Kathleen Purvis

My Top 5 flavor shortcuts in the kitchen

There aren’t a lot of things I’d thank Emeril Lagasse for bringing into my life. “Bam” as a catchphrase has a limited range.

I’ll always thank him, though, for making me appreciate one tiny bottle on my shelf.

I have a love/hate relationship with flavoring products. I’m a cook-from-scratch person most of the time. But sure, I have my small tricks and flavor boosters, those cooking shortcuts you grab when you’re throwing something together.

Years ago, when I was living the cheap-student life at Florida State University, we’d pool our gas money for runs to Apalachicola, a beach town where the oysters were cheap and the beer was cheaper. I was buying lunch on the docks one Sunday when a fisherman told me his trick for cooking great shrimp:

He held up a little yellow bottle of Zatarain’s Concentrated Shrimp and Crab Boil. Put just a little bit – no more than half a capful, or about a 1/2 teaspoon – in the water, he said. I’ve never been without it since. At a 1/2 teaspoon at a time, a 4-ounce bottle lasts years.

I was a little ashamed of it, though. Grabbing that little bottle instead of making my own spice mix for shrimp seemed like cheating.

Then, in 2007, I was covering Emeril on a visit to Johnson & Wales in Charlotte. He was demonstrating a shrimp and corn bisque and what did I spy beside the stove? That same bottle of Zatarain’s. He added a little to the bisque. It wasn’t just bam, it was the bomb.

After that, I started thinking about flavor boosters differently. Even chefs have those little shortcuts they’d never be without. Five of mine:

Zatarain’s Concentrate. The label isn’t kidding when it says “concentrated” – never use more than a dribble. But it’s amazing in chowders. I’ve even whisked it into mayonnaise for a seafood salad.

Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. My father got me hooked on sprinkling it on popcorn, then I started adding it to chicken or tuna salad. These days, smoked paprika sometimes takes its place in my heart, but I still never make popcorn without it.

White miso paste. A tub of it keeps forever in the refrigerator, and it provides that elusive “umami” saltiness that gives things a deeper, richer flavor. Toss a dab with roasted asparagus, add it with butter to a baked sweet potato, whisk a little into scrambled eggs.

Green curry paste. It comes in a jar, and adds a little heat to all kinds of things: Salad dressings, marinades. Whisk some into the water before you cook rice, and add it to anything you make with coconut milk.

Tomato paste in a tube. I add a little squirt when I’m making vinaigrette, stir it into soups that need more flavor, whisk a little into caramelized onions to pile on grilled brats. I’ve even added it to deviled eggs.

Have a few more you can’t live without? I’d love to hear about them, at kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com. I won’t say “bam,” even once.

Purvis: 704-358-5236