At the Table

Global Flavor Boosters from Robert Butts

We’ll be the first to admit that our cooking creativity hits a wall during the winter months. It’s not quite time for spring’s fresh flavors, and elaborate cooking projects feel extreme for a simple Tuesday night dinner. To break our boredom, we call upon the chefs who make it their daily mission to inspire the most traditional, plain jane dishes with unexpected flavors.

Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours leads this charge, where creative director Deborah VanTrece and executive chef Robert Butts cook up global spins on soul food. Their menu reinvents seemingly simple meals with international ingredients and playful preparations. (Think, chicken meatloaf polpettes with arrabbiata sauce and citrus-herb gremolata.) This sort of creativity seems like the perfect tonic to break our cooking ruts. Chef Butts shared his go-to ingredients and ideas for shaking it up in the kitchen.

FINDING FRESH FLAIR IN THE KITCHEN WITH ROBERT BUTTS

What’s an ingredient that often gets pigeonholed for a particular use—maybe only for savory, sweet, or spicy foods—but has unexpected utility beyond its usual genre?

I feel cinnamon is one of the ingredients we pigeonhole. When it comes to cinnamon, what do we naturally think of? Desserts or breakfast dishes, right? But cinnamon is so versatile. What I love about cinnamon is that it naturally has a sweet, woody flavor. I like adding it to savory dishes like mashed potatoes, or even as part of the seasoning mix for my smoked duck. Cinnamon brings all-natural flavors out of root vegetables and hearty meats, too.

What sauce or addition do you regularly reach for to add more flavor to a recipe? 

I am a lover of spice and aromatics. I feel spice, whether it is from chilis, oils, or seasonings bring some boldness that lets you know that “I’m here.” There are some sauces that can also accomplish this. On the other hand, the aromatics alone can take you to a place of comfort. You know the feeling: you’re at a restaurant, and a plate passes by and you smell the garlic, onions, shallots, even herbs like thyme or rosemary–you get excited. You want to know what the dish was. To me, this is what I will always add to take my dishes to the next level.

What spice or seasoning do you think is incredibly underrated?

I feel cumin is a very underrated ingredient. It is so versatile in its own right; it brings a hard, earthy note to the dishes, which is used through many cultures. A lot of people hear cumin and think, “Oh, right. For tacos.” To me, cumin can balance out any dish from quick sautés to marinades.

What’s an ingredient that, when you see it in a recipe or on a menu, gets you really pumped? 

I get excited when I see braised greens or collard greens. To me, there are so many ways you can cook collards, but people always end up braising them. And there is nothing wrong with that. But you can just chop, sauté with some garlic, and make a great salad out of it. I have a recipe for a parmesan crawfish dressing that is simply amazing. I’ve even fried them and used them as a garnish after frying them.

What’s a condiment that’s versatile enough to be used on anything from a stir-fry to a casserole to a marinade?Let’s talk about dark soy sauce! The saltiness it brings can be used in all areas, without using salt. Anything you put it with will take front stage and pop with flavor.Let’s say a recipe failed—either the flavors didn’t meld well, it got overdone, etc. What ingredient (or combination of ingredients) helps salvage it? 

When things in the kitchen go south, there are many ways to solve it. For instance, if your pasta is too salty, add more raw ingredients like noodles or vegetables. If you overcook a piece of meat, you can braise it to make it more tender.

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