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Basic Goes Big Elevate lowly ingredients into multitasking menu stars

The Lobster and Shrimp Hushpuppy Pie epitomizes clever use of common ingredients at Joe’s Crab Shack. Cream cheese lends a dairy element, while cornmeal gives the crust a Southern-style crunch.

A few years ago, food journalist Mark Bittman wrote in The New York Times of his longtime aversion to celery: “The strings, the smell and the taste.” But he went on to describe his eventual embrace of the vegetable for its wonderful versatility. He listed all the different ways to utilize celery, from soups and stir-fries to marinated and grilled. His article concluded with the line: “Finally, celery’s cheap. Use lots.”

Certainly there are many celery-like ingredients out there—common, cheap, not-so-glamorous—that can turn out to be most valuable players in the kitchen.

“When you’re trying to manage menu creation, it’s always in your thought process: How can I repurpose and cross-utilize ingredients?” says Ric Scicchitano, Corner Bakery Cafe’s senior vice president, food and beverage. “In the kitchen, we can’t have one-hit wonders.”
All it takes is a little bit of creativity to help those basic ingredients find their maximum potential.

Cabbage is King
At Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland, Ohio, chef/owner Steve Schimoler has earned a reputation for his cutting-edge culinary creations, but he’s no snob—he knows the value of commonplace workhorse ingredients. “One of the most basic ingredients we use is cabbage,” he says. “It’s very cost-effective, and we use it in several different forms on our menu. It’s one of those underappreciated ingredients.”

Cabbage made into coleslaw is common practice, but even here, Schimoler uses it in creative ways. An appetizer of Crispy Calamari is served with coconut-green curry aïoli, napa cabbage slaw and seaweed salad. A different incarnation appears as zesty Carolina slaw, which is served on the fried chicken sandwich in place of lettuce and tomato. “You get a really crispy, crunchy texture from slaw,” he notes.

Of course, cabbage can shape-shift into widely differing textures. Crop Bistro & Bar also features a pork loin filled with housemade garlic sausage and stuffing, squash risotto and braised purple cabbage.

Yet another shift occurs once you ferment the cabbage. At Crop, kimchi adds differentiation to the menu. The restaurant makes about 80 pounds of kimchi at a time using regular white cabbage. “It gets better as it holds—the natural fermentation is what makes it so good.” He finds unexpected uses for kimchi, such as adding the pungent cabbage to the lunch menu’s Korean barbecue meatloaf sandwich with Sriracha mayonnaise. “The lowly cabbage does have a place on sophisticated menus—as well as simple ones,” says Schimoler.

From Creamy to Crunchy
Seafood is the thing at Joe’s Crab Shack, but how do you augment the menu to help make that seafood shine in multiple ways?

Jim Doak, vice president of menu innovation and corporate executive chef for Ignite Restaurant Group (parent company to Joe’s Crab Shack), is brimming with ideas for creative applications of common ingredients.

“We talk a lot about using adaptable but fairly mundane ingredients in a number of ways to add depth of flavor in dishes, and to enhance texture and mouthfeel,” says Doak.

That explains his embrace of cream cheese, which he uses throughout the menu. The creaminess and stability of Joe’s popular hot crab dip come from cream cheese. The Great Balls of Fire appetizer consists of seafood and crab balls with cream cheese and jalapeños coated in panko crumbs.

“We like to use cream cheese to create side dishes,” he says. “In our Cheesy Smashed Potatoes, cream cheese is the secret hidden ingredient. It adds a dairy component.” Doak says he’s also made use of cream cheese in a polenta apple cake.

In some of the casseroles and seafood bakes, such as the Lobster and Shrimp Hushpuppy Pie, cream cheese precludes the need for butter and milk. And moving over to the dessert menu, cream cheese adds stability and creamy mouthfeel to the Key lime pie. “It’s been a really user-friendly ingredient,” says Doak.

