I’m amazed at the ability of a few basic quality ingredients to carry a dish. I used to think of great cooking as finding that magical mix of herbs and spices that will transform a boring dish into a garden of flavor. All those steak seasonings have about 15 things in them. The “Colonel” has 11 herbs and spices in his super secret ingredients. Interestingly, they never advertise that MSG is one of those flavorings.
But I guarantee I can make the best steak you’ve ever had with with a really great cut of meat, seasoned with salt and given a great crust over really high heat (or as I like to call it, throwing some smack onto the meat). Same with the fried chicken. You don’t need 11 herbs and spices. Salt and pepper would do fine. I’m sure a couple of others would bring something to the party. But it’s more about the cooking technique than the flavorings.
That’s not to say that a blend of seasoning is never important. I would love to figure out how to make Penzey’s chip and dip seasoning. My rub often has close to a dozen seasonings. But I wonder if it really helps. I wonder if just salt, sugar, pepper, citrus peel and some kind of chili powder wouldn’t taste basically the same after 8 hours on the smoker.
Often, it’s just a signature flavor. Sometimes my rubs have coffee. That’s a signature flavor for sure. The first time I made Paella I thought, where are all the herbs and spices? But you get an awful lot of flavor from onions, peppers, tomato and broth (and salt of course). After that, you just need Paella’s signature spice: saffron. Heck, my Spanish neighbors don’t even use that, they use colorant.
I ran into this again on Friday when we cooked for friends. I am getting more and more comfortable experimenting on my friends. In this case, I did my own bastardized version of manicotti. And at the end, I thought to myself, I feel like I should add something. Where is my secret spice mix? Still I get caught up in this. I don’t claim this is the best dish ever made, but it tasted good and everyone kept coming back for more until it was gone.
Recipe as follows:
One package Barilla Manicotti shells, cooked as directed
One pound hamburger meat
One pound sausage
One large can crushed tomatoes
Large tub of whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
Mozarrella (preferably whole milk – Trader Joe’s has a nice one)
Parmesan cheese (the real stuff please, otherwise skip it)
Basil, cut into small pieces or strips
Brown the meat and sausage in a large pan. Turn down the heat and make a hole for some oil and garlic in the middle. Saute the garlic, ensuring you don’t burn it. Add the can of tomatoes and mix thoroughly. Add half the sauce to the filling and use the other half to top the dish.
Mix all the filling ingredients together, including half the sauce. Add cheese according to your best guess. I think I used 8 oz of mozzarella and probably 3 or 4 oz of Parmesan.
Spoon into a large ziploc bag and cut the corner. Pipe into the manicotti shells. A second person helps here but isn’t required.
Top with the rest of the sauce and more mozzarella and parmesan. Cook at 350 or so until bubbly.