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Condiments to raise your kitchen game

Culinary maneuvers that lift your cooking style from beyond the ordinary are worth knowing. Especially at a time when most of us are facing limited time and limited income.

I’ve found that delicious, intriguing and healthful meals come together more easily when I have a selection of homemade condiments lurking in the refrigerator, such as duxelles, muffuletta olive relish and caramelized onions.

Duxelles is magical melange of mushrooms, shallots and butter created by the great 17th century chef Francois Pierre La Varenne is a classic French creation. Saute a batch of finely minced mushrooms in a healthy puddle of butter and shallots until it reaches a state of deep, rich, flavorful goodness.

In the classic cookbook “Larousse Gastronomique,” this compelling dish — a potion, really, with the power to flavor simple sauces, soups and stuffings — is described simply as “a mushroom hash.”

On a fairly regular basis, I find myself standing over a skillet of sizzling bits of mushroom, breathing in their musty-rich aroma as they are transported from the state of fresh to divine.

Then what? I can think of three very good reasons for converting mushrooms into this delightful melange. First, the basic mushroom flavor is enhanced significantly by the addition of onions, butter and time on the burner.

Second, the mushroom “hash” is a handy method of applying mushroom flavor to anything from toast points and beef roulades to sauces and stuffings.

Third, by turning mushrooms into duxelles, you will extend their shelf life dramatically, because it’s a concoction that can be refrigerated for over a week or frozen for several months.

It’s also important to know that through time and use in countless kitchens, variations of the classic preparation now abound:

Adding heavy cream or creme fraiche to the basic duxelles will thin the mixture slightly and taste wonderful in casseroles.

To your favorite creamed pasta sauce, stir in several spoonsful of the basic duxelles that have been seasoned with a tablespoon of tomato puree.

Add a teaspoon of chopped garlic and crushed chile while sauteeing the onions in the basic recipe to make a savory addition to tacos, refried beans and chili.

It’s a convenient flavor enhancer for soups, sauces, risotto, mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables. It even makes a delectable hors d’oeuvre when served with crostini or other fine toasts as you would a fine pate.

Muffuletta Olive Relish is a marvelous concoction, with roots in New Orleans, where the muffuleta sandwich — a hearty combination of Italian-style meats and cheeses, slathered with a rich olive and garlic relish — was created decades ago.

As far as uses in your kitchen, it is a hearty flavoring on a submarine sandwich concoction of Italian-style meats and cheeses. But if you consider it more of a flavor enhancer, here’s where it can take you:

It’s a wonderful seasoner for simple vegetable sautes, scrambled eggs, frittatas and mashed potatoes, mixed into rice, couscous and pasta.

A topping for burgers, baked potatoes, grilled seafood, chicken and pizza.

A simple appetizer on crostini with a smear of chevre, combined with cream cheese for a simple spread on crackers or crostini or French bread, with cream cheese and Parmesan for a savory palmier.

In salads, such as a Salad Nicoise with boiled potato, hard-cooked egg and tuna, to jazz up a three-bean salad or a green bean salad or stirred into a cold pasta salad.

In sauces, stir into marinara sauce or jazz up a creamy pasta sauce.

Duxelles

Makes about 1-3/4 cups

A wonderful seasoner for all things savory. In the basic preparation, the onions and mushrooms are sauteed in butter. The mushrooms release their liquids and the mixture will look like a swamp. Several more minutes over a relatively hot burner produces a dry and thick product. To achieve full flavor and color the mixture needs heat and time to achieve its delicate, caramelized character, so don’t fudge with the process.

1/2 cup butter

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped onion

2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 pound fresh mushrooms

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. While the butter is melting, place the onions, shallots and about one third of the mushrooms in the work bowl of a food processor. Finely mince the mixture by using the “pulse” or “on-off” button on the processor. Scrape the minced mushrooms into the pot with the melting butter and repeat the mincing process with remaining mushrooms, adding them to the pot when they are minced.

Stir the minced mushrooms with the butter, thoroughly coating them and continue to saute, stirring frequently, until all of the liquid that is released from the mushrooms has evaporated (about 15 to 20 minutes).

Once the mushrooms have darkened slightly, add salt and pepper to taste.

Note: For a quick and delectable hors d’oeuvre, spoon duxelles into a bowl and surround with crostini or sliced baguette. It’s wonderful.

Duxelles will keep refrigerated for slightly longer than a week, or frozen for 3 months. Before using, you may want to reheat gently over low heat or in the microwave to soften.

Caramelized Onions

Makes 3 to 4 cups of caramelized onions

This is a process that requires patience on your part. It can’t be rushed. Keep the temperature medium-low to low so the sugars in the onions have a chance to caramelize rather than burn. Don’t feel that this means you need to hover by the stove. Indeed, once the onions have softened and begun to brown, just check on them every 10 minutes and give them a gentle stir with the flat side of a spatula to scrape up all the cooked-on bits of onion that are building on the bottom of the pot. This is where a ton of flavor is lurking, and it’s important to incorporate it back into the onions during the process.

6 tablespoons butter

About 4 pounds (about 6 medium) yellow onions, peeled, quartered root to tip, then sliced very thin (1/8-inch wide)

Salt and ground white pepper to taste

Place the butter and onions in a large, wide, deep heavy-bottomed pot, over medium heat. As the butter melts, toss the onions to coat them with the butter. Keep tossing them every few minutes until they are wilted and well coated with the butter. Reduce the heat to medium-low and keep cooking, tossing every now and then to keep them evenly heated, until soft and very, very brown.

As the onions take on more color, turn the temperature down to low. The process will take a very long time if you’re doing it right, and varies, depending on the onions you are using. Some will caramelize in only 90 minutes, others will take up to 2 hours. What you are looking for is a very deep mahogany color.

The onions can be refrigerated for up to 10 days, or frozen for up to 6 months. To prepare for the freezer, arrange patty-sized mounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm; pack into recloseable freezer bags. Or even more simply: spoon into quart-sized freezer bags, spreading into a thin layer and close. It’s easy to reach in and break off a chunk as needed.

Muffuletta Garlic-Olive Relish

Makes about 1-3/4 cups

Beyond its original use as a spread for the famous Muffuletta sandwich created in New Orleans, this handy seasoner can be employed for a vast number of culinary maneuvers, from topping a burger or pizza to flavoring a creamy or tomato-rich sauce.

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pimiento-stuffed olives

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted black olives

1/4 cup coarsely chopped red onion

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (more to taste)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons drained and rinsed capers

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1/4 teaspoon each salt, freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place the olives, onion, parsley, vinegar, garlic, capers, oregano, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse the mixture until the ingredients are finely chopped. Add the olive oil and continue processing until the mixture is thoroughly chopped but not pureed. Adjust seasonings, adding additional vinegar if it needs a “zing,” or additional olive oil if the mixture seems too “sharp.” Will keep in the refrigerator for at least one month. Since the olive oil solidifies at low temperatures, remove from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at jan@janrd.com.

Photo by Jan Roberts-DominguezBy keeping a selection of homemade condiments on hand, delicious, intriguing and healthful meals come together more easily. This batch of duxelles, for instance, can be stirred into vegetable sautes and scrambled eggs, spooned over grilled meats, and even layered into your potato or meat casseroles.