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Secret weapons

Ting San at Oishii Boston. Ting San at Oishii Boston. (Food Styling/Karoline Boehm Goodnick; Photo by Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / September 17, 2008
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"Hmm, that needs . . . something." If you cook, it's happened to you. You stick your finger in the pot for a taste, and when you look down at your feet, your socks are still firmly on. In such cases, many people have a secret ingredient they rely on to amp up flavor. It can be something simple, such as kosher salt or a splash of soy. It can be spicy or smoky - sriracha, pimenton de La Vera, Aleppo pepper. Bright acids such as preserved lemon and aged balsamic vinegar are reliable taste enhancers, too. We asked some local chefs what ingredients they find themselves turning to again and again.

Ting San, Oishii Boston
At Oishii Boston, Ting uses a special white truffle salt in sushi rolls and risotto. "Sometimes fresh truffles don't have that much flavor," he says. "It depends on the season." A little bit of the truffle salt can help boost the truffle quotient. He combines it in maki with truffles and sturgeon caviar. The risotto is made with Japanese sushi rice, which is softer than Italian rice. It gets a triple-truffle punch with truffles, truffle oil, and truffle salt. Ting tops it with o-toro, fatty tuna. Ting also uses the Japanese citrus called yuzu. He adds its zest and juice to fresh wasabi, squeezes it on fish, and makes it into sherbet.

Azita Bina-Seibel, LaLa Rokh
At her Persian restaurant, Bina-Seibel flavors many dishes with rose petals. But don't run out to your garden to pick some, she warns. She uses special edible, pesticide-free rose petals imported from Azerbaijan. "I have not seen them here," she says. She uses the petals to infuse rice, in stuffing, sprinkled on soup, and more. For an easier-to-come-by ingredient, try saffron. At Lala Rokh, it goes in marinades, rice, meat dishes, and more. "We use it in all of our dishes," Bina-Seibel says. "Literally everything."

Alison Hearn, Myers+Chang
"Fish sauce has got funk and salt," Hearn says. "If you smell it right out of the bottle it's kind of hard to take. But once you add it, it gives food that addictive quality." That makes sense - fish sauce is often cited in discussions about umami, the fifth taste. It's commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking; Hearn's favorite brand is Three Crabs. "The way I use it most is in a sauce called nuoc cham, which is fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, chilies, and garlic," she says. She uses nuoc cham "all over the place," with everything from raw oysters to grilled fish with rice vermicelli and fresh herbs.

Jose Duarte, Taranta
Duarte is Peruvian, and at his restaurant he infuses Italian dishes with flavors from his native cuisine. He frequently turns to aji amarillo, a yellow chili. It can be hard to find fresh in this country, he says, but many supermarkets carry frozen peppers, as well as the aji amarillo paste that is to Peru what ketchup is to the United States. At Taranta, the paste finds its way into a dish of orecchiette with sausages. A grilled skirt steak with yucca fries comes with aji amarillo aioli: mayonnaise, aji paste, and a little garlic. "It makes a spicy, flavorful sauce. I eat it on sandwiches," says Duarte.

Barry Maiden, Hungry Mother
"Where here it's pancakes and maple syrup, in the South it's biscuits and sorghum," Maiden says. Maiden uses sorghum, which is made from a grass, in instances where sugar or molasses are called for. He makes a sorghum butter to serve with cornbread, and adds the syrup to red-eye gravy, which also contains coffee. Sorghum's sweetness balances the bitterness.

Maiden orders his from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill in Tennessee. "It's strictly Southern. It comes from a small family farm and I'm glad to support them." In addition to being sweet, he says, sorghum has grassy, herbaceous characteristics. "I used to make a lot of beer, and it reminds me of malt."

Chris Schlesinger, East Coast Grill
Schlesinger is from Virginia. That's Old Bay territory. "It's kind of ubiquitous" in the Chesapeake Bay area, he says. He often uses the seasoning in his cooking, as well as Tabasco and lemon. It's a blend of bay leaves, celery salt, mustard, pepper, cloves, allspice, and more that's perhaps most frequently used on crabs. Schlesinger puts Old Bay in the breading for crab cakes and uses it with fish, clams, and crabs. "It's also my favorite secret ingredient in Bloody Marys."

Rachel Klein, Aura
Miso, the Japanese fermented soybean paste, is another umami bomb. "It's really rich and has a salty, hearty, earthy, sweet richness to it," Klein says. "I think it balances the dish, giving it more body and rounding it out. Mushrooms do a similar thing. They bring that underlying depth." One of her favorite dishes to use it in is a miso broiled eggplant with lamb. She puts another favorite ingredient, Korean hot pepper, in the dish as well.

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