It used to be that unique cooking ingredients only showed up on dinner plates in an ethnic restaurant. But as more TV shows, books and blogs celebrate the art of cooking, we’ve begun to see more creative dishes popping up all over. Here, some food experts share some of their favorite unique ingredients to use at home.
The popularity of Asian cooking has helped make miso soups familiar starter dishes, but the fermented soybean “comes in all different strengths.” says Andrew Zimmern, chef and host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” “I’m obsessed with the Korean version, doenjang, which is the plain fermented bean paste and gochujang, which is the one with chilies. I love using the doenjang just for soups and salad dressings. I use the spicy one as a table condiment, especially with grilled meats.”
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To bring out a meal’s umami (read: meaty, savory) flavoring, chef Aldo Lanzillotta of Simpo supper club in the U.S. and Canada relies on dry porcini mushrooms or porcini powders. He says he will marinade pork with toasted fennel seeds and porcini powder. He also will use the ingredient to braise vegetables, flavor ricotta for pasta stuffing or crostini spreading, and bring out the flavors in meatballs.
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The fragrant green leaf shiso is most popularly known for highlighting nigiri at sushi restaurants, but Brock Kleweno, the executive chef and food and beverage director at the Japanese-influenced Yamashiro restaurant in Los Angeles, mixes it in with sauces and vinaigrettes when he’s at home -- even favoring it over basil when dressing noodle dishes.
Related: Yamashiro Restaurant
Kleweno favors the spicy sweet Peruvian yellow chile pepper Aji amarillo over more traditional options like Serrano or jalapeno peppers, which he says are “just straight up hot.” At home, “I drizzle it over tacos,” he says. “I’ve made vinaigrette dishes that have gone with some of my fish dishes at Yamashiro. You can make a mango salsa and put a little dollop of the Aji amarillo to give it another dimension.”
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A staple in Asian cooking, some form of fish sauce can be found in most major supermarkets to flavor everything from shrimp and pork to noodle dishes. Zimmern particularly loves the Bourbon Barrel Aged Fish Sauce from BLiS Gourmet. “It’s got this nuttiness; you can smell the oak and smoke in it,” he says. “It’s got a faint bourbon sweetness in it. I’ll mix it with a little bit of brown sugar and lime juice and pour it over anything that comes off the grill and out of the oven.”
Zimmern uses doubanjiang, a spicy, salty bean paste, to liven up stir-fry dishes at home. “[Take] a tablespoon of that; throw it into a bowl of thin slices of pork and ginger and a little bit of sugar and garlic,” he says. “It makes such a quick and easy sauce that people will recognize as something that’s really honest and authentic.”
Chinese Salted Black Beans
Zimmern says that possibly his most popular recipe from his website is his braised black bean spare ribs. “It’s seven ingredients thrown into a pot with a lid on it,” he says. “The magic ingredient is the dried Chinese salted black beans. When you combine that fermented, incredibly nutty, salty umami flavor of those black beans and you mix that with ginger, garlic, soy and a little bit of rice wine and scallions … it is food heaven.”
For an alternative to chicken, pork or other proteins, Zimmern advocates for goat -- something he says is affordable and “readily available in markets across this country.” Although he says he “cooks it every which way,” Zimmern says he’ll cook goat with “a traditional American spin"by rubbing it with salt and pepper and putting it on the grill.”
The heavily fragrant spice saffron works great for a fish or shellfish marinade, says Lanzillotta. “Steep the saffron in orange juice or fish stock and allow to cook,” he instructs. “Place garlic cloves in a food processor and ground, adding juice and/or stock a little at a time. Then, emulsify with oil.”
Although it’s still considered too rustic for some tables, Zimmern likes rabbit, in part because “it’s so mild and so delicious and so reasonable in terms of price.” To cook it, he says “brown it in a little bit of vegetable oil and throw some slices of lemon, a half cup of white wine and some sprig of herbs in the pan.”