Neman: Easy culinary investments pay huge dividends of flavor | food and cooking

For dinner last night, I whipped up a simple little shrimp dish. And then I made it a simple little exceptional shrimp dish.

The basics were shrimp, white wine, onion, garlic, mushrooms and lemon juice, all cooked in a mixture of olive oil and butter.

The exception was preserved lemon.

Suddenly, an ordinary weeknight meal (OK, maybe not an normal weeknight meal) was elevated to Olympian heights. Each little piece of preserved lemon was like a mini hand grenade of bright flavor giving a special pop to the more subdued shrimp.

I could only make it because I had a fresh jar of preserved lemons in the fridge.

They were easy to make, and it didn’t take much time at all. It cost me less than five bucks, all told — it’s just lemons and salt — and now I have a game-changing condiment to add to seafood, chicken, vegetarian dishes and even red meat (in the right recipes) for the next six months to a year.

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What I’m talking about here is what economists call ROI: Return on investment. A small culinary investment yields big culinary returns.

And it wasn’t just the preserved lemons. When I said I sautéed the shrimp and other ingredients in a mixture of olive oil and butter, what I really meant was a mixture of olive oil and ghee. Ghee is butter with the milk solids removed, so you can get it quite hot — say, for stir-frying shrimp — without it burning.

It’s easy to make. Simply melt butter gently and pour most of it into a jar. The milk solids are the white bits at the bottom; stop pouring before they go into the jar as well.

It doesn’t even have to be refrigerated, because the milk solids are the part that can spoil. It takes maybe five minutes to make, and the investment pays delicious dividends for months to come.

Two days before I made the shrimp, I made a dish of braised sirloin tips, which I served on basmati rice. Once again, the hearty braised beef was praiseworthy — I praised myself for making it — and notable.

And then I made it obviously special with the addition of a single wedge of demi-glace.

I had made the demi-glace a couple of months earlier, keeping it in the freezer and parsimoniously doling it out ever since, whenever I wanted to send a meal into the exosphere.

I am more frugal with my demi-glace because, frankly, the investment in both time and money is considerably higher than with preserved lemons or ghee. But the payoff is far greater, too.

Demi-glace is easy to make, but it consumes a lot of time. Basically, you roast veal bones and then simmer them slowly in a very large amount of water, along with a few aromatics for extra flavor. The next day — it’s a two-day recipe — you simmer the liquid for more hours and hours until it has reduced and concentrated its flavor from about eight quarts or more all the way down to a quart and a half.

It’s a quarter and a half of pure gold. I cut mine into 12 wedges — it has so much natural gelatin in it that you can cut it once it cools — and freeze them until the time comes to take a dish that is already good and turn it into something truly spectacular.

It is the best return on investment that I know.

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