Food — Dress up your next meal

Dress up your next meal

By Amy Diaz

In food, as in fashion, it’s all about the accessories

According to many a fashion magazine, you can make whole new outfits based entirely on the principle that it is good to accessorize.

Personally, I do not see how changing a scarf to a necklace will make everyone forget that you only own one little black dress (though I have convinced myself that with different shoes, my one piece of dress-up attire is completely transformed). But I completely believe that with food you can accessorize yourself into a completely different style of meal.

Do you eat what is essentially chicken and rice six days a week? Add black olives and a little oregano one day and you’ve got yourself a Greek-flavored dish. Make those olives green and reach for the hot sauce and, voila, you’ve got Spanish cooking.

But the true joy of accessory-based meal preparation is when you can take completely underwhelming food (leftovers, frozen entrees, sauce in a jar) and make it seem relatively homemade just by adding a few yuppie condiments.

The key is not to skimp on the fixings. If your days of a made-from-scratch meal are few and far between but you are constantly faced with dried pasta and a jar full of marinara, don’t worry about getting the very best celebrity chef sauce (sauce from a jar will, no matter how many pictures of Emeril are on the label, pretty much always taste like sauce from a jar). Instead splurge on a few long-lasting oils, cheeses, herbs and other goodies that will help you fake your way to gourmet for nights when “cooking” means reheating last night’s takeout.

Hey, maybe you can accessorize your way to a better you. Here are a few of my must-haves.


A bag of iceberg does not a salad make but toss on a few handfuls of pitted cured black olives and you’ve got yourself a Greek or Italian or other form of Mediterranean treat.

From the olives sold in serve-yourself kiosks at the supermarket to specialty olives selling for $5 or more per jar, the addition of some well-marinated olives can help add flavor to hot and cold dishes.

Try black or kalamata olives in spinach salads or to give a stronger, puttanesca-like flavor to pasta sauces. In salads of mixed greens, throw in a few green olives marinated in (or stuffed with) garlic or peppers. After the addition of olives, all it takes to make an entrée-style salad is a little crumbled cheese or bacon and some vinegar and olive oil.

Olives stuffed with blue cheese can turn an ordinary plate of Ritz into an amuse bouche (which is French for “I’m not done cooking yet so here’s a small snack”).

Olives still containing their pits are equally good at serving as an appetizer — they take a little time and concentration to eat, thus helping you stall. Or, you can remove the pits (slice lengthwise down the oval-shaped olive and the pit will usually lift out) and add the sliced olives to salads, chicken dishes or store-bought bruchettas. Even if they don’t look pretty post-pitting, their choppiness won’t be noticed when blended with a sauce.

Olive oil

Olives are givers.

Not only are the meaty fruits great ways to dress up foods, their oil is a nice way to provide flavor and light fat to dishes. That loaf of sliced wheat bread — alone it’s just a foundation for sandwiches. But slice it up into rectangles (three to four per slice), toast it lightly and serve with a plate drizzled with olive oil and you have another fancy-seeming starter dish.

Olive oil comes in a variety of flavors that help add pick-me-ups to different kinds of dishes. For a quick sauté, use the light olive oil, which adds just a hint of flavor. To make or extend salad dressings, use the more flavorful extra virgin olive oil. To hide the cardboardy taste of frozen pizzas, grease the baking sheet with olive oil and sprinkle on freshly ground black pepper.

Garlic, pepper and olive basil oils are good for restoring life and flavor to leftover pasta. A little bit on the dish used to warm the food up helps prevent the pasta from sticking or drying out. Or toss these lightly flavored oils with fresh cooked pasta.


You can only successfully cheat with the best.

For this reason, if you plan to allow salsa to save you (on nights when “nacho salad” serves as an entrée, to act as the companion to ground beef seasoned by an envelope of “taco spices,” as a way to tide guests over until take-out arrives), use the good stuff. Fresh salsa — such as the regionally available Two Sisters salsa — is the best way to give gourmet flavor to a relatively ungourmet meal. You can regulate the heat factor in fresh salsa byy also buying a jar of chopped jalapenos. Add a tablespoon or two to a cup of mild salsa to produce a spicier variety. This allows you to get one large container but serve two or even three (add a few drops of hot sauce for extra heat) varieties.

Hot sauce

The leftover becomes extra ordinary through the miracle of hot sauce.

I am speaking here not about salsa but about the red liquid (it can range from watery to ketchup-like density) that comes in small bottles usually decorated by flames and skull-and-cross-bones. I like to have multiple varieties around — throw a little in canned black bean soup and you’ve got something Goya never dreamed of — but there are a few standards I always keep in the pantry.

• Tabasco sauce — The gold standard; goes well with everything.

• Goya salsa picante — A slightly smokier flavor than Tabasco.

• Cholula Hot Sauce — I can best describe it as hot, but not quite Tabasco sharp, and smoky and orangier in color. It is absolutely the best accompaniment to empanadas and other pie-crust-enclosed foods.


Another tasty additive to the stall-for-time tray that everyone else will remember as fancy appetizers, a jar of chi-chi pickles can help you dress up hot dogs for adult tastes (chop up some pickles and, presto, relish) or classy up the subs that you purchased on the way home. Also, pickles are a nice way to add moisture and flavor to the, let’s face it, unappetizingly dry chicken or turkey that you feel too guilty to throw away. Instead of piling on the mayonnaise, layer a bunch of pickles over the bird.


Cheese is its own reason to buy cheese.

But good cheese — no Wiz, nothing individually wrapped — has so many uses.

It is, of course, a component of a great appetizer plate. Grated cheese over just about any soup will make it richer, heartier and more easily accepted by hungry members of your family as a meal. Grate, crumble or dice a flavorful cheese (parmesan, asiago, feta, blue cheese, a sharp cheddar) over a salad and it is equally worthy of being an entrée. Going the sauce-in-the-jar route? Add zest to your pasta with freshly grated parmesan. Or, if your pasta primavera is looking a little thin, melon-ball-sized scoops of mozzarella serve as a nice stand-in for meat.

Fresh cheese melting on oven-warmed leftovers also recreates the just-baked flavors and textures without recreating the effort and dirty dishes.


As with the pickles, mustard moistens and brightens up dull-tasting and tough or dry meat. It turns leftovers into gourmet lunch meat and it is a handy way to whip up some tasty salad dressings. Mix mustard with vinegar then whisk in the olive oil. Dijon dressing — why yes, it is homemade.

Dried red peppers

Much like the hot sauce, dried red peppers — long the friend of the pizza parlor — can add zip to anything.

Sprinkle the confetti-like pepper seeds into your hand and crush them slightly as you add them to premade sauce, soup, gravy or onto anything frozen (I always add them to the horrible personal-sized frozen pizzas — the result is something that tastes a lot more like an actual slice and less like the box it came in).

—Amy Diaz

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