Ok, ok, so maybe these ingredients are not really “top secret”, but they’re going to bump up the flavor of your food and give them that “what’s in it?” note that makes people sit up and take stock.
Funny thing is, so many of these are downright cheap. A few are on the expensive side, but usually, it just takes a bit to elevate a dish.
White (and other colorful) Pepper
Too often we stick with black pepper just because it’s so easy to use on everything. And if you’re on a budget, well, why spend the extra money? White pepper is key in many Asian dishes, and use in larger amounts can pack a lot of raw, peppery heat. Smaller amounts can add a subtle flavor. Once you use it and taste it in a dish, you’ll know this what’s been missing.
The same goes for a lot of the different colored peppercorns (some of which aren’t actually pepper…but that’s another story.) Buy peppers whole and they’ll keep for years. Grind them between two pans, in a blender or in a spice grinder. If you want some serious zing, toast your peppercorns for a minute and then grind.
Porcini and other dried mushrooms seem expensive by the pound, but they’re so light and a little bit is generally all you need. They will keep just about forever, too.
Dried mushrooms add a deep Umami flavor to a lot of food: soups, stews, Asian dishes, Italian dishes. Pick them up in bulk in your store, or in the larger bags in the produce section and throw them in a mason jar on a non-humid day.
While wine is obvious as a flavor enhancer, I use vinegar in all kinds of unlikely places. I keep a full stock of different kinds (I must have seven or eight) plus a jug of both apple cider and white vinegar under the sink.
I use them in recipes and I serve vinegar with some items but I also use vinegar to “doctor.” If a soup or gravy is dull, add a splash of vinegar, white for chicken and lighter soups, red wine for beefy ones and cider in heavy bean soups. I don’t add enough to taste just enough to add a brightness from the acidity. If your dish is too salty, add a small dash or two of vinegar to counterbalance. Chefs sometimes mist fish or salad with vinegar before sending out a plate for service.
Said t be world’s most expensive spice, the per pound pricing is downright scary. The thing is the saffron threads are incredibly light, and a teaspoon or so isn’t outrageous. Just a pinch or two is enough to transform your rice or chicken dishes. There is no other flavoring that’s comparable.
You can buy Saffron in varying grades – there are different types and threads that are broken go for less than perfect whole threads. I don’t buy this at the grocery store – instead, I seek someplace like Penzey’s or online. Don’t think you can’t afford this incredible flavor.
Bones are harder and harder to find – they used to be free in the store, then pennies, now you can buy them for $6.99 a pound! Even roasts usually have their bones removed. Sigh. Often when I buy something with bones, I’ll trim them off the meat and save them in my freezer for special sauces and stocks. I’ll use chicken bones for chicken stock, beef bones usually are hoarded for really good Beef Barley Soup (so much better than a tomato based version) and pork bones often go into my Green Chile Verde or for my Pork Tenderloin dinner, originally from the French Laundry – Thomas Keller rocks! I also save shrimp shells, etc. (By the way, a pressure cooker makes great beef stock)
Good Home-made Stock
This ties in closely, of course, with bones. Most store-bought stock or broth just doesn’t taste very good, and often it’s not very good for you – and can I mention, expensive! While I usually keep a jar of good chicken base on hand for emergencies (sometimes you need a “save”) I just make my own stock or broth every few weeks or so.
I think it makes an incredible difference in my finished dishes, and of course, if you have homemade stock on hand, it takes just minutes to throw together an excellent soup. The other day my son had the “there’s nothing to eat” blues and I grabbed a Ziploc of chicken stock, threw in a few finely diced carrots and celery and let it simmer a few minutes, added some leftover rice and black pepper. It didn’t look like much but the taste was wonderful.
In my kitchen, chile goes some places where God never intended it to go and a lot of places where He did!
A small hot chile can be dropped in whole in rice, stocks or soups and fished out – the brave can eat it, but in the recipe it leaves an elusive flavor and just the right amount of heat.
Chile flakes or small dried chiles (open them, sprinkle the seeds) can add a little or a lot of heat to a dish – I usually think subtle when I’m using it to enhance dishes and often add just a pinch to one thing or another to wake up the flavor. I sneak it into pasta sauces (especially red) but also add it to a lot of vegetables I’ll roast or saute. It goes into all kinds of soups and of course, a lot of Mexican dishes and salsas. I add it to some of my dressings and marinades.
Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce: I heard about this item long before I could buy it in my area and I use Chipotle a lot – obviously in Chili, but also in a lot of different marinades and every day items. I’ll use it in stews (just a small amount) and in meatloaf and their toppings, pot roasts, stews, dressings, barbecue sauces I’m always trying just a bit of it in different things.
