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Chefs’ Secret Ingredients

February 7, 2011

By Pat Tanner

While it’s true that professional chefs use highly practiced skills and exotic ingredients to produce tasty dishes that we home cooks could never replicate, it’s equally true that each one has some simple tricks up his or her toque. I recently asked a few in my neck of the woods to share one secret powerhouse of an ingredient that we home cooks could adopt to bring our creations to the next level. (One chef was even moved to wax poetic.)

Chris Crawford, Wooden Spoon Catering Company, Princeton: “Jansal Valley Sakaurauchi Sa (Roasted Rice Vinegar). This is infused with mandarin orange, ginger and clove. It has both the color and consistency of balsamic vinegar and combines a sweet and savory profile. In addition to fish, I use it on everything from pasta salads to fruit desserts. The possibilities are endless as soon as you stop seeing “vinegar” in its name. This has become a staple in my kitchen as it lends itself so easily to any dish that wants both an acidic note and a sweet/spicy/citrus undertone. From Sid Wainer & Son at”

Jen Carson, Jen’s Cakes & Pastries, Princeton: “I’ve been using a product called Just Organic Strawberries from the Just Tomatoes company. Lots of supermarkets sell them. They are a dehydrated organic strawberry – that’s it! They don’t add any extra sugar, preservatives, or additives; they just remove the water from the berry. My kids love to crunch on them as they are, but I have another way of using them: in buttercream. I pulverize the berries in a food processor, then sieve out the seeds. The resulting powder makes for a lovely concentrated berry flavor, perfect to stir into sweetened whipped cream, traditional American buttercream, or, best yet, Italian meringue buttercream.”

Mark Valenza, Za Restaurant, Pennington: “I admire the fermented black bean, that perfectly shaped legume you’ll find in Chicken With Black Bean Sauce. I’m not sure, but I think it might be illegal to use them in any other dish. At Za I use fermented black beans with sautéed bok choy that I flambé in rice wine, sake, and French gastrique (vinegar & simple syrup). Salty and sweet and tangy – you can’t beat it for culinary punch. And yet for such a perfect little ingredient I feel it has been taken for granted, the not-so-ugly sister of miso paste. I use the dry-packed kind. They’re less salty than the wet and I think more versatile. Use them in soups, salads, marinades, ice cream, and Chex mix. They put a little oddball kick into the same old same old and they are inexpensive. I love them so much I’ve composed a haiku to them:

Salty black oval

Sautéed, flambéed, resplendent

Tasty beyond words.”

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