The "ceviche of minty mussels" at Cafe Atlantico in Washington starts out quietly and ends with a bang.
A dollop of roasted eggplant puree is spooned into the center of a wide white bowl, followed by a handful of plump and meaty poached mussels. Next, warm licorice vin blanc--a reduction of white wine, shallots, heavy cream and both licorice powder and root--is drizzled atop the seafood. Then two curly plantain chips are embedded into the puree.
The dish might be just another pleasant introduction to a meal at the Latin American restaurant in the Pennsylvania Quarter if it weren't for what co-chef Christy Velie sprinkles over the mussels just before the plate leaves the kitchen: pulverized Altoids. The potent, peppermint-flavored breath mints dissolve into the wine sauce before most diners ever see the white powder, which imparts an unexpected and bracingly fresh note to the $9 starter.
"We want to change people's dining experience," says Velie. "We want them to be entertained at the same time" they're eating, adds the adventurer, whose kitchen has also incorporated Pop Rocks candy into a recipe for warm mushroom ceviche.
Reach into almost any good cook's bag of culinary tricks and you can pull out some surprising ingredients--offbeat additions and unlikely taste marriages that usually make sense in the mouth.
When Jacques Van Staden of Aquarelle restaurant in Foggy Bottom wants to lift the color of a red pepper coulis, he sneaks in pureed beets, which add a brilliant hue to the sauce and also enhance its taste. To heighten the pleasure of corn on the cob and achieve a "really fresh, really sweet" flavor, Atlanta cooking teacher Shirley Corriher laces its cooking water with a tablespoon of honey. Jerry Traunfeld of The Herbfarm restaurant outside Seattle knows that a bit of ground coriander lends a "toasty butteriness" to scones, shortbread and pound cakes, while Jeff Black, chef-owner of Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, finds himself reaching for fresh lemon whenever he encounters a tired soup; a spritz of its juice brings any broth to life, he says.
Want to keep cooked greens verdant and banana purees from fading to black? Chef Kerry Heffernan of Manhattan's popular Eleven Madison Park has a secret to share: "Just add Vitamin C," which he adds in powdered form to dishes that need brightening.
Home cooks may assume that such culinary tricks are a way for chefs to keep their magic to themselves. A guest at Saveur restaurant in Glover Park may never suspect that chef Keo Koumtakoun adds a split vanilla bean to his poached fish, for instance. But remove that aromatic from his recipe and most palates would find a dish of lesser distinction. Not only would the subtle perfume of the bean be missing, the fish may taste, well, fishier, the entree less complete, the chef points out.
Secret ingredients don't shout to be noticed; rather, their whispers contribute to a dish that is more balanced for including them, chefs say.
"Flavor is to food as hue is to color, as timbre is to music," explains Los Angeles cookbook author Michael Roberts in "Secret Ingredients" (Bantam, 1988). "It's the quality of nuance that enhances and changes the way we perceive the base ingredient."
The key is restraint. No one should discern coffee in a veal essence at Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco, Coca-Cola in the barbecued salmon served at Equinox in downtown Washington or beets in the sweet, scarlet-colored sauce that decorates a plate of chocolate cake at Black's Bar & Kitchen.
"If any one thing dominates, it kills the dish," says Black.
Case in point: the honey-laced beet sorbet served at one stylish new Italian eatery in the District. Its deep red color is straight out of a box of Crayolas; its flavor suggests sweet, frozen . . . earth. The root vegetable overwhelms its partners.
So easy does it. "I prefer pepper to cinnamon" in desserts such as carrot cake, biscotti and poached pears, offers Bonnie Moore, culinary director and executive chef of Foodfit.com. "But it shouldn't hit you over the head: I'm pepper! I'm pepper!" she advises. And it takes just a little Coke, reduced to a deep caramel-colored syrup, to give that barbecued fish its welcome "twang," agrees Todd Gray, the chef-owner of Equinox.
Common pantry staples can play major roles in how our food tastes. Both "salt and sugar have complex flavor influences," says Corriher, the author of "CookWise" (William Morrow, 1997). Salt reduces bitterness and heightens sweetness, which explains the grapefruit eater who dusts the mouth-puckering citrus with a pinch of the seasoning before he digs in, and the pastry chef who adds a touch of salt to cookies or cakes. Sugar, meanwhile, "has this ability to bring out flavor we otherwise would not detect." Just ask any kid who has been caught rolling a faded stick of gum in a bowl of sugar, hoping to revive its flavor.
Some secrets turn out to be lifesavers in the kitchen.
One way to rescue an oversalted soup, for instance, is to add lemon juice to the pot, says Miami-based cookbook author Steven Raichlen. He also advocates splashing a few drops of Asian fish sauce to a broth that needs perking up ("It's the closest thing to a natural bouillon cube there is.")
Moore, on the other hand, likes to use lime juice, an ingredient that helps break through the strong flavors and heavy textures of black bean soup and sweet potatoes. "Lime juice relieves the palate so you're ready for the next bite," she says.
To mute any off notes in a fish stock, Van Staden uses Granny Smith apples in the simmering liquid; the fruit cooks to mush and gets strained out before the broth is used. "Apples absorb the fishiness and give the stock a touch of acidity," he says.