Asian or Indonesian Sauces
Indispensable in so many cuisines, I love using Fish Sauce, Hoisin, Chili Garlic sauces, Mushroom Soy and even Sweet Chili Sauce, just to name a few. I find myself reaching for them for so many dishes – even the “American” ones. I often use a little Fish sauce when I don’t have anchovies on hand (I was afraid of it when I first learned about it, not being a big fish fan – oh, all those wasted years…) and now I find myself adding a little fish sauce (sometimes even just a few drops) to all kinds of things. You can use it soups, dressings, dipping sauces and sautes.
All it takes is for me to open the cupboard or fridge while I’m cooking for inspiration to hit…I’ll add a little of something to a dish I’m making, taste it and add more if I like it. Hoisin, and a touch of Chile Garlic sauce along with thinly sliced green onion in a grilled burger? Heaven. A little sweet chili sauce in your salad dressing or in marinated vegetables? Why not? A scant teaspoon of chili sauce to sautéed green beens…num. Use these sauces, and not how initially intended, to add a subtle flavor (or not so subtle) to all kinds of things.
Anchovies or Fish Sauce
I think so underutilized – yeah, they are ugly, frankly, but get over it – they lend a background flavor in so many recipes, and it never hurts to get that bit extra of your Omega 3′s! I’ve had bottled Caesar at friend’s houses – ugh – it takes just seconds to make one at home if you have anchovies in your fridge or pantry and if you haven’t made your own, you don’t know what you’re missing. You can add a little to stews or pot roasts, even as I’ve discovered recently (Thank you, Tyler Florence) to Ratatouille. Smash up a little and experiment – you won’t taste the fish flavor, just a delicious, deep, earthiness.
Anchovy paste can be bought in a reclosable tube, too.
Parmesan Cheese Rinds
Never throw these out – add them to your soups (especially any soup you would think of topping with parmesan cheese) for a subtle, well-rounded flavor. The same goes for long-simmering tomato sauces.
You can keep them in the freezer, although they keep a long time in the fridge. Some grocery stores sell the rinds very cheaply – and often with enough left on to finely grate a bit of Parmesan.
Like many things that became so popular, when it faded, it fell from grace and became almost obsolete. I still love roasted garlic and use it in dressings, marinades, mashed potatoes, on bread, and when I have it on hand, I’m not adverse to adding it to all kinds of things. Never waste a clove: try it in bbq sauce, in Italian dishes, risotto, etc.
(and sometimes ground): I think clove used to be used a lot more often, but we in the US tend to think of it once a year for pumpkin pie. I like to spice or mull wine or cider in the winter and make home-made Russian tea – hot or iced all year ’round. I’ll sometimes stud an onion with clove and add to bechamel sauces and I do the same when I cook lentils. I drop in a few in my chicken fricassees and use a subtle pinch of clove in all kinds of dishes.
(and sometimes Blackberry): a well-made jam or jelly, not too sweet will enhance all kinds of items without leaving a discernible flavor behind. Flat gravies, sauces, and soups can come alive with a teaspoon or so dissolved in at the end. It can be pricier than the regular grocery store jams, harder to find, but well worth it.
This comes in a tiny little bottle but just reeks of flavor! Seriously. It is strong and generally, a few drops will flavor a whole dish. It’s made by distilling smoke, much like distilled water is made. While there may be a little bit of a fear factor, it is a pure product, and once it hits your food, any harshness dissipates and what’s left is the warm flavor of a smoked or barbecued food. You may find yourself wanting to add a bit more just before serving.
Try it in dips, bean soups, baked beans and any item that would normally be barbecued or smoked but has been made indoors, instead. Beef, Pork, & Fish have an affinity for liquid smoke. A few drops go well, too, in items that contain bacon and will give a subtle boost to the flavor, and if you’re making a chili or Mexican/Southwestern dish that would normally call for a smoked chili but have to substitute canned, here’s your savior.
An item that goes so well in Spanish food and Tapas, smoked paprika can lend a subtle smoky “woodsy” flavor to all kinds of dishes. Think of adding this to any rubs or boosting the flavor of many of the old-fashioned dishes that in the past called for “paprika.”
Be careful as it can be strong, but once you develop the taste, you’ll be hooked. It can be used in a very subtle manner or in larger quantities, give a good kick.
Well, I’ve gone on long enough – and I’m always good for a new secret! Do you have any “Top Secret” ingredient that you’d love to share? Here’s your chance – just whisper it in my ear – I promise not to tell!