Being in the food business, I often get asked, “What is your favorite thing to cook?” and I never have a good answer. I wish I could just say “lasagna” or “soup” or something else easy to express, but I can’t. My favorite thing to cook is usually whatever I happen to be cooking at the moment.

When someone asks me what I always keep in the refrigerator or pantry, though, the answer is much easier. In fact, I have too many answers to that question. For instance, condiments like high-quality vinegars and olive oils can make a big difference when I’m tossing a salad. Having horseradish or Dijon mustard on hand can turn a dull sandwich into a delight. Sriracha or chili-garlic sauce can add zip to any stir-fry. You get the idea.

Having these culinary helpers at your fingertips can make your life easier and your meals more exciting. While these condiments are easy to find at almost any grocery store (you probably have many of them already), there are a few things I like to make myself and freeze in small quantities, so they can be thawed quickly to add to sauces, dressings or anything else that needs a flavor boost.

Tapenade: A coarse paste made from briny olives, anchovies, garlic, herbs and olive oil. The result is an intense flavor. I like to freeze it in an ice cube tray. Just a tablespoon or two can turn a basic vinaigrette into a showstopper. Or spread it on top of toasted baguette slices for an instant appetizer.

Pesto: At the end of the summer, I harvest my basil plants and make enough pesto to last my family an entire winter. I’ve found that ½ cup portions work best in terms of freezing. It’s enough to toss with pasta, but not too much to use before it goes bad if I need a bit to mix in with mayo to add some complexity to a sandwich spread.

Caramelized onions: Not many people think about this one, but you’ll be happy you did, as it can jump start almost any dish. What’s so great about having these on hand is that it can be a huge time saver.

If done properly, caramelizing onions can take up to 45 minutes, depending on the freshness of your onions (fresher onions have a higher water content than onions that have been stored for a few months) and the size of your skillet. Bigger skillets have more surface area and get the job done quicker.

In order to get the deep flavor and extract all the sweetness you can from the onions, they need to cook over a low temperature for a long time. Hurrying the process, even if your onions turn brown, won’t yield the same results. There’s a fine line, but important distinction, between onions that are caramelized and onions that are burnt, and you know it when you taste it.

This time of year, when entertaining can be a bit more spontaneous, I often turn to a classic onion dip to wow my guests. I know what you’re thinking. Everyone makes onion dip, so what’s the big deal? Homemade onion dip, without the sodium-packed powdered soup packets, is a revelation. Not to mention a huge crowd pleaser.

Simply mix together some low-fat sour cream, cream cheese and mayo. Add a few dashes of Worcestershire and hot sauce and mix in two caramelized onions (about ¾ cup). Served with roasted potato wedges, it’s a memorable appetizer you can make in a snap.

 

Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at meredith@meredithdeeds.com. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.