Likewise, a splash of balsamic vinegar can save unripe strawberries; a few drops allow the fruit's flavors to blossom, without drawing attention to the acid.
For many chefs, weaving a measure of fun into restaurant cooking is "liberating in the sense you aren't tied down to traditional [ingredient] partners," says Velie of Cafe Atlantico. "People are either offended by it, or wowed: 'I wouldn't dream of these combinations!' "
For sure, a diner doesn't often encounter exploding candy in a bite of passion fruit-marinated mushrooms.
But there's more where that came from, it turns out. Velie and her cohorts now are experimenting with pocket-size breath sprays, which they plan to fill with the likes of lobster oil and truffle oil and spritz into the mouths of guests as they're served dinner. "Interactive" dining, they call it.
Fishless Caesar Salad
Steven Raichlen, author of 20 cookbooks, substitutes Asian fish sauce, or nuoc-nam, for anchovies in this nontraditional Caesar salad. "Why open a whole tin of anchovies for just two fillets?" asks Raichlen, who says his recipe is perfect for people who hate anchovies.
For the croutons:
4 slices (cut about 1/2 inch thick) French bread
About 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, cut in half
For the dressing:
1 sun-dried tomato (oil-packed or vacuum-sealed)
2 hearts or 1 whole head of romaine lettuce
2 kalamata or other black olives, pitted and minced
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 ounce thinly shaved or freshly grated Romano cheese
For the croutons: Preheat the broiler.
Lightly brush both sides of the bread slices with the oil. Broil until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Set the bread aside to cool.
Rub both sides of the bread with the cut side of the garlic; mince and reserve the garlic. Cut each bread slice into pieces; set aside.
For the dressing: If using a sun-dried tomato packed in oil, drain it first; otherwise, cover the tomato with hot water and set aside to plump for 30 minutes.
Mince the tomato.
Break apart the lettuce leaves, discarding any blemished or wilted leaves. Wash and dry the leaves. If using hearts of romaine, leave the leaves whole. If using a whole head of romaine, tear each leaf into 2-inch pieces. Transfer to a large bowl; refrigerate.
In a food processor or blender, pulse the reserved minced garlic with the tomato, olives and mustard until the mixture forms a smooth paste. With the blender on, slowly add the oil in a steady stream while processing. Add the lemon juice, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Pulse to blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly with additional salt, lemon juice and/or Worcestershire sauce. Set aside.
To serve, pour the dressing into a large mixing bowl, add the lettuce and croutons to the dressing and toss gently to mix. Transfer the salad to individual plates and shave or sprinkle the cheese over the salad. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 213 calories, 6 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 491 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Potatoes in Herbed Cream
You'll never return to plain old scalloped potatoes after a taste of these spuds, rethought by Seattle-area chef Jerry Traunfeld, author of the forthcoming "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, $35). "The technique of infusion works perfectly here," says Traunfeld. "In addition to being fast, it allows just the right amount of flavor to be released into the cream, which in turn is absorbed by the potatoes, making them taste as if they were grown deep in an herb bed."
Note to cooks: You can omit the cream and use additional milk in its place, but the top won't brown quite as well. If you want to forgo the dairy altogether, substitute a rich chicken stock, infusing it in exactly the same way as the milk.
4 cloves garlic
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
3 sprigs fresh thyme, 4 inches each
2-inch sprig fresh sage
6 fresh bay leaves, torn into pieces, or 2 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus additional for the dish
2 large russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Using the side of a chef's knife, smash the garlic cloves. Remove and discard the peels; set the garlic aside.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk and heavy cream to a simmer. Add the garlic, thyme and sage sprigs, bay leaves, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste and bring the mixture to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside to steep for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish.
Peel the potatoes, cut them into 1/8-inch-thick slices and arrange them in the prepared baking dish.
Reheat the herbed cream over medium heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Immediately remove from the heat. Strain the herbed cream; discard the solids. Pour the cream over the potatoes, stirring to coat all of the slices. (The potatoes will not be completely covered.) Dot with the butter.
Bake the potatoes in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Using the back of a large spoon, lightly press down on the potatoes that are not yet submerged in the cream. Bake until the top is nicely browned and the potatoes are tender, another 15 to 20 minutes.
Per serving: 314 calories, 6 gm protein, 38 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 486 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
With Black Peppercorns
This simple dessert recipe comes from Bonnie Moore, the culinary director and executive chef at Foodfit.com, based in Washington. She suggests substituting star anise, cardamom or vanilla beans for the more forceful peppercorns, if desired, and presenting the pears with walnuts, Roquefort or Gorgonzola cheese or crisp cookies.
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups red wine or ruby port
1 cup sugar
12 black peppercorns
3 Bosc pears, peeled, halved lengthwise and cored
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, mix together the water, wine or port, sugar and peppercorns and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Place the pears in the saucepan, cover with parchment paper and top the pears with a plate to ensure that the pears are immersed in the liquid. (You may need to add more water to the pan.) Bring the mixture to a simmer and poach the pears just until tender when tested with a knife, 20 to 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a plate; set aside.
Bring the poaching liquid to a boil and cook until it becomes syrupy, about 5 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the peppercorns.
Slice the pears lengthwise and arrange the slices on individual plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the pears. Serve immediately.
Per serving (using port): 261 calories, 1 gm protein, 51 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 3 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber