Mash it, roast it, stuff it, soup it: there's only so much you can do with a winter squash. If squash, potatoes, beets and Brussels sprouts have become a tedious mainstay at your table, it's time to get out of your winter vegetable rut.
You can't rush spring, but you can transform your vegetables with bright spices, oils and condiments that add mysterious, complex flavors. Toss, drizzle and roast your roots and tubers with these 12 pantry essentials, and make your winter produce sing.
Harissa. A key ingredient in North African cuisine, this fiery-hot condiment is made by blending a variety of peppers with garlic, olive oil, coriander, caraway and other spices into a thick, rich sauce. Some varieties contain rose petals, honey or preserved lemon, which adds a bright, complex flavor. If you're sensitive to spice, mix it with tomato paste, to cut the heat and add a richer flavor.
Mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine, is key in Japanese cuisine, and balances the sour/salty condiments common in Asian cooking. Don't skimp on price; cheaper versions boost sweetness with corn syrup, but the (more expensive) authentic varieties come by their sweetness naturally as the rice ferments.
Balsamic glaze. This simple reduction of balsamic vinegar has a deep, rich color and flavor, with undertones of molasses, raisins, prunes and port wine. The best varieties contain only balsamic vinegar and sometimes grape juice; cheaper versions include corn syrup and artificial colors and flavors.
Pomegranate molasses, traditional in Middle Eastern cuisine, has a richly tart flavor that's reminiscent of Sweet Tarts. Like balsamic glaze, it's made simply by cooking down pomegranate juice into a thick syrup that's the consistency and stickiness of molasses. And since it's made from pomegranate fruit, it's high in disease-preventive antioxidants.
Rose water, key in Persian and Arabic cuisine, may be used in both sweet and savory dishes. It's made by infusing rose blossoms in distilled water. Orange flower water, also called orange blossom water, is similar, but harder to find. Rose water is potent, so use it only a few drops at a time, or your final dish will taste like perfume.
Major Grey's chutney, made with shredded mango, garlic, ginger, spices, vinegar and sweeteners, is a spicy-sweet condiment that evolved from mango chutney, an Indian classes. It's slightly sweeter than the original, with textures that vary from chunky to smooth, and flavors from mild to fiery hot.
Cyprus black lava salt is an inky-black salt with a mildly salty flavor and distinct appearance: each grain is shaped like tiny, pyramids. (It's not the same as Indian black salt, called kala namak, which has a sulfuric flavor much like boiled eggs.) Other exotic salts, like Hawaiian alaea red salt, or Himalayan pink salt, add lots of flavor and style, with only a little sodium.
Ras el hanout is a Moroccan blend of as many as two dozen spices, ranging from fiery hot to aromatic to earthy. The name means "top of the shop" and describes its often-pricey blend of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, turmeric, ground chilies and other spices. More exotic varieties may also include rose buds, lavender and/or saffron.
Fish sauce. This ultra-pungent staple of Asian cuisine is made by heavily salting and fermenting small fish; it's used to impart rich, salty flavor and has a musky, earthy flavor that's reminiscent of mushrooms. Choose the pricier options; cheap varieties are too heavily salted and lack the fish flavor you're looking for.
Preserved lemons are another Moroccan staple that, like ras el hanout, add an elusive flavor that can't be immediately identified. They're made by packing lemons into a jar with salt, spices and lemon juice, and letting them ferment for several weeks.
Ponzu. Made with rice wine, vinegar, kombu seaweed, bonito fish flakes and a Japanese citrus fruit called yuzu, this Asian condiment adds sweet, salty, sour and bitter notes to many dishes. It's traditionally used as a marinade or dipping sauce, and adds a savory, undefinable flavor the Japanese call "umami."
White truffle oil. The priciest varieties are made by infusing neutral vegetable oil like grape seed or sunflower with bits of truffles. The result is a musky, elusive flavor that's unmatched by any other ingredient. You'll also find affordably priced truffle-infused olive oils. The best types are, of course, more expensive, but you only need a few drops to add a deep, mysterious flavor to many dishes.