March 3, 2024

Extraordinary Ingredients for Crappy Cooks

Instant meal improvement
By Lynda Wheatley | Aug. 14, 2021

Some of us can bake like Martha Stewart, cook like Alice Waters, and tuck in like Jamie Oliver. As for the rest of us? We’d be thrilled simply to make a family meal somewhere between forgettable and food poisoning. For those who like to cook but want to do better, as well as for those of us who can’t but strive to pretend we can, there are an array of ingredients out there ready to elevate your game. In the name of ease and immediate culinary-skill enhancement, we’d like to share a few of our no-brainer favorites — tried, tested, and ready to improve.

Bloody Mary Mix
Yes, Miracle Blend — that custom all-purpose blend of kosher salt, oregano, marjoram, black pepper, garlic, and other spices that launched European-trained, American-based Chef Eugene Moglovkin from restaurant kitchens to his own culinary empire — is Alden’s Mill House's flagship and, arguably, most famous product. But if you’re ordering it (and by all means, do; Miracle Blend quickly improves most any savory dish), nab a jar of its lesser-known but equally flexible cousin, Alden’s Mill House’s Bloody Mary Mix. Intended for spicing up your morning-after tomato juice “cleanse” (or maybe that’s just us?), this zingy, zesty mix goes heavy on the ground celery seed and Worcestershire sauce (solids), with a nice punch of horseradish powder, vinegar, anchovies, and a wee bit of sugar to boot. Such round-housing of tastebud triggers is outstanding on any morning, whether yours involves a recovery drink or — our other favorite pairing — a plate of deviled eggs. 5 ounces for $5.49 at aldenmillhouse.com, where you can also find a list of local stores that carry Alden’s Mill House products.

Sriracha Finishing Salt
Our hips don’t lie: We’ve long been fans of Natural Northern Foods’ spreads. (When paired with a bag of pita chips, peppered crackers, or plated of veggies, the Creamy Garlic Artichoke and Hickory Smoked Salmon and Caper Pate are dependably easy and outstanding party fare.) But it wasn’t until a recent summer farmers market stroll that we happened upon another winner in the NNF cannon: Sriracha Finishing Salt, a simple yet punchy topper that we’ve found works as wonderfully on hamburgers and chicken stir-fries as it does on sauteed kale and air-fryer sweet potatoes … the latter of which, unfortunately, taste extra amazing when dipped in the Creamy Garlic Artichoke. $5.95 at naturalnorthernfoods.com, where you can also find a list of local stores that carry Northern Natural Foods products.

MAB’S Atomic Mustard
Petoskey’s Andrea Simard makes this zesty, tangy brown condiment according to her Swedish Grandma Mabel’s secret recipe. Crafted in small batches that involve pure cane sugar, premium ground mustard flour, and an out-of-this-universe zing we can’t name but certainly can taste, MAB’s Atomic Mustard has made its way into Petoskey Pretzels litany of soft pretzel dips and across our own brats, pork loins, sandwiches (Cubans and Reubens!), and — this one is weird but so good — mixed with a little yogurt and mixed into our spinach salads. Yes, it’s that tasty. $8 at www.mabsatomicmustard.com, where you can also find a list of local stores.

Sorrel Puree
Much like Busia’s pierogis, sorrel soup is a Polish dish we love, crave, and pretty much require to survive, yet rarely seem to muster up the necessary manpower and hours it takes to make the stuff. Thank goodness then for Vavel Sorrel Puree. Rather than foraging, picking, thoroughly washing, then cooking and pureeing the lemony leaves each spring, you can simply snag a jar from the Polish Art Center’s well-appointed shelves of Polish imports anytime and blend it right into your broth. Of course, you’ll still have to peel and cook the carrots, potatoes, and of course, hard boil the egg and mash the potatoes that serve as each bowl of zupa szczawiowa’s centerpiece, but hey, if you’re not spending at least an hour cooking a Polish meal, you’re probably not cooking a Polish meal. $2 at the Polish Art Center, 8994 S. Kasson St., in Cedar, (231) 835-2242. www.polartcenter.com

Chef’s Finishing Essence (pictured above)
There are those who exact a military school-style approach to preparing steak, pounding it with a steel mallet, poking channels into connective tissues, manipulating its potential by way of covert ritual — a mystery rub or marinade, perhaps a secret smear of post-grilling butter. And then there are those who believe anything but salt, pepper, and four minutes per side is abomination. Trust us, Leelanau Lavender’s Chef’s Finishing Essence is for both of you. Somehow, the aroma and flavor of lavender flowers cut from Leelanau County farms and combined Celtic sea salt, organic Madagascar black pepper, garlic, and lemon are neither a jarring perfume or sissified gilding of any meat lily; they are an otherworldly foil that alone can elevate both humble and prime cuts of steak — and, we can attest, eggs, pastas, salads, and butter or oil-dipped bread — to their highest potential. $11 at leelanaulavender.co where you can also find a list of local stores that carry it.

Earl Grey Tea Chocolate
Crow & Moss’ chocolate bars aren’t (yet) ingredients we put in our food; they go directly into our mouths. But we couldn’t omit from this list our recent discovery of the Petoskey-based company’s Earl Grey Tea Chocolate bar. We, already ardent fans of chocolate-covered coffee and espresso anything, found this tea twist to be — dare we say? — even better. Owner Mike Davies, you see, sources heirloom cacao beans from single farms in some of the world’s hardest to reach places. In this rendition, we have fudgy, decadent Honduran Wampusirpi cacao beans — earthy, malty, with notes of honey, banana, and toasted walnut — infused with the also-malty addition of Britain's most famous tea and just a nip of brightness from its frequent citrusy compatriot, Bergamont. At 67 percent cacao, the dark-dark chocolate addicts among us predicted this bar would be too sweet for our tastes. It was not. In truth, it tasted so rich and warm, we struggled to understand how the entire bar rang in with only 11g of organic sugar and 150 calories. From now on, this is how we’ll take our afternoon tea. $9 at www.crowandmoss.com, where you’ll also find a list of local sellers. 

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