PUBLISHED: 1:42 PM on Wednesday, April 5, 2006
When you're ready to add life to a recipe

Dan Macdonald

For too many folks, cooking means slamming something from a box into the microwave or plopping something from a can into a pot.

When they do try something "from scratch," the recipe is something simple, without too many ingredients. They may complete the cooking task but aren't all that jazzed about the end product.

Cooking is like painting. You can paint by numbers or you can create on a blank canvas. Painting by numbers may teach how a combination of colors subtly turns a glob of paints into a picture, but that gets old after a while.

Likewise, recipes teach cooking techniques and give an idea of what ingredients go well together, but the cook soon wants to explore new territory.

So for the new experimenter, here are some of the items I like to have around the house to infuse taste into my latest creation.

-- Rosemary, sage and thyme -- I love the subtle flavor of these classic herbs.

I have a rosemary bush growing outside my front door. It's not pretty, but it provides me with an ample supply.

I haven't been so successful growing sage or thyme. So I buy them at the store, then snip some rosemary, finely dice the three together and place the mixture in a small bowl.

This is a wonderful rub for chicken or pork tenderloin, and I've even added it to scrambled eggs.

• Blue cheese - A little of this goes a long way. Talk about a flavor bomb. This ingredient perks up the ordinary burger in a hurry.

• Portobello mushroom caps can be a bit bland, but I fill the caps with some crumbled blue cheese while they're on the grill and let that melt. Wow, is that ever good.

• Marinades - I like to have bottles of lemon pepper and honey teriyaki marinades in the refrigerator at all times.

I rarely marinate with them. Rather, I pour some over a chicken breast after searing it, just before I place it in a 350-degree oven.

It gives the chicken great flavor and keeps it moist.

• Red pepper flakes - This adds punch.

OK, hot sauces can cover many a mistake, but my days of burning out the taste buds are over. However, a pinch of red pepper brings lively flavor to whatever you're cooking. Just don't go overboard: These are potent flavor land mines . . . too much and they'll ruin a dish.

• Prepared seasonings -- Experiment in the spice aisle.

There are several name-brand mixtures like Emeril's Essence or my favorite, Tony Chachere's Original Creole Seasoning. I've sprinkled it in a frittata, and I use it when blackening fish or chicken.

• Nuts - Buy a bag of shelled pecans in a resealable bag.

They keep well in the freezer, so you can have them at a moment's notice. Finely chopped pecans add not only flavor but also texture to baked chicken or fish.

Experiment with walnuts and almonds, as well.

• Mustards - Have on hand everything from a quality yellow mustard to a hearty brown grain mustard to a Dijon mustard.

Add one to white wine sauces to give an entirely new take on a familiar dish.

• Jellies - Look for red currant or apricot jelly.

When they're melted into a wine sauce, they make an elegant topping for chicken or pork.

Think of these ingredients as your paints, and you'll be creating masterpieces in the kitchen.

Macdonald is a food writer for Morris Communications in Jacksonville, Fla.