02 Sep Jon Cartu Declares: Alabama chef picks 5 condiments to shake up your fridge
Having a few ordinary condiments around can help make leftovers new. Or at least less old. They can also give a just-cooked meal easy-access extra-flavor. But sometimes you need more than basic to save your food from meh. In addition to standard-issue ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, etc., having some more colorful choices in your condiment mix is clutch.
A lot of us right now are stuck at home more often than we usually are. A bottle of spicy mayo or jar of chimichurri can be the difference between feeling Minnesota and tasting California. To put together a list of condiments to shake up/wake up a home fridge, Jeremy Esterly was the first person I thought of to interview.
Esterly is head chef/co-owner at Phat Sammy’s, an Asian/stoner-food fusion restaurant in Huntsville that serves prismatic, adventurous and fun eats. Phat Sammy’s opened up just as coronavirus was turning 2020 into the crappiest remix ever. They’ve still found devoted audience.
“The food’s still very serious in preparation,” Esterly says, when asked how 2020 changed his cooking. “But it’s prettier, crazier. I think people want that more than ever, an escape and something different.” With their deconstructed specials (including a recent “pizza ramen”), signature poutine riff (the sublime Phat Fries) and tiki cocktails (a pomegranate-coconut hued “Pet Flamingo”), Phat Sammy’s gives it to them.
On a recent afternoon, Esterly checked in after a lunch shift to give us condiment counsel. Edited excerpts are below. ” I always encourage people to experiment,” he says. “Even if they’ve never used these things before, because you taste it and your mind starts to think what you could use it for.”
Esterly picked this Asian recipe staple, “Because I feel like a lot of people don’t know what they could use it for. I use it in so many ways here. Some of the stews, the curries we do, if they’re missing a little punch, you add fish sauce. No matter what it is, if it’s missing something and you add that at the end, it really brightens everything up and brings all the flavors together.”
Fish sauce, a clarified liquid generally made from pressed anchovies and salt, imparts a savory vibe.
“One of my favorite ways to use it,” Esterly says, “is take pork shoulder steaks and marinate them with equal parts sugar and fish sauce. It cures the meat in a way you can cook a pork shoulder steak like you would cook a ribeye on the grill. It tightens it up, so you can eat just like you would a ribeye. Even if people are cooking simple dishes like spaghetti with your sauce you can add that and it just adds another level of richness and flavor.”
“It’s a Middle Eastern spice blend,” Esterly says. “It’s got coriander, cumin, oregano and sumac, a very tart, lemony herb.” Esterly loves to use za’atar on chicken wings. “Any kind of meat you would put on the grill it makes it really good. But it’s also really good mixed in with yogurt and put it on top of humus, so you can use it for a dip but it adds like this smokey, floral, tart component to things. I put it on literally everything.”
Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp Sauce
This Chinese product can be found at many Asian markets. “It’s spicy fried garlic, shallots and peanuts in like an oil based mixture,” Esterly says. “And it is awesome. So if you get Chinese takeout, it can add a little bit of heat to your takeout, any kind of Chinese dumplings at home. It’s also really good mixed in with cream cheese and on a bagel. And I’ve also used it just mixed in with sour cream for a potato chip dip. But anything you want to add a little heat to and some punch it’s perfect.”
Esterly admits this pick is “pretty simple.” He still makes a solid case for Duke’s Mayo in an otherwise exotic quintet. “People don’t always think what they could use mayonnaise for except just put in on a sandwich,” Esterly says. “For us, we spread it on burger buns before we toast them and it’s way better than spreading butter on something. Just so much more flavor and it crisps up a lot nicer. You also finish stir-fries with it to give it a creamier texture.
“And then one of the things I learned a long time ago from a friend chef I worked with, he would rub an entire chicken with mayonnaise and then throw a bunch of herbs on it and roast it. The flavor and texture of the chicken, it stays super juicy and the skin gets really crispy. Duke’s does some interesting stuff, for sure.”
A Korean fermented chili soybean paste. Esterly describes the flavor as, “mildly spicy, a little funky and kind of sweet.” He uses it to add jazz to American faves. For example, “You can make a wet rub for barbecue ribs or pork shoulders.” Gochujang also works as a nifty simple salad dressing, with vinegar and oil, Esterly says. It also makes compelling “quick pickle,” he says, “if you mix it with sesame oil, rice vinegar and garlic and just toss cucumbers in it, which is awesome on fried chicken or just as a snack.” Versatility is strong with this one. “It brings sweet heat and a little more depth,” Esterly says. “Another one of those things you can sneak into a dishes looking for a little extra something.”
(Phat Sammy’s is located at 104 Jefferson St. More info at phatsammys.com.)
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