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Play Up Background Flavors

A spicy coating for the shrimp, garnished with pepper chunks, cilantro and scallions, gives these seafood tacos both authentic Latin flavor and eye appeal. Photo courtesy of haliburton international foods. Special behind-the-scenes ingredients are what make menu signatures

By Joan Lang

Looking for a few “secret ingredients” that will build depth and interest to round out a recipe and turn it into a signature?

Some are no-brainers, like garlic, lemon, anchovy and salt and pepper; the right amount of any of these can turn a dish from ho-hum into fabulous. But there are other great background players that can be deployed at different points along the prep to really play up the star ingredients, knit together different flavor notes and create a new whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Following is a collection of unique background ingredients to round out a signature flavor profile.

Herb and spice mixes, both traditional and proprietary, have long been a source of inspiration for chefs. The story is told of chef Paul Prudhomme, who spent his first few years in other people’s kitchens sneaking spices out of his pockets and into the food. He eventually became one of the first celebrity chefs, and those spices are now marketed under the Magic Seasoning Blends moniker.

From fairly familiar lemon pepper and herbes de Provence (a dried blend of savory, thyme, lavender, basil and fennel) to more-exotic ethnic mixtures like vadouvan (a curry-like blend that can include alliums, mustard seed, fenugreek, nutmeg and more) and ras al hanout (the North African mixture typically made with cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chile peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric), spice blends bring not only taste and consistency but also a kind of shorthand for a particular ethnicity or flavor profile.

The ingredients in a seasoning mixture can be as mainstream as those in Montreal steak seasoning (a dry rub, originally used in preparing Montreal smoked meat, that contains salt, garlic, coriander, black and red pepper and dill seed) or as specialized as what’s in North African harissa (a paste of several different hot peppers, garlic, spices such as coriander and caraway, and olive oil). And then, of course, there are the bespoke mixes that chefs create in their own kitchens or have made to their top-secret specifications.

> Jordanian Za’atar [sumac, thyme, sesame seed, salt] Dusted Wild Prawn and Scallop: Saffron couscous pearls, pain d’épices, lemon-grass foam, preserved kumquat — The Marine Room, San Diego
> Chicken Lollipops: Sweet chile glaze, togarashi [a Japanese seven-spice mixture that includes red pepper, citrus peel and sesame seeds], sweet-potato fries — Tantalum, Long Beach, Calif.

Some ingredients just don’t get no respect — but they should. Take two classic “background” ingredients that no restaurant can do without: parsley and celery. Often relegated to the bouquet garni and the mirepoix, these two nearly ubiquitous aromatics are starting to be taken out to play a bit more often, showing up on menus with as much pride as the other components in a recipe.

Parsley is so versatile that its role needn’t be restricted to a garnish. A number of on-trend sauces, including salsa verde and chimichurri, rely upon parsley for their fresh flavor and verdant green color.

Italian cooks tend to use parsley more proactively, as in trifolati, whereby meat or a vegetable — most often mushrooms — is sautéed with garlic and parsley. At Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, chicken livers are sautéed with capers, parsley and guanciale, which add flavor and act as a foil to the rich livers. That the parsley is mentioned on the menu owes as much to its importance in the flavor profile as to the trend toward menu transparency.

And as far as celery goes, the availability of farmers’ market celery is leading to renewed interest in this item for its own characteristics. The availability of other varieties, like Chinese celery and cutting celery (used only for its leaves) only adds to the interest.

> Roasted Chicken Breast: Winter squash-sweet-potato hash, smoked bacon-parsley pesto, natural jus — Roots, Milwaukee
> Sashimi of Hamachi: Cutting celery, wild rice, lemon grass, ponzu — M Restaurant, Philadelphia

What’s left over can be just as important as that from which it’s left over. This trio of trendy ingredients comprises byproducts from sake and wine production, respectively.

Sake kasu is the lees (dead yeast) left over from sake production. Available in paste form, it can be used as a pickling agent, a seasoning rub or in a marinade. In Japan, sake kasu is used widely to season vegetables, as a base for soup and to marinate fish. Here in the United States, its most iconic use is in black cod in sake kasu. For this, the fish (also known as sablefish) is marinated for 24 hours in a mixture of sake paste, ginger, salt, sugar and other seasonings until it is deeply flavored and caramelizes deliciously on the grill.

