The food isn’t ready til you add the `finishing touch’

This undated image shows oil infused with citrus zest, left, and a spice blend which adds that finishing touch to enhance your meals.

If you’ve ever wondered why food made by your favorite restaurant chef tastes better than the food you make at home, chances are you are missing the crucial “finishing touch.” That’s the final seasoning that chefs sprinkle or drizzle on the food once it is cooked.

You can add the finishing touch when you take the dish out of the oven, or off the stovetop or grill, or once the food is plated. If you serve your meals family-style, then add the finishing touch to the whole dish. If you individually plate your food, add it once it is plated.

So what is the finishing touch?

It can be as simple as a pinch of fancy sea salt, like the delicate fleur de sel or the crunchy Maldon sea salt, and a dash of really good olive oil or melted butter.

I love olive oil and tend to use that on everything except biscuits and, sometimes, a thick grilled steak. For an olive oil that is good for cooking and finishing, I like the fresh green notes of California Olive Ranch olive oils. They are well priced and have great flavor. If you want to go all out, the Italian classic Laudemio from Tuscany is a luxury but worth the extra price. This is an olive oil that you reserve for the finishing touch — it is too precious to cook with. Both are extra-virgin, which means they are the oil from the first-press of the olives.

If you want to up the flavor ante, make an infused olive oil and a multi-purpose spice blend. When I make an infused oil, I reserve about 3-4 tablespoons for another use, and add herbs and spices to the bottle the oil came in.

I also save pretty bottles once I’ve used up all the oil or vinegar that was in them, for making infused oils. If you save enough bottles during the year, you can make a finishing oil for everyone on your Christmas list.

There are no rules when making your own infused oil. Choose your favorite herbs and spices to customize the oil.

If you use fresh garlic and herbs like a sprig of rosemary, always keep the finished oil refrigerated to avoid spoilage. Note that you will have to remove the oil from the refrigerator an hour before using so that it can come back to room temperature and be pourable. If you use fresh garlic cloves, peel and crush them slightly before adding them to the bottle. I generally add citrus zest like orange or lemon that I thinly slice off the fruit with a vegetable peeler, and make sure there is no bitter white pith attached. Small dried red chile peppers and multi-colored peppercorns add a nice bit of heat to balance the oil.

Depending on what you put in the finishing spice blend, you can use it as a multi-purpose season-all and a finishing salt. I like to do this, so I use both a combination of Morton’s kosher salt (which is coarser than other kosher salts, and keeps it shape) and a fancy sea salt. I like to add a little dehydrated garlic, which goes with all foods; dried red chile flakes; my favorite dried herbs; and either black or white pepper. The general proportions are 6 parts kosher salt, 2 parts coarse sea salt, 1 part garlic and herbs, and a half teaspoon of red chile flakes and ground pepper.

You can see the exact measurements of my favorite salt and spice combination on my website, elizabethkarmel.com, along with recipes for both infused olive oil and my favorite finishing spice blend.

Whether you follow my recipes or make up your own, you will see that the finishing touch enhances everything from a simple boiled egg and avocado toast to your holiday feast!

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Elizabeth Karmel writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She is the author of four cookbooks, including the newly released "Steak and Cake.” Her website is http://www.elizabethkarmel.com and she can be reached at elizabeth@girlsatthegrill.com.

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