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Thomas Chen’s Secret Weapon

This bright, smooth and smoky cumin-herb sauce is all about balance
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table
Cilantro Cumin Sauce

A few years back, chef Thomas Chen dunked crispy langoustine into a basil dipping sauce while dining at Les Fables de la Fontaine in Paris. “I was inspired,” he says. “I wanted to create my own version of the sauce. So I went back and tested different herbs and different citrus.” He then added smokiness with cumin, a rounded sweetness with honey and a hit of acid with lime.

His resulting cumin-herb sauce is smooth, bright, sweet and smoky (see the recipe). And it’s so versatile that he uses it all over his menu at Tuome in New York.

The key to attaining the right mix of flavor is to let the herbs take center stage, Chen says. There should be equal proportions of cilantro, parsley and dill, so that one flavor doesn’t outshine another. Too much lime will sour the whole thing. And where using a rich amber honey will impart a deep sweetness, a lighter and more floral variety will cut into the bite of the herbs. “It’s really important to balance all of the ingredients, so that one doesn’t overpower,” he warns.

Once that perfect formula is achieved, the sauce has no limits. Here are a few of Chen’s favorite ways to put its versatility to good use.

Straight-Up Dipping Sauce: To recreate Chen’s Parisian experience, set a dish alongside fried chicken, french fries or spring rolls for straight-up dunking. “The acidity in the sauce cuts the richness and fat, and makes the overall dish lighter,” he promises.

Bright Sandwich Spread: Because of how well it cuts through that fat, Chen takes it to the next level by mixing one part mayonnaise with two parts herb sauce, and then slathers it onto a BLT, chicken cutlet or mozzarella-and-tomato combo. “The herbs and lime go really well with tomato,” he says, “making it even brighter.”

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Quick Crudo: For a bass or fluke crudo dish, mix one part full-fat coconut milk with two parts herb sauce. Add finely chopped tomato and cucumber, crushed cashews and minced parsley, and then lightly coat the fish. The acidity brings out the sweetness in the fish while lightly curing it, and the combination and concentration of herbs means you get hit with huge flavor without additional work or time.

Cold Noodle Dressing: For a killer cold noodle salad, cook noodles to al dente, then let them cool completely. Quickly blanch vegetables such as bean sprouts, julienned zucchini, carrots and snow peas, then let them cool. To the sauce, add thinly sliced Sichuan chiles, a few drops of chile oil and the vegetables. Toss the noodles in the sauce and serve topped with poached shrimp. The different textures of the noodles and all the vegetables come together “really well with the sauce, and the spicy-smoky-acid combo just makes for a really well-balanced dish.”  

Barbecue Glaze: Cumin brings a lot of smokiness to this sauce, adding another dimension of depth to grilled meats. Brush the mixture on anything from grilled shrimp to ribs to light fish like branzino right before they come off the grill (you don’t want the herbs themselves to cook), and dinner is served.

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