Becky Krystal, The Washington Post
You don't need a culinary degree, or even advanced skills, to make and eat great food. That doesn't mean we shouldn't swipe ideas from the pros, especially when they're simple, versatile and give you back much more than you put in.
Take compound butter. Sounds kind of fancy, but it's not. It's flavoured butter.
It's also incredibly easy to make and use. Here's how:
Start with the basics. It begins with butter, of course. Unconventional Diner chef-owner David Deshaies, a native of France, where compound butter is a staple of the cuisine, likes to leave his butter out overnight to come to room temperature. That might be fine for a home cook if your kitchen is cool, but if you're not working with 20 pounds of butter at a time like he is, an hour or so should be sufficient to make the butter pliable and ready for mixing.
Deshaies's preferred mixing tool is a stand mixer. Use one if you have it, though you can easily pull together a compound butter with no more than a bowl and wooden spoon. A hand mixer works well, too.
In her comprehensive piece on compound butter for The Washington Post in 2002, Renee Schettler offers a base recipe that starts with 1 stick (8 tablespoons/4 ounces) of butter. (Keep in mind that smaller amounts can be harder to work with.) First, beat the butter on its own to make it smooth, getting it as light and fluffy as you want, depending on whether you prefer it denser or airier. Add a pinch of salt and your flavouring ingredients (more on that below), and combine thoroughly. Adjust the seasoning to taste before scraping the butter onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper (plastic wrap can be less ideal if it's not smooth and the wrinkles get stuck in the solidified butter), close to one of the long ends. Roll the butter into about a 1-inch diameter cylinder, twist the ends of the paper (if the log is looking a bit wonky, this step helps even it out) and refrigerate or freeze. The butter will keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days and the freezer for several months.
Flavour to taste. Deshaies recommends keeping your flavouring ingredients to about 30 percent of the final product, tweaking as necessary to accommodate stronger (salty anchovies, spicy pepper) or weaker (more delicate herbs) flavours. "You still want the main flavour to be butter," the chef says. After that, it's up to you.
"This is the beauty of it," Deshaies says. "You can be extremely creative."
Classic additions, separately or together, are garlic, parsley and shallot. Citrus is a natural, too, whether it's zest, juice or even something like preserved lemon or lemon confit. The possibilities with dried spices are almost endless. Schettler's piece also includes variations with cheese, mustard, olives and even alcohol. You can lean sweet, too, incorporating jams, freeze-dried fruit (ground to a fine powder in the food processor), crystallized ginger and warming spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
Avoid turning the butter soupy with excessive amounts of liquid. Too much liquid may change how the butter sets and melts. And keep in mind that you want your butter to be free of large chunks. So finely chop your firmer ingredients. Deshaies, though, says you can have some fun with texture with such additions as finely chopped peanuts, fried grains of rice and quinoa that can leave behind a crunchy garnish as the butter melts. Ditto finely chopped chives on the outside of a herbed butter.
Think about colours, too. Freeze-dried fruit, squid ink and turmeric are vivid ingredients that lend both hue and flavour.
As with any improvised recipe, it's good to taste as you go. It's much easier to add more ingredients than take them away.
Use far and wide. Compound butters can be incorporated into a dish before cooking - Saffron Wedding Cookies, anyone? - or after. You're probably most familiar with the concept thanks to those pats of butter you might find enticingly melting over a steak at a restaurant. You can do the same with a piece of salmon and vegetables, roasting them with the butter or using the butter as a finishing touch.
With a garlic-and-herb butter already stashed in the fridge, homemade garlic bread is within reach even on a weeknight. Leave store-bought croutons in the dust when you toast cubes of bread with your own flavoured butter. Savoury compound butters can serve as a quick sauce as well. After you've seared or roasted meat, use something acidic (wine, a little vinegar, etc.) to scrape up those tasty browned bits - deglaze in fancy speak - and then whisk in the compound butter for a rich, glossy sauce.
Sweet or spiced butters are wonderful when spread on toast and crowning a stack of pancakes. They'll make your scones sing, too.
"No one will complain to have a little piece of flavoured butter on top of a dish," Deshaies says.
Featured Image: Deb Lindsey, The Washington Post