Condiments: Spicing up Summer’s Plates with Original Concoctions

            With all the room that they take up in the average refrigerator, it’s fair to say that condiments are a staple in the American diet. Hot sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, fancier more nouveau aiolis with garlic and pesto, or sriracha “for an extra kick” French remoulade…; it is clear that side dips are here to stay.

            Unfortunately, however, the majority of prepared, store-bought condiments are filled with the sugar (especially that awful corn syrup) and salt that we are warned are so unhealthy. Preservatives, artificial coloring, fillers, and additives can all be present in our favorite condiments. So, what to do? The answer is clear, and the effort easy –make your own!

            Homemade condiments are delicious, can be custom designed for food sensitivities, real allergies, and palates, and there is relatively nothing to the effort. There is also a whole lot more potential flavor as well, and the key is  using the freshest ingredients possible. There is no comparison, for example, in the vacuum-sealed dip with dried cilantro, and the fresh, out-of-the-food-processor-flavor of an original aioli made with freshly snipped cilantro whipped up 20 minutes prior to dinner time. The whole reason that we rely on side dips is for a burst of flavor, so what could be better than the pumped-up essences of a freshly prepared condiment?

            Where to start? Look for fresh, in-season ingredients in the produce department of a high-quality store. Farmer’s markets are a great place to discover ingredients as well, especially ones that are not on your usual supermarket list, particularly savory, fresh herbs that add real punch, like watercress, anise, fenugreek, tarragon, and dried limes (readily available in Middle-Eastern food markets, these add a musky sour, unique flavor as they soak in the liquid, although they are generally not consumed themselves).

            Considering ketchup first, since it is likely the most common condiment on anyone’s list, a homemade tomato ketchup is rich and super delicious, a distant relative from the commercial offering that we generally and mindlessly reach for. Without the sweet, sugary additives, the flavor of the tomatoes really come alive. Of course, as in all original recipes, the quality of the ingredients is tantamount. The better the tomato, the more scrumptious the finished product. Beginning with de-seeded, highest-quality tomatoes (plum tomatoes work fabulously for original ketchup concoctions) bursting with juice and flavor, the key is to remove the skins as well, and to then add additional flavors, such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, any variety of hot peppers to taste, mustard powder (yes, mustard powder…), and fresh onion, chives, or scallions. Brown sugar can also add a distinctive taste in freshly made ketchup.

            Second only to the worldwide favorite, ketchup, a good mustard is a must! With a plethora of varieties available, the possibilities are endless. But the key here, is learning how to balance the hot with the sweet. A little sugar goes a long way when working with mustard , and another important factor is slow-cooking to avoid a dried-out, finished product. Whole mustard seeds add a wonderful, grainy quality as well, and smooth versions, such as a classic Dijon add a fabulous kick to all sorts of dishes.

            When trying to come up with a terrific barbecue sauce, the varieties are truly endless. Across the south and west of the United States, there are virtually thousands of regional recipes; an Oklahoma barbecue is likely to introduce a barbecue sauce vastly different from one in Texas or South Carolina (the flavors here rely mostly on mustard) or North Carolina (here, the sauces are largely vinegar-based). These are areas that pride themselves on their legendary and unique flavors, and the inspiration that one can take from their homemade concoctions is infinite. Local whiskeys, like Jack Daniels, beer, a good bourbon, or Tennessee mash, are frequently added to regional sauces, and anyone looking to come up with an original sauce instead of simply reaching for the over-sugary, corn syrup based commercial varieties, would do well to emulate these versions and their delicious ingredients. With barbecue sauce, the key is getting the combination of sweet and tangy just right. Ketchup, brown sugar, molasses, fresh onions, chipotle powder, mustard, paprika, apple cider vinegar, and celery seeds are frequent ingredients in homemade barbecue sauces everywhere.

            Found more frequently in the past couple of decades, are pestos. These delicious, generally green condiments make delicious toppings for any number of vegetables and meats. Pesto is a traditionally Italian delicacy, and is classically made with basil, garlic, pignoli (pine) nuts and olive oil. Pesto can also come in a variety of flavors, however, like arugula, watercress, spinach, cilantro, or even dill or carrot tops or celery leaves in place of the more common basil. A dry cheese, makes a thicker pesto, and for kosher meals, works well, with dairy menus. The cheese, however, can be easily left out, for a pareve choice, or for those who simply want a lighter, thinner sauce. Some pestos are really “out-of-the-box” varieties, which abandon the traditional green entirely, and include a tomato base, with different nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, or even macadamias work!) and a variety of different hard cheeses.

            One last concoction taken from the French is a fancy condiment called remoulade. Essentially a mayonnaise taken to the next level, remoulade is traditionally served with finely sliced (julienne) celery root as a classic Parisian salad. Similar to tartar sauce, a good remoulade always includes something salty, like pickles, lemon or lime juice, green olives, or a good quality light-colored vinegar. In the deep South in the United States, any respectable remoulade is always spicy, including many of the Cajun ingredients so common to those areas, like garlic, onions, oregano, chili flakes, smoky regular or Hungarian paprika, which is milder, and black or cayenne pepper, or a combination of the two for a real kick! For those who are ambitious and want to create their own, any combination of delicious spices make a welcome addition, including fresh herbs, mustard, and even finely diced anchovies or anchovy paste from a tube (available in the canned fish department of high-end supermarkets…and no, they do not add a fishy taste at all). Remoulade is particularly delicious as a dipping sauce, especially with seafood, artichokes, and French fries.

            The key to a successful homemade condiment is to go by your own palate, and avoid the overly sugary and artificial ingredients altogether. Fresh is always best, and anticipating a welcome reception to a yummy, original treat, it is probably wise to whip up a larger batch than you think you will need, since condiments, properly stored in glass jars in a cold refrigerator (36-37 degrees is nice and cold, and keeps everything especially fresh) can last for months. So, the next time you find yourself reaching for that bottle on the shelf of your local market, think again. With a little effort and some fantastic fresh ingredients, you can take your condiments –AND your main dish– to the next level!

Mayonnaise, a world-renown favorite (it is widely used, for those of you who have traveled in Europe, on French fries, particularly in the Latino world…as if the fries themselves don’t have enough grease!) is a particularly great choice to make from scratch. The most important ingredients are farm-fresh eggs and good-quality oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is especially delicious in mayonnaise, and lemon juice and any combination of spices to taste can work wonderfully on the basically flat canvas that is the foundation of the condiment. Tarragon is a super, flavorful choice, sriracha, chipotle, dill all work as well.  

The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City.  Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.