Most great chefs have at least one secret-weapon ingredient that they rely on to turn a lackluster dishes into extraordinary ones. Chef Daniel Orr of Farm Bloomington restaurant says, “There are certain things we call ‘cheap tricks’ in the business—grace notes that can simply elevate an otherwise drab dish.” When Food & Wine asked five chefs to share their favorite examples, some chose luxe specialty foods while others opted for familiar supermarket products used in unexpected ways. Here, their answers:
The chef and owner of Farm Bloomington in Bloomington ,Indiana, recently expanded his line of Kitchen D’Orr spice blends and Farm Bloomington sauces. His secret ingredient: mint chutney.
“I love to scour ethnic markets and international aisles in supermarkets for premade products that will jazz up the local ingredients (produce, eggs, dairy and meat) I buy. Jarred mint chutney is one of my favorite things to have on hand. If you have leftover chicken, just mix the chutney with some strained yogurt and toss the mixture with the chicken. I once served this type of chicken salad with red onion, celery and apple over greens at the restaurant, and people freaked out. They loved it so much. Mint chutney is even great when it’s added to something as ordinary as frozen peas—mint and peas are natural partners, and it adds a bit of an exotic twist.”
Virant (an F&W Best New Chef 2007) is the chef and owner of Vie in Western Springs, Illinois. His secret ingredient: crème fraîche
“I love that crème fraîche is rich, yet still has a sourness that helps keep a dish balanced. If you’re making pasta, you can finish it with crème fraîche instead of cream. For roasted or blanched vegetables, a dollop of crème fraîche with a squeeze of lemon and whole fresh herbs makes a great dressing. In the winter, try it on shaved radishes or celery root; in the summer, beans—green beans, wax beans, haricots verts. A creamy dressing really adheres to these vegetables. For desserts, sweeten crème fraîche with confectioners’ sugar, add vanilla extract and serve it with fresh berries. It also whips up nicely to serve alongside a warm chocolate cake.”
“This pasta is made in the town I’m from: Osimo, in the Marche region of Italy. The owners of Latini replanted an old type of wheat, senatore cappelli, which is what makes this pasta so special. It’s a perfect dried pasta. It has so much flavor on its own that I hardly need to do anything to it—maybe just a drizzle of olive oil. That’s it. It’s a great emergency ingredient to have on hand if you need to prepare something quickly. Some specialty shops sell it, but it’s also available from gustiamo.com.”
Price is the chef at one of New York City’s hottest restaurants, Market Table. His secret ingredient: Iranian dried fruit.
“I love Iranian savory green raisins, because they pair really well with bitter flavors—for instance, a risotto with mushrooms and radicchio. They don’t have the sweetness of regular raisins, and there are small bits of seeds inside for crunch. Dried barberries, which are like really small currants, are also good. They’re sour, so they work well with sweeter fruits, like apples, or stirred into apple-cinnamon oatmeal. They’re usually not cheap, though, because they’re sun-dried and made without preservatives.” (dried barberries are available at kalustyans.com; $7 for three ounces)
“At the restaurant, we pickle cherry peppers by the case in a red wine vinegar brine, but you could easily use jarred instead. I steam mussels in white wine and lemon juice and add some chopped pickled peppers for more tang and heat. People love this dish so much that it never changes on our menu. After stemming and seeding the peppers, I also chop them up into a fine relish and fold it into an aioli (a garlicky mayonnaise) to put on a burger, or else add the relish to a warm vinaigrette—I’ve made that here for a squid salad. You can grind them in a mortar and pestle with coriander, cumin, caraway, garlic, salt and olive oil to make harissa (a North African chile paste) and rub it on a chicken before roasting. I also like to slice them into rings, coat them in a tempura batter and fry them quickly to use as a garnish or serve on top of steak.”