Another favorite workhorse at Joe’s is cornmeal. “It’s a ubiquitous ingredient, and it has an amazing amount of versatility,” says Doak. Joe’s Crab Shack is known for its Southern flavors. Hushpuppies, a signature side, are made with a cornmeal batter. The same basic batter is also the key element to everything from fried catfish to lobster fritters. And cornmeal goes into the crust for the Lobster and Shrimp Hushpuppy Pie.

In any application, cornmeal adds a distinctive crunch, whether in a thick batter or a thin one—such as for johnnycakes or pancakes. “You know when you’re having cornmeal—even when it’s just dusted on top of a seafood dish,” says Doak. “It enhances Joe’s Crab Shack’s down-on-the-shore Gulf theme.”

Breaking Bread
What to do with day-old bread? At Corner Bakery Cafe, the question is answered by coming up with twists on the usual. “We’re a bakery, we have a lot of bread,” says Scicchitano. “We want a secondary use for it. About 20 years ago, we started serving a day-old sourdough panini. Day-old bread is great—it’s slightly drier so it crisps up better and absorbs seasonings better. It also grills faster and browns nicely. It’s one of the core items that we find ways to repurpose.”

Today, Corner Bakery has a multi-grain bread that serves multiple roles. At breakfast, it’s thinly sliced and used for paninis (Applewood Smoked Bacon, Chicken Apple Sausage, and Avocado & Spinach Power Panini Thin). “We griddle the day-old bread between two cast-iron plates, and because the bread has less moisture, it grills quicker, gets browner and with nicer grill marks.” And at lunchtime it’s featured in signature sandwiches such as Mom’s Grilled Chicken on the whole-grain Harvest Toast. The bread is then cleverly reborn in the form of Harvest Crisps—long, thin, multi-grain croutons that accentuate the healthfulness of the Harvest Salad, which includes mixed greens, green apples, toasted walnuts, blue cheese and currants. “Just having the multi-grain crouton adds to the menu description—and it adds a different visual look,” says Scicchitano. “It offers different colors and texture, so it stands out. It’s a no brainer.”

The same simple technique works with other Corner Bakery breads, such as the raisin-pecan bread, which also makes its way into different dayparts. Chilled Berry Almond Swiss Oatmeal is served with homemade raisin-pecan sweet crisps. On the lunch menu, Spinach Sweet Crisp Salad features raisin-pecan sweet crisps as croutons tossed in with baby spinach, strawberries, oranges, grapes, dried cranberries, green onions, goat cheese and a pomegranate vinaigrette.

“We very rarely introduce new items unless we think of how to cross-utilize them,” says Scicchitano.

From Broth to Beans
As the author of Conscious Cuisine (Source Books, 2002), chef Cary Neff has made it his mission to find smart but simple ways to combine nutrition and flavor. Now vice president of culinary for Atlanta-based Morrison Management, Neff has certain go-to ingredients that forward his mission.

One of his basic tools is vegetable broth. “I use vegetable broths to replace water or stocks,” says Neff. “It provides opportunity to build flavor, and it adds nutritional value. And when you add spices, the broth complements them well.”

Neff began this practice two decades ago and still subscribes to it now. “I was introducing grains that people were not used to, and the broth provided more flavor. The first thing I did was a mushroom-barley risotto. People know mushroom-barley soup, so they were open to it.” Today he likes to use different vegetable broths—such as carrot or sweet pea—to accentuate grain dishes like quinoa. Neff says the broth serves as a way to help introduce unfamiliar ingredients in a more palatable way.

With the same principles of versatility in mind, Neff is also a big fan of beans. He employs black beans in a chocolate cupcake. “There is very little flavor difference from the beans, and it provides the texture of a traditional cupcake, but it’s flourless and gluten free. It also has added fiber and protein,” he says.

Another bean application: Puréed white beans, black beans or chickpeas as a spread on sandwiches. Neff says it’s a more flavorful and nutritious substitute for mayonnaise.

“There are multiple purposes for finding creative uses for common ingredients,” he says. “You can add nutritional value, add texture and mouthfeel, save costs, improve flavor and introduce new ingredients.”

About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.