Secret weapons often hide behind that spread of chicken and ribs, that colorful case of cupcakes, that blistered pizza hot from the oven.
You might not even know it's there, but chefs, bakers and pizza makers frequently turn to a favored ingredient to make their food shine. Read on for some inspiration on how you might also crank up your own cooking.
Who: Pam Lambert, owner-baker of A' La Cupcakes in Glen Rock.
What: Wholesome Sweeteners evaporated cane organic sugar.
Why: Lambert runs an all-natural bakery and tries to use as many organic products as possible. She prides herself on offering an alternative to refined white sugar, and believes it is more flavorful. "It just has a fresher, finer taste to it."
Where to buy: Available at Target, Costco and some local supermarkets and health shops: check whole somesweeteners.com/store_locator.html#NJ.
Who: Josh Bernstein, executive chef of the upcoming Spuntino Italian tapas and wine bar in Clifton (slated to open later this month).
What: Antico Molino Caputo Tipo OO Flour (sometimes known as "doppio-zero" flour), imported from Naples.
Why: This finely milled flour is widely considered to make a superior pizza crust; Bernstein is using it for Spuntino's Neapolitan-style pizzas. It "makes for a lighter dough, which stretches better and crisps up so nicely. I have been making pizza for a long time, mostly New York-style pizzas. When I came on board to help develop the Spuntino concept ... I had to forget everything I had learned before and start fresh. It was like I had never made a pizza before!"
Where to buy: Available online at amazon.com. Doppio-zero flour is often available at Italian specialty stores — Jerry's Gourmet in Englewood carries a different brand of it.
Who: Andre Schneider, pastry chef and owner of Patisserie St. Michel in Teaneck.
What: Plugrá European-style butter.
Why: European-style butter is lower in moisture and higher in butterfat than conventional butter. It's the key to the lightness to Schneider's famous pastries — particularly his frangipane, his chocolate mousse and his Christmas bûche de noël.
Where to buy: Look for it at upscale specialty shops; it's sometimes in the dairy case of supermarkets.
Who: K.T. Tran, chef-owner of Simply Vietnamese in Tenafly.
What: Fish sauce.
Why: The classic Southeast Asian condiment is gluten-free, unlike soy sauce or oyster sauce, meaning that Tran can use it to offer gluten-free versions of pad thai, fried rice and other dishes upon request.
Where to buy: Widely available.
Chilies and peppers
Who: Kenny Callaghan, executive chef and partner of the Blue Smoke barbecue restaurants in Manhattan and a Washington Township resident.
What: Chilies and peppers, particularly jalapeños and poblanos.
Why: They add distinctive flavor nuances and various levels of heat to Callaghan's dishes, and allow him to put his mark on classic preparations: he serves fry bread with chipotle butter, filet mignon with chipotle bearnaise and hush puppies with jalapeño marmalade. Chilies are used in all of his barbecue sauces, and he even uses Syrian aleppo pepper in the cocktail sauce served with his oysters on the half shell. He also recommends jalapeño Tabasco sauce and Texas Pete hot sauce for bold flavor.
Where to buy: Generally available at supermarkets.
Who: Steve Christianson, chef-owner of St. Eve's in Ho-Ho-Kus.
What: Lemon confit.
Why: It's "such a versatile ingredient." Christianson whisks it into vinaigrettes for beef carpaccio, adds it to sorbets and even uses it to flavor his made-in-house citrus-ade soda. He also likes to add it to seared scallop dishes and in the stuffing for whole fish: it lends a "fresh citrus finish that brings out the amazing flavors of seafood." He adds that it "brings out those hidden tastes that let your palate explore food."
How to make: Christianson thinly slices and seeds 10 lemons (when available, he uses Meyers or Sorrentos).He blanches them in boiling water for two minutes, then strains and chills. He then repeats this process two more times before puréeing the lemons in a food processor with 1/2 cup lemon juice. You can keep this in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks.
Who: Carlos Valdez, chef-owner of Red Hen Bistro in Wood-Ridge.
What: Dijon mustard (most often Grey Poupon).
Why: "I find that a hint of this condiment can enhance the flavor in simple sauces, or even assist in distinguishing a more complex sauce. It packs the acidity and robust flavor to stand up against the density of a pan roasted fillet of salmon, a perfectly roasted chicken, and a grilled pork chop. When used modestly, Dijon can pair well with more delicate proteins like a scallop, an oyster, or my favorite, skate wing." At the Red Hen, Valdez uses it in the moules frites — Prince Edward Island mussels with spicy chorizo in a light broth made with dijon, shallots and white wine.
Where to buy: Widely available.