Verjus, the tart, fresh “green juice” of unripe wine grapes, is often marketed as a gentler alternative to vinegar (another byproduct of the wine industry). It adds acidity to dressings, marinades, sauces, braising liquids and more.

Grape must is freshly pressed, unfermented juice — complete  with skins, seeds and stems — that has been used in cooking since the time of the early Greeks and Romans; the more attractively named saba/sapa is concentrated grape must. It also is used in making balsamic vinegar, which gives a hint to its flavor profile and potential in sauces, dressings and desserts.

> Butterleaf Salad with pears, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, hazelnuts and Terra Sonoma verjus vinaigrette — Bovolo, Healdsburg, Calif.
> Seared Lamb Tenderloin: Drizzled with cooked grape must — La Ciccia, San Francisco

Talk about a zest for flavor: Citrus fruits have so much to contribute to menus, from the whole fruit to the juice, but increasingly it’s the zest that’s adding a certain je ne sais quoi to foods. And not just to desserts, either, although anyone who’s tasted a traditional Sicilian cannoli, filled with sweetened ricotta cheese studded with chocolate chips and candied orange peel, knows that zest plays a part in the sweet kitchen.

Think of gremolata, the condiment made with chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest that is used to top osso buco, or the twist of lemon peel that enlivens a dry martini: That’s the power of zest. The subtle citrus flavor contained in the peel’s volatile oils adds a depth that no other part of the fruit can impart.

Grating or zesting the peel releases those oils and that flavor. Citrus fruits beyond lemons can be used for the peel, from prosaic grapefruit, tangerines and oranges to exotic bergamot, Meyer lemon and yuzu.

> Black Cod: In daikon bouillon with yuzu zest — Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas
> Grilled Chicken Spiedini: Juicy chicken breast seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon zest; grilled on skewers with fresh rosemary and served with colorful roasted vegetables — Romano’s Macaroni Grill

Fresh, dried or in paste or powder form, peppers from around the globe are adding heat and depth to menus beyond Thai and Tex-Mex. Photo courtesy of Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The furor for all things Japanese in cooking has given rise to such umami-rich ingredients as the über-popular, fermented soybean paste known as miso.

In addition to the most well-known variety, hatcho miso, made from soybeans, there are also kome miso (made from white rice and soybeans), mugi miso (barley miso), soba miso (buckwheat), genmai miso (brown rice), natto miso (made from ginger and soybeans) and numerous other kinds to experiment with.

Misos from different prefectures in Japan have different characteristics, making them a true artisanal product.

The salty taste and buttery texture of miso paste have made it very popular with ahead-of-the-curve kitchens. Use miso to flavor soups, sauces, dressings and marinades or to rub on vegetables and proteins as a seasoning.

> Pan Fried Shishito Peppers: Parmesan, sesame, miso — Girl and the Goat, Chicago
> Hand-Crafted Organic Tofu: Red quinoa, field vegetables, king oyster mushroom, coriander, Mandarin miso broth — The Marine Room, San Diego

Black pepper is all well and good, but there are so many more members of the Piper and Capsicum genus that can be used to bring heat to foods. Unusual peppers are a real “it” ingredient on contemporary menus, from Peruvian aji panca chiles to Szechuan peppercorns (not a true pepper but the dried berries of a prickly ash tree).

Many of the most interesting new peppers are not available in fresh form but instead are used dried or processed into a paste or powder. A few to consider:

Urfa chiles: Named after the Turkish town of Urfa, where they are grown, these are sun dried during the day and sweated at night for a number of days before being ground whole (including stems and seeds), which makes the resulting powder quite hot. This purplish-black spice has high essential-oil content, an aroma of dried fruits and tobacco and a rich, earthy flavor that works well with meat.

Aleppo pepper: Also known as Halaby pepper, this pepper comes from Syria, where it is sun-dried, stemmed, seeded and ground. With a unique depth of flavor and a piquant aroma reminiscent of dried fruits, Aleppo has less heat than cayenne and typically is used in vegetable, grain and rice dishes.

Piment d’Espelette, from the town of Espelette in the Basque region of France, is a distinctive yet versatile dried and ground chile that has been described as having “flavors of stone, fruit and ocean.” It works in a number of cuisines, including Spanish, French and Italian.

