My friend Rachel loves ranch dressing. Seriously, it doesn't matter where we are, she asks for a side of ranch with whatever she ordered, which is particularly amusing when we go to fancy restaurants. I would say her #2 condiment is teriyaki sauce, which she likes to pour over everything when we go out for Japanese. I usually never miss an opportunity to poke fun at her for this habit, but on a recent visit to our favorite sushi restaurant (www.sushihanasf.com--tasty, well-priced, and close to the movie theater we frequent), while I gently teased her as she swirled a piece of tekka maki in teriyaki sauce, she said, "Hey, it makes everything taste so good!" And really, she has a good point. While I personally might not choose to use Teriyaki sauce in that way, I can appreciate that she is personalizing her food--making it taste better to her--and that, after all, is the idea.
Check out the top condiments I like to have on hand to personalize my food:
Freshly Cracked Black Pepper and Sea Salt: If you don't have these on hand, stop what you're doing, do NOT read on, and go purchase a good pepper grinder and some sea salt. Oh, and if you have a little shaker of already ground flaked black pepper, throw it away. If I was only allowed two condiments, these would be the ones, no question.
Sriracha: A spicy Vietnamese pureed chili-garlic sauce. Tangy, hot, a little bit sour and a little bit sweet. Delicious on meats, fish, vegetables, rice, noodle dishes, even pizza and quesadillas. I especially love to blend a little bit of sriracha with good mayonnaise and make a sriracha aioli. Absolutely delicious with sweet potato oven fries. Also, be sure to buy the brand with the rooster on it--it's the only truly tasty one.
Tapatio Brand Hot Sauce: Speaking of spicy sauces, this one is the absolute best for heating up any Mexican food. Equally delicious on purchased burritos from your favorite taqueria (see post #1 for ideas on that...) as on homemade chiles rellenos. I also love to make Tapatio-spiced pecans for salads or as a snack with cocktails. Simply pan-toast 1 cup of pecans until they release their oils and become slightly crisp. Set aside. Then melt 1/2 cup sugar until it becomes liquid, stirring frequently. Shake a few drops of Tapatio into the melted sugar and stir until it becomes caramel. Then stir in the nuts until they are all completely coated. Spread the caramel-nut mixture onto wax or parchment paper and allow to cool. Once cool and hard, break apart the nuts and serve either in a salad or in a small bowl as an appetizer.
Mayonnaise: I don't actually like the taste of plain mayonnaise, but having a small jar of ideally organic, very high-quality mayonnaise in the fridge is still important if you want to make things like egg salad, potato salad, or a quick aioli, like the one listed above.
Meyer Lemon Olive Oil: It might sound a little frivolous, but it is absolutely delicious. A good one can be pricey, but it's totally worth it and it lasts forever. I like the Katz brand (www.katzandco.com). Drizzle it over new red potatoes with fresh Italian parsley, sea salt and cracked pepper for a simple side dish, or whisk it together with an aged balsamic for an easy yet complex-tasting vinaigrette.
Peanut Butter: I know I don't have to work too hard to convince most people to buy peanut butter. Obviously it's delicious, great with Jelly, high in protein and very satisfying, but my favorite thing to do with peanut butter is actually to make a quick peanut sauce, which is a very easy way to turn plain protein and vegetables into a dinner that you're actually excited about eating. Whisk together 1/2 cup natural creamy peanut butter (natural means not over-processed--the oil separates and rises to the top--be sure to stir it well before using), 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sriracha (see above), 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, 1/8 teaspoon chopped or powdered ginger, a splash of rice vinegar, a squeeze of lime, and a drizzle of honey. Tinker with the ingredients until it tastes good to you. I sometimes add a few tablespoons of coconut milk if I'm feeling decadent. Use as a dip for spring rolls, a sauce for rice noodles, chicken, fish, meat, whatever.
Balsamic Vinegar: You probably already use balsamic vinegar in dressings, but did you know that a balsamic reduction is the fastest and easiest way to turn a ho-hum dish into something fancy? Simply cook in a small pot on medium-low heat until it thickens, stirring frequently. The result is a thick, sweet, sophisticated garnish or glaze. I love to brush balsamic reduction over baked chicken drumettes and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds for a fancy take on a favorite appetizer. It's also great drizzled over goat cheese and served with toast points, and can be used as a replacement for aged balsamic vinegar.
Soy Sauce: The absolute easiest way to add salty depth to any food without resorting to dumping plain salt over it. Try stirring a few drops into your homemade barbeque sauce or tartar sauce.
As Rachel pointed out, condiments exist to make our food taste better. Part of being an adventurous eater is experimenting with different flavors, and the host of condiments available today is a great way to get started doing that. To me, playing with condiments is really just an extension of cooking and I like cooking so much that I sometimes like to extend it all the way to the table.
To your health (and your tastebuds)!