A good cook has secret ingredients.
Yes, there is a virtue in simplicity, and much to be said for what might be called the Chez Panisse school of contemporary American cooking that implores us to get our hands on in-season ingredients, grown well, and in a state as nearly alive as possible, and then more or less to get out of their way.
A perfect peach needs no translating, says Alice Waters. It is its own language.
In such a cuisine, salt, pepper, olive oil, and maybe a little lemon and garlic, can see you, with few regrets, through weeks of elegant, soft-spoken meals.
And yet, cooking is still a public and performative act, even if our audience is sometimes as small as a single mate, or prospective mate, or a pair of hormonally resentful teenagers. And when we perform the act of cooking, what we very often wish to display is not merely our virtue, but our competence, our depth, our imagination, our cultural reach, our memories of far-off places, our capacity for carnal enjoyment.
Such things cannot always be expressed in the language of simply dressed salads, sautéed vegetables, organic soups or roasted grass-fed meats, as deeply and repeatedly satisfying as all those can be.
Which is where secret ingredients come in. They expand our culinary vocabulary, and more than that, they offer comfort in the way of all private stashes. They are that little bottle of something rare and old, gathering dust in the wine lover’s basement until just the right occasion. They are the writer’s archaic forgotten word, waiting for the perfect sentence. They are the lullaby memorized against some late night when the baby is sick.
My list of secret ingredients is short, and scattered, and stubbornly personal, as such lists should be. But I will tell you that one look over the following collection of words transports me directly to my kitchen, full of quiet excitement, among strong smells, and whispered associations. It’s one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to be there — with my eccentric personalized larder close at hand, the sun setting, and a hungry family waiting to see what I’ll come up with.
Anchovies: I use half a crushed anchovy in most of my vinaigrettes, where it deepens the flavor and softens the vinegar’s tartness without anybody usually suspecting it’s there. Anchovy butter is a classic way to double down on a steak’s natural umami, and carry it into otherworldly realms. A small plate of white, vinegar-cured anchovies, also called boquerones, misted with a squeeze of lemon, makes an innocent and slightly boring cheese and salami plate into something people catch sight of and say, “Oh!” And don’t even start with me about anchovies liquefying in olive oil and lots of minced garlic, to begin a batch of Orecchiete with Rapini (see recipe).
Harissa: If most hot sauce is a steam whistle — a piercing, vinegary high note — then harissa, the smoky North African red chile paste, is a ship’s horn — a deep, harmonic chord. It adds a tantalizing, unfamiliar bite to any soup or stew or braise or sauce that could use a little variation on red pepper heat.
Banyuls vinegar: Banyuls is so much more fragrant and brightly fruity than almost any other vinegar, it is like some super-evolved organism that has effectively become its own species. Made in small batches from a red dessert wine among terraced vineyards in the Pyrenees, it can be used in any preparation calling for red or even white wine vinegar, and it will quietly steal the show.
Azafran en flor: This Mexican “saffron” comes from safflower, not crocus, and it doesn’t have true saffron’s flavor, but for a fraction of the cost, a pinch of azafran threads adds a gorgeous golden color to pozole, or chicken tacos, or rice, or even chicken soup. I toss it in for good measure whenever I’m making a Mexican or Southwestern spice mix, in part simply because it makes me happy to know it’s there.
Lardons: Not bacon. Bacon is great. Bacon deserves almost all of its current acclaim as an insurgent symbol of rebellion against the clean food scolds. But lardons are not bacon They are made from slabs of pork belly — raw or salt-cured but not smoked — cut into little rectangular batons and sautéed to render their fat. They add crisp but still meaty doses of protein, salt and fat to a dish. They are more subtle than bacon. They are a marvelous way to begin almost any stew. They are a rich addition to a winter vegetable soup. They are the classic accompaniment to frisée salad. They make a more elegant and toned down spaghetti carbonara. They always make your kitchen smell good.
Parsley: If parsley is a secret ingredient, it is the Purloined Letter of secret ingredients — overlooked because it is so obvious. Certainly, it deserves better than its reputation as a limp garnish straining to buck up a plate of depressive hotel food. I keep a bundle of parsley in the crisper at all times, and will mince a twisted-off pinch of flat leaves most nights as I prepare dinner. Is there a plate of pasta (with the exception of pesto, perhaps) that isn’t enhanced by a sparse tumble of chopped parsley? A plate of French fries? Or rice? Or fish? Or one of those pallid rhapsodies of protein, starch and veg we sometimes call dinner? Parsley brightens. It unifies. It visually awakens the palate. Its subtly sharp scent counteracts the heaviness of rich or creamy food. It is too much known, and still somehow too little used.
Finishing salt: The blue cylinder of Morton, or the box of coarse kosher salt, is great for adding salt to a dish as it cooks. But finishing salts do more than that. They have texture — a delicate, crystalline crunch — and they deliver their little hits of saltiness in specific ways. I always have a box of Maldon sea salt, and a tub of fleur de sel (either from Brittany or the Mediterranean) to add just before a dish is served. Their crystals are larger than conventional salt and don’t dissolve as easily, and they give out little electric jolts of saltiness. A tiny pinch of Maldon on a slice of buttered bread. A sifting of fleur de sel over the top of a pasta dish, instead of, or in tandem with, Parmesan. Little shards of salt crystals floating on the surface of fresh green olive oil for dipping torn hunks of baguette. A restrained speckling on the surface of a steak or a roast, or across the top of a sliced, medium-rare duck breast. Take me to wherever those things are happening.
Make your own list
You’ll see that it’s an idiosyncratic list, and it’s skewed toward the places I’ve spent time, and the food that happens to excite me — French and Mediterranean primarily. I hope you’ll notice that you maybe already have a list — that one particular mustard, your dad’s pickled dilly beans, capers in your tuna salad, Sriracha. It doesn’t have to be fancy. My wife’s grandmother was the best cook of the past several generations of her family, and she swore by the uplifting powers of Miracle Whip.
Beyond this list, there are other ingredients I would like to make my own someday. I have loved everything I’ve ever eaten that was seasoned with Moroccan ras el hanout. I think I might make more and better soups, if I became familiar with dashi. I just met Aleppo pepper for the first time last year, and want to know it better.
The point of all this is not simply that secret ingredients will make you a better cook (although they might), nor that your audience will always, or ever, notice, but that using secret ingredients will make you want to cook more. They add a personal signature to the process of turning ingredients into dinner.
They add a touch of romance to a task that can be repetitive and gloryless. In a Minnesota kitchen, they can briefly introduce the marine air of a Mediterranean coastal village, or the close, heavy atmosphere of a Moroccan medina.
They can turn kitchen prose into culinary poetry.