Chefs' Picks: Secret Ingredient

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Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.

Sometimes a dish works flawlessly in a restaurant, but when replicated at home, it seems to be missing something. That’s because chefs have a few tricks up their sleeve — secret go-to ingredients that really make dishes pop. Here, five chefs pull back the curtain to reveal their favorite hidden ingredient and where to use it. 

Polenta

Chef Brad Spence, partner in Vetri Family restaurants, including Vetri and Pizzeria Vetri in Philadelphia, sneaks polenta into a variety of applications, like breading, sweets and more. “Polenta is super-versatile in the kitchen. We use it for frying fish often,” Spence says. “Maybe our favorite nontraditional polenta dish is our budino with gianduja mousse — it’s incredibly light and flavorful, a beautiful balance for a dessert.” The kitchen also uses polenta in gnocchi and ciareghi, a simple dish with fried egg and brown butter. The addition of sausage and polenta was dreamed up by one of the chefs during staff meals at his first job at a restaurant in Italy.

Togarashi

There’s a little something extra to the tacos at Bodega Negra in New York. To maximize flavor, Executive Chef Michael Armstrong uses togarashi, the heat-packed Japanese spice blend, on just about everything. “It adds depth of flavor and spice to dishes such as eggs, or even linguini,” he says. When it comes to tacos, he says, “I mix togarashi with panko breadcrumbs and pulse until very fine, then crust chicken for chicken tacos.”

Roasted garlic bulbs

Garlic Puree

Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli of Cucina Enoteca in Southern California uses roasted garlic puree in the place of chopped garlic. “While chopped garlic is great, we use the smooth puree when we want a more subtle, sweet flavor,” he says. “We slow-roast whole garlic in olive oil until it is a super-nutty golden brown. We remove it and puree it in the food processor with just a little salt and sherry vinegar. The aroma fills the kitchen, and it becomes our happy place.” The remaining garlicky oil then goes into salads or pastas, or is used to sear meat.

Vinegar

Vinegar is a common secret ingredient among chefs, as the acidity helps to brighten a dish. For Chef Chris Pandel of Balena (and upcoming Swift and Sons) in Chicago, red wine vinegar is the secret to many dishes, including desserts and his Italian sausage. “In the same way that sugar or salt open your palate, acidity will not just brighten a dish, but allow for a more complex flavor profile,” he says. At Balena, Pandel sneaks vinegar into his Italian sausage to use on pizza (pictured at top). “Right before we emulsify the sausage, we add a few dashes of red wine vinegar (traditionally one would use ice water),” he says. “It’s not that we want to taste the vinegar. We want the acidity from the vinegar to bring out the flavors of the seasonings: The garlic is more pronounced, the fennel seed becomes deeper and a little sweeter, the oregano is a bit more floral.”

Chef Jason Dady of Two Bros. BBQ Market and Tre Trattoria in San Antonio loves blood orange vinegar in dishes like caponata and Italian white beans with herbs and stone fruit. “I like using blood orange vinegar, as it’s packed with flavor, not too acidic, yet extremely intriguing on the palate. It keeps food very fresh-tasting and is perfect in all seasons,” he says.

Blood Orange Vinegar

1 cup blood orange puree (or 1/2 cup of fresh blood orange juice reduced by half)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Puree in a blender, then strain and serve.

Photos courtesy of Balena and Vetri Family