Good cooking requires transfer of flavors and aromas. A soup without transfers is just hot water and floating vegetables.
One way to transfer flavors is to add that ingredient directly to the dish, as in adding fermented shrimp paste to a coconut curry. Another way is to capture those flavors and aromas in a medium and add that medium to your dish. We all know how to do the first. I’ve recently come to appreciate the second.
The technique is simple. Heat some oil in a saucepan and add some stuff. The oil captures the flavor and aroma of that stuff. Once the oil sufficiently takes on the character of that stuff, add the oil (and, if desired, the stuff) to your dish.
Here’s an example from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (see pp. 153-154). To add rosemary and pancetta flavors to one of her tomato sauces, she lightly infuses some olive oil with rosemary and pancetta and then adds both the oil and the rosemary and pancetta to the sauce. I say “lightly” because the infusion could be done at a lower temperature for a longer time. But to give credit where it’s due, I present the ingredients and procedure below basically (quoting doesn’t work with the formatting below) verbatim from the book.
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp dried rosemary leaves, chopped very fine
- 1/2 cup pancetta sliced thin and cut into narrow julienne strips
- While the sauce is simmering, put the olive oil in a small skillet and turn on the heat to medium high. When the oil is hot, add the rosemary and the pancetta. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly with a wooden spoon.
- Transfer the entire contents of the skillet to the saucepan with the tomato sauce, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
This post just barely scratches the surface of infusions. But we all have to start somewhere!