Top That

Last year, my uncle made roasted chicken tacos doused with a piquant, bright-green chimichurri sauce. That simple condiment completely transformed an otherwise one-note dish and was nothing short of a juicy, tangy, quietly spicy revelation.

Chimichurri sounds exotic—and it’s fun to say—but even though it hails from Argentine cuisine and tastes amazingly complex, it’s actually a snap to make. I make it all the time now. It’s most often served with meats, but I’m known to go rogue and spoon it over scrambled eggs or sautéed greens.  

The revelatory properties of specialty condiments, relishes, toppings and finishing sauces like chimichurri—those additional bursts of flavors and textures that complement, elevate and even transform a dish several times while you’re eating it depending on how and when they’re added—are a well-known hat trick in the culinary world. But they’re far too often relegated to restaurants, or bought premade from the grocery store despite the fact that they’re satisfying and inexpensive to make at home. 

Classic aioli, for instance, is nothing more than egg yolks emulsified with oil, salt, garlic and lemon, but the result is a wondrous dollop or dip of decadence that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. Chef Josh Williams of Texas French Bread likes to serve his housemade aioli with steak frites—a rich Texas Akaushi top sirloin cozied next to a cluster of crispy, thick-cut fries—as well as with certain toasts like anchovy toast. “Spread about a tablespoon of aioli over the toast once it’s cooled, then lay out Ortiz anchovies, roasted and sliced mild red peppers along with shaved radish and cilantro and/or parsley. If I have it, I’ll lightly dress some arugula with Maldon salt, nice olive oil and lemon juice to put on top.”

Some condiments are just the right blend of tangy-sweet, like La Tavola’s Chef Will Packwood’s admittedly time-consuming (but oh-so-worth-it) apple mostarda typically found in northern Italian cuisine. Traditionally, the sauce accompanied meat dishes, but Packwood says it’s excellent paired with cheeses such as crescenza, pecorino, montasio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, taleggio or fontina. “I like the sweetness coupled with the savory mustard bite,” he says.

Packwood also shares his time-honored caper-, lemon- and herb-spiked salsa verde—-a unique condiment that takes advantage of gloriously rich tuna belly. He likes to serve this salsa tonnato on top of thinly sliced cold poached veal, with crudités or simply on top of a slice of good crusty bread. 

 And then, of course, we Texans love our beloved splashes of hot sauces that come in myriad forms and flavors. Chef Sonya Coté of Eden East shares her coveted recipe for a fermented melt-your-face carrot-habanera sauce that’s good on just about anything, and Chef Leanne Valenti, owner of Bento Picnic, shares a wasabi salsa that’s not only vegan and gluten-free, but pairs beautifully with “super umami foods such as brisket, sautéed shiitakes and toasted nori.” Also, Chef Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh invites us to make her unusual shrimp relish that’s delicious atop omelets or in lemongrass soup, and her seafood dipping sauce—perfect for seafood of all kinds or as a dressing for a grilled beef salad.

Whether it’s a dollop, slather, schmear, slick or dip, here’s to that little “sumpin’-sumpin’” that adds that additional layer of mmmm to foods, takes a dish over the top and makes it that much better. 

By Mary Bryce • Photography by Jenna Northcutt