow. i’m impressed. i was trying to think of my go-tos. maybe curry power? horseradish?

    oh wait. i know. ramp vinegar. i was given this in a gift bag after a press dinner at jackson 20. i usually add it to dip or sauces and whatever it touches suddenly becomes fresh and vibrant.

  • Summer March 8, 2010  

    I love anchovy paste… it was on my shopping list this weekend, but I went to the not-fancy grocery store and they didn’t have it. I use it in my homemade salad dressings. Anchovy paste + minced garlic + lemon juice + mayo + pepper = caesar-ish dressing. Yum. But is it really a cheat? I just considered it an ingredient, not a shortcut.

    The bottled lemon juice in that recipe is a cheat, too, isn’t it? Until I buy a house with enough land for a few citrus trees, it’s going to have to do. (Also on the mental planting list for this imaginary house: avocado trees. Florida truly is the promised land.)

    What I will admit to as a cheat: curry pastes. Thai curry pastes from Maesri, Indian curry pastes from Kitchens of India (multi-packs for cheap on Amazon!). Even if I could assemble all the necessary ingredients for curry pastes — which wouldn’t be easy in this town devoid of ethnic markets, considering I have to drive half an hour to a rinkydink Vietnamese store just to buy freakin’ FISH SAUCE — I still don’t think I could make a curry paste that would be equally delicious. It’s a cheat, but it’s a good one.

  • erica March 8, 2010  

    i second the curry paste and lemon juice.

  • Maggie March 8, 2010  

    Curry paste!! Red and green, thank you.

  • Maids March 8, 2010  

    harissa – I could make it, but it takes time…. And the harissa they sell at crate and barrell and at some “yes organic markets” is so delicious.
    It’s the condiment of the gods.

  • Tim March 8, 2010  

    I still don’t see eye to eye with you all on this (surprise!). I don’t think of any of these as cheating. They’re just ingredients. Buying pre-made garlic bread in the freezer section, now that’s cheating! Buying pre-made anything in the freezer section – cheating! But truffle oil, anchovy paste, and prepared horseradish are, in my view, legitimate, delicious ingredients. This is all very subjective, but I think you can give yourselves a break!

  • Greg F. March 8, 2010  

    Old fuckin’ Bay.

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