Marash peppers, grown in Turkey, are sun dried, stemmed, seeded and ground. This chile, naturally wet with essential oils, is aromatic and fruity, with a deep earthiness that lends itself to meat preparations.

> Baba Ghanoush: Eggplant, Urfa chile, housemade pita — Fino, Austin, Texas
> Piccolo Fritto:  Deep-fried romanesco and purple broccoli with onion rings, Marash pepper, orange zest and pecorino sardo — Zuni Café, San Francisco

Olive oil a “secret ingredient”? Yes, when it’s selected for particular flavor characteristics, provenance or other attributes. Nowadays, it’s not just Italian restaurants that stock several different types of olive oils for different applications, from sautéing and vinaigrette-making to drizzling over cooked dishes as a finishing touch.

Zero Zero, the superhot pizza and pasta restaurant (the name refers to double-zero flour) in San Francisco, proudly touts De Padova Extra-Virgin Olive Oil on the menu. Given that the De Padova Group is known for its high-end seed-to-bottle product, made in the strictly controlled DOP Terra d’Otranto, that proclamation is a testament to the restaurant’s quality standards.

Other restaurants may play up olive oil from a particular region or country, such as Tuscany, the South of France or Greece. Provençale Mas de Fauchon olive oil has flavors of “earth, grass, lime zest and red chile,” while oils from the Lazio region of Italy can be very peppery. With different products available from around the world, it’s not surprising to see chefs naming favorites on their menus. And in locavore restaurants in places like California and Texas, which have their own olive oil cultures, the trend makes even more sense.

On the subject of oil, plenty of other culinary nut and seed oils are gaining traction as a flavor component, including hazelnut, sesame, walnut, pistachio, argan, pumpkin seed, avocado, pine nut and pecan.

> Grilled Ciabatta with tomato, burrata cheese, purple beets, basil and California olive oil — Sbicca Bistro, Del Mar, Calif.
> Asparagus: Wood roasted with herb feta and Cretian olive oil — Evvia, Palo Alto, Calif.

Don’t expect to see either of these “ingredients” on chain menus any time soon, but the flavor and aroma of fire go beyond mere smoke to include the deliberate and controlled charring of foods as well as the ash that is produced.

Some of it is poetic license. James Toland, executive chef of The Black Sheep in Chicago, just added a vegetarian entrée menued as “Cauliflower, olive, burnt tomato, charcoal.” The “charcoal”  is actually dehydrated, oil-cured olives. “After two weeks in our dehydrator,” says Toland, “they turn to a brittle chunk of coal that still has a faint olive flavor but tastes like sweet carbon, mostly. It helps to pull the carbon flavor out of the sweet, ‘burnt’-tomato coulis that is also on the dish.”

And Homaro Cantu, describing an “edible charcoal” garnish to a pork dish  at his new restaurant, iNG, dips cubes of white bread in squid ink, deep fries them and adds liquid nitrogen to make them look as if they are smoking. Finished with a sprinkle of flavorful black salt, they look like briquettes.

More common is the practice of charring foods, particularly any that happen to be high in natural sugars, in a pan or wok or on a grill. Some chefs go a step further by rubbing the cooked ingredient into a flavorful ash that can be sprinkled on food for added taste, color, texture and aesthetic oomph.

> Hawaiian Yellowfin Ahi Tartare Duo: Ahi tossed with sea salt on a bed of charred corn, topped with truffled popcorn and popcorn shoots, and ahi on avocado salad, topped with lime crema, orange reduction and tempura nori chip — Brix, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
> Beet: Melon, leek-ash yogurt, purslane, red jalapeño — Aziza, San Francisco

Mushrooms are among the special ingredients that deliver craveable umami flavor to dishes like this Mushroom Bolognese. Photo courtesy of mushroom council.

Salt is another one of those heretofore uncelebrated ingredients that has come out of the pantry in recent years to strut its stuff, especially with today’s emphasis on pickling and salumi-making. Salt has become an all-round versatile ingredient, adding flavor and texture to a variety of foods, both savory and sweet. Many chefs like to use larger-flaked sea salts like Maldon and Cyprus to add a pleasing crunch.

Salts like Hawaiian black lava salt or pink Himalayan lend a dash of distinctive color. Salt can even be smoked, as in the smoked Viking sea salt that chef Eric Ripert uses to make his yellowfin tuna prosciutto.

