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Pastes, Marinades, Dressings & Sauces

Cooks have used pastes to add flavour and texture to dishes since ancient times. From the spicy sambal oelek of South East Asia to Spain’s nutty romesco sauce, pastes are very versatile.

They can be:

  • The basis of dishes such as curries;
  • A dressing, such as Italian pesto tossed through pasta;
  • A marinade, such as Moroccan chermoula;
  • Used as a crust, such as olive tapenade spread on fish or meat;
  • An accompaniment, such as Indian coriander & mint chutney.

When ingredients are broken down into a paste, they release more flavour and aroma as well as creating a texture which adds body to sauces and finished dishes. Ingredients commonly used in pastes include:

  • Whole dried spices such as cumin, coriander and fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, and cinnamon bark;
  • Fibrous vegetables like garlic, shallots, ginger, chillies, turmeric, galangal, olives and lemongrass;
  • Herbs including basil, parsley, coriander and mint;
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, coconut, peanuts, candlenuts, pine nuts and sesame seeds.

Oil, such as olive oil, coconut cream or vegetable oil, is often added to help blend all the ingredients together; sometimes the natural oil in nuts and seeds serves this purpose.

Traditionally the ingredients for a paste were pounded in a mortar (a bowl made from wood, clay or stone such as marble and granite) using a pestle (a long wooden or stone implement with a rounded base). These days, food processors and hand-held blenders make this previously laborious task much quicker and easier, though some people still prefer the coarser texture of a paste that’s been pounded the traditional way or even very finely chopped with a knife.

It’s often important to cook pastes, such as Thai curry pastes, to allow some of the moisture of the fresh ingredients to evaporate, the aroma of the spices to be released and the flavours to marry, though the beauty of other pastes, such as pesto (which should never be heated except by the warmth of the freshly cooked pasta), is in their bright fresh flavour. Whether it’s a traditional curry paste or your own combination of favourite herbs and spices, home-made pastes can add flavour and colour to everything from a simple grilled fish fillet to a long, slow braise.

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