Faster food: Chef-approved condiments can make life easier in the kitchen

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Spicy Sriracha Ranch dressing.

Sometimes people envision dinners at my house as featuring multi-course chef-level meals. That's not the way it looks on my end. I make heavy use of my Instant Pot, use plenty of bagged salads and sometimes just put a big tray of nachos on the table. 

I work full time and volunteer on the side. I have a small child and a ton of other real-life things to juggle. I also value a little free time. I'm busy, just like everyone.

While I've been known to cook up involved dinners on holidays because cooking is my love language, most of the time I lean on go-to tricks and pre-made condiments to make life easier.

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I like to cook Asian food a lot, so I often have shelf-stable canned curry paste and coconut milk on hand. That makes it easy to stir-fry protein and vegetables, add in some coconut milk and a little curry paste, then simmer and adjust the seasonings. I love a one-pot meal.

I also keep spicy gochujang, or Korean chili paste, on hand. One of my favorite quick meals is to brown some ground pork in a wok and stir in a hefty spoonful of gochujang, jarred minced ginger, garlic and Chinese Five Spice. Then I add a bagged Asian cabbage salad, the sesame dressing from the salad, soy sauce and a dash of fish sauce. I add extra sesame oil if I plan to stir in noodles for a spicy comfort meal.

You could also serve this stir-fry over rice. Garnish with chopped green onion and cilantro if you're feeling fancy.

Spicy meals aren't very kid-friendly. My daughter prefers sticky-sweet chicken wings. Bottled teriyaki sauce, especially Trader Joe's Soyaki, is excellent for this. It's one of the easier ways to add sweet Asian flavors to chicken and stir-fries. It's also fantastic brushed over salmon and great on steamed fish. 

Moving on from Asian flavors, salsa is a mainstay in my cabinet. It serves its purpose as an appetizer with chips, over nachos, rice bowls and in tacos. It also makes a good cooking sauce along with chicken thighs in an Instant Pot for a fast Mexican meal. Serve this saucy chicken over rice or drain it a bit and plop it in a tortilla. It makes great enchiladas, too. 

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I almost always have pizza sauce on hand. I have a small child, and mini pizza bagels and English muffins are a hit at home and in the lunchbox. But, with a premade pizza sauce and crust, some shredded cheese and various toppings, you have a fast feast for everyone.

Peach barbecue sauce, made on the summer solstice. It keeps up to two years.

If you eat a lot of pork, I recommend keeping barbecue sauce on hand. In this case, I do make my own. I like to buy extra peaches at the farmers market in summer, peel them and simmer them down with vinegar, Worcestershire, brown sugar and something spicy. I jar it for use over the coming year and give some away as gifts. It's a summer ritual.

You don't have to do that, of course. But it's nice to have a high-quality barbecue sauce on hand for dressing up pulled pork butt, chops and also grilled chicken. I also make a peach chutney in the height of the summer, also handy for grilled meat. 

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While it's not really a condiment, I almost always have plain Greek yogurt on hand, which stands in well for sour cream and tastes fantastic as a creamy sauce for Mediterranean food when mixed with a little minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon. Then, just use it up for breakfast as the basis of a smoothie or fruit bowl. 

Now, let's talk about hot sauce. I'm a spicy food fanatic, so I generally have a variety on hand. A vinegar-forward hot sauce like Texas Pete or Cholula is great dashed in Creole food, while a smoky chipotle-forward hot sauce is excellent for Mexican meals and beans.

Sweet-hot Sriracha is my go-to for fried rice, pad thai and other Asian fare. It's also great in a bloody mary, not that you asked. It's among the most versatile of hot sauces, evident in this recipe for Sriracha Ranch, a clever update on a classic buttermilk dressing, shown in the picture above.

You can serve it as a zippy dipping sauce or even a dressing if you prefer your salad spicy. Duke’s mayonnaise, another staple in my fridge, is the preferred mayo here.

Sriracha Ranch

Serves: 4 to 6

Hands-on time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup Sriracha

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh chives, for serving

Instructions

In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, Sriracha, lemon juice and vinegar. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Serve, garnished with chives. (If making ahead, refrigerate the sauce in an airtight container for up to 5 days.)

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com