Salt, the restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island in Florida, menus a number of flavored salts, including a specialty sodium for each of its premium steaks and other proteins. For example, Painted Hills Filet Mignon is paired with Pure Ocean Horseradish Salt, Springer Mountain Chicken Breast features Adriatic Citrus Salt and Mediterranean Black Garlic Salt accompanies its offering of Filet Mignon and Maine Lobster.

> Fried Monterey Squid: With sea salt, pepper, lemon and spicy roasted-pepper sauce — Palio d’Asti, San Francisco
> Bamboo Steamed Edamame: Maldon sea-salt flakes and fresh lime — Metro, Roanoke, Va.

Creative chefs are anything but allergic to this hot new ingredient, which adds a mysterious essence that tastes of its essential self but more so; fennel pollen, for instance, is like fennel seed on steroids. It’s easy to get somewhat addicted to these versatile flavor enhancers, which also can be worked into blends that act as a complete and distinctive seasoning.

Though pollens are expensive, particularly the imported ones, a little goes a long way. Sprinkle fennel and/or dill pollen into a salad, use it as a dry rub for shrimp or scallops on the grill, mix into a filling for deviled eggs or fold into scrambles and omelets, add to mayonnaise or rémoulade sauce, dust on cheese, or steep in the liquid for crème brûlée or fancy-pants rice pudding.

> Snapper Positano: Vine-ripened tomatoes, arugula, cannellini beans, fennel pollen — Romano’s Macaroni Grill
>  Dill Pollen Potato Chips — Tantalum, Long Beach, Calif.

Here’s another ages-old preservation technique that’s being used in forward-thinking ways. Pork products like applewood-smoked bacon and all kinds of traditional barbecue led the charge, but now the technique of smoking is fanning out with different kinds of products, both in the wood or other medium (such as tea) being used for smoking and in the ingredient being smoked (from hearty meats to delicate cheeses and vegetables).

At Volt in Frederick, Md., chef-owner Bryan Voltaggio is constantly playing with smoke. He smokes pine needles, dried apple leaves and parsnip peels to flavor duck, squab, partridge and foie gras. He smokes smashed cinnamon sticks to infuse into the cream that goes into caramel ice cream. He also serves freshly smoked foods in a covered dish; the top is removed in front of the customers for a dramatic, smoky flourish. He’s even smoked ice cubes, which turn up in Manhattans or in Scotch and water.

The fact that chefs have discovered ways to smoke their own foods without having to spring for a huge piece of outdoor equipment — using everything from stovetop pans to handheld food smokers — has made the technique even more popular. And there’s no mistaking the appealing flavor and widespread appeal of smoked foods. These devices make it possible to take smoking out of the realm of the eight- to 12-hour process and into the à la minute universe, such as the signature smoked-to-order coho salmon appetizer served with onions, tomatoes, crackers, cream cheese and capers at Gertrude’s in Colorado Springs.

Then, too, all sorts of specialty smokehouses and other producers can provide ready-to-use smoked ingredients.

> Basil Peach Spoonbread: With smoked goat-cheese ice cream — Big Jones, Chicago
> Cowboy Steak: A 24-ounce, bone-in rib-eye, grilled then smoked in a cast-iron dome with alfalfa hay, topped with a choice of brandy-peppercorn sauce or herb butter — Tart Restaurant, Los Angeles

In much the same way that anchovy adds subtle umami flavor, sauces like nam pla (Asian fish sauce), oyster sauce, Worcestershire, soy and even the savory British paste known as Marmite help build up hidden layers of flavor.

It should come as no surprise to flavor hounds that all of these products derive their flavor at least in part from fermentation, a powerhouse of umami production. And while many of them, like fish sauce, are associated with Asian or other ethnic cuisines, chefs of all stripes consider them just as essential to a recipe’s success as salt and pepper.

> Seared Yellowfin Tuna: Green rice, mâche, pineapple relish, shoyu butter — Tantalum, Long Beach, Calif.
> Lomo Saltado: Cascade Natural Beef tenders, wok-fried with onions, tomatoes, oyster sauce, garlic and ají, served with Yukon Gold “papas fritas” and garlic rice — Andina, Portland, Ore.


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.