Food for Thought
Houston's top chefs reveal their secret ingredients
Every home cook has that one special ingredient that they’re never without. The one thing they add into everything from soups to nuts.
For a long time mine was truffle oil.
I know, I know. That’s like saying your special sauce is ketchup these days.
Thankfully, I’ve moved on. Lately it’s been hand-churned butter from Way Back When Dairy. If you’ve never had fresh, all natural, handmade butter let me just say it tastes like store butter about as much as a bottle of Dom tastes like dishwater. And it makes everything tastes better. That goes for the butter and the Dom.
So, that got me to wondering what real chefs are using as their special, secret ingredients. And, being a food columnist, I started asking.
Vanessa O’Donnell, pastry chef/owner of Ooh La La, seconded my choice.
“Definitely butter!” she says. “I love sugar, too, I mean love it, but butter can be used with everything from baking cookies, to finishing sauces, to spreading on your morning toast. I love a high-quality butter, the less water content the better, especially when it comes to making buttercream icing. I guess you might say I’m a butter snob. The more expensive the butter, the better.”
I’m down with the butter snob thing. But the quest continues.
Adison Lee, the new, boyish chef at Sushi Raku is no stranger to odd ingredients: everything from 24-karat gold leaf and black sea salt on his red snapper sushi to grilled lemons. But when I queried him his response was an ingredient common in Chinese food. Yeah, Chinese, not Japanese.
“I like the Chinese black bean,” he says. “Not many Japanese chefs are using it.”
But maybe they should. The fermented black beans, called douchi, made an amazing addition to chef Lee’s balsamic, ginger, garlic sauce that fired up his king crab and Kobe beef dish called Two Kings. It’s a royal pairing.
Fusion is something our local chefs understand. For L.J. Wiley at Yelapa Playa Mexicana it’s an Indonesian ingredient he favors, not a Mexican one.
“Indonesian Long Pepper is one of my favorite aromas in the world,” Wiley says. “So why not make ice cream out of it and really highlight its flavor against a Morello cherry tart or a Meyer lemon financier or even a Wagyu tartare? Why not use it as fresh ground table pepper so the aromas are released beneath your olfactories as you sip your favorite Carmenere or crust that venison with it and fortify your venison stock at the last minute with its unique pine-tinged spiciness?”
Think that’s wild? Pastry princess Rebecca Masson’s go-to secret is salt.
“Salt,” she says, “I love salt. I love different kinds of salt. I mostly cook with kosher salt. But I use smoked salt, sel gris and just recently found a smoked coconut lime salt. Salt does amazing things to food. Sometimes it brightens the flavor, or it makes things a little less sweet. I really dig the salty/sweet thing. It’s a surprise flavor, the unexpected ingredient in the sweet world.”
“I was going to say salt,” complains Branch Water Tavern’s David Grossman. “It’s not fair for a pastry chef to claim salt.”
Pretend pouting aside, the nationally acclaimed Grossman has a few other items in his bag of tricks, including duck fat that seasons his popcorn appetizer. But when pressed he came back with bay leaves. Yep, regular old bay leaves.
“It is very versatile,” he says defending his choice. “And lends savory undertones to dishes from many different countries.”
French chef Philippe Schmit gets a little more creative.
“My favorite secret ingredient is Espelette, a red chili pepper, in small flakes it’s mild with a slight orange flavor,” Schmit says. “I bring it directly from France,” adding that he uses it in his famous bouillabaisse.
Over at Cyclone Anaya’s head chef Jason Gould goes with lemon myrtle in his Tex-Mex dishes.
“It’s an unique Australian herb,” Gould, an Aussie himself, says. “It was used by the Aborigines and has a flavor of lemon and thyme, it is extremely versatile. I use it in anything from bread and cakes to seafood and desserts.”
And finally, here’s a little secret I’d never have thought of. Chef Greg Lowry at Voice goes with a sweet polysaccharide.
“My favorite ingredient would have to be maltodextrin,” he says. “Being able to turn fat into a powder is really incredible, we make a chorizo powder to accompany white asparagus and porchetta. It’s also great to turn oils into powder, it’s simple but fun.”
Hmmmm, OK. But O’Donnell and I will be sticking with our butter, thank you very much.