The top chefs' secret ingredients

By Nici Wickes

The top chefs at this year's Food Show share what surprises they have lurking in their cupboards - and how to use them.

Sid Sahrawat, owner & chef of Sidart Restaurant. Photo / Doug Sherring
Sid Sahrawat, owner & chef of Sidart Restaurant. Photo / Doug Sherring

We all know the basic ingredients we are supposed to have in our kitchen store cupboards. A good extra virgin olive oil, some decent stock cubes, plenty of tinned tomatoes and the obvious seasonings are just some of the items you would find in even the most unadventurous cook's kitchen. But what secret weapons lurk in the cupboards of top chefs?

These are the sort of materials that you might not immediately think about buying, perhaps ones you haven't even heard of, but things that will instantly brighten up a variety of dishes.

The Auckland Food Show begins tomorrow and it's a great place to start the search for new and exciting ingredients to add to your pantry.

We asked our own celebrated cook, food writer, restaurant critic and TV host, Nici Wickes (who is also starring at the Food Show), to grill some of this year's line-up of chefs and cooks on their favourite ingredient Always keen to learn some new tricks herself, Wickes also asked them to share a tip for using their selected ingredient.

And her own tip? Try to cook with one new ingredient every week and by the year's end you'll have expanded your repertoire beyond belief.

Sid Sahrawat
Owner & chef of Sidart Restaurant

We are in the peak of the mandarin season so they're my current favourite.

They're amazing at the moment - the balance between acidity and sweetness is just right and it's this balance in a dish that is so important to me. An ingredient which has that, naturally, is ideal for my style of food.

Currently on the menu at Sidart, I am using mandarins in two dishes. Our main course of duck has a mandarin jelly and we have a dessert based around mandarin, using several textures of it.

Sid's tip: Always taste mandarins before using them in a recipe, as every mandarin is different - some can be too acidic and tart and you'd want to adjust your other ingredients to compensate for this. And never boil the juice of a mandarin - it turns bitter and discolours, not a great look.

Julie Le Clerc
Food writer & host of TV3's Cafe Secrets

Valrhona chocolate - it's a favourite ingredient of mine at the moment and of a lifetime.

Known as the Rolls Royce of the chocolate world, Valrhona has superior qualities of taste and texture. Valrhona separately batch-roast single-origin cocoa beans to get their unique taste, making this chocolate exceptional for cooking and eating. I use it for baking, desserts and for just eating on its own.

Always one to need to check out the source of ingredients, I've visited the Valrhona factory in France and I'll never forget the aroma that greeted me - simply divine.

I love the company's philosophy of not just allowing, but in fact expecting, their staff to eat chocolate all day long. As the first line of quality control, staff will notice any discrepancies in production. What a dream job.

Julie's tip: Valrohna craft their chocolate into specially shaped "feves" or oval discs, designed so that the chocolate melts evenly. I don't risk microwaving it, instead I find it's best to gently melt Valrhona feves in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan one-quarter full of just simmering water.

Adam Liaw
Australian MasterChef winner & author Two Asian Kitchens

One of my favourite ingredients is ginger and I've been loving its heat during this chilly winter. It's an essential ingredient in Hainanese chicken rice - my favourite food to eat in the whole world. This is almost a national dish in Malaysia and I like to think my family played a part in its history when my grandfather, who was a chef, emigrated from Hainan Island to Malaysia in the 1920s.

Adam's tip: Use young ginger combined with lemongrass to make a sweet cordial- warm and soothing in winter, fresh and cool in summer.

Jax Hamilton
NZ MasterChef runner-up

Mine is ginger too! It's an ingredient you will find in every Jamaican household - my mother wouldn't be without it. It is a great winter ingredient because it warms you from the inside out, is incredibly good for you and tastes divine in a variety of dishes, soups, fish, marinades and hot toddies. It adds that special zing to all of them.

Jax's tip: Buy it as fresh as possible, peel it and keep in a container in the freezer where it will stay fresh for months. When you need some it grates like a dream!

Allyson Gofton
Food writer

I love that really good palm sugar is now available here in NZ. It is prepared from a number of different palm trees and each has its own nuance, not unlike coffee. It is, interestingly enough, not too sweet on the tastebuds and the warm, toasty flavour combined with its fudge-like texture adds a really interesting note to cooking. On a visit to Bali I had a hands-on day in a village making palm sugar and, aside from having to climb the coconut palm to harvest the sap, I took part in every step of the process of making it and the final taste of the hand-crafted product was sensational.

Allyson's tip: Look for the darker palm sugars - they have the best flavour and keep in an airtight container; it lasts for ages. Grate it for easy use.

Julie Biuso
Food writer

It's far too hard to select only one. I have to talk about at least two. Well, actually three. First are the long creamy NZ pine nuts from Marlborough. They are spectacularly fresh and I love them with rabbit, red wine, bacon lardons and thyme. My other two favourite ingredients go together - mint and lemon - both in abundance from my garden at the moment. Their combined flavour is arresting, a real wake-up, and it cuts through heavy ingredients. Lemons are entwined in my childhood memories - this old shrivelled man used to come and prune our huge meyer lemon tree in the summer holidays. My sisters and I were always outside sunbathing in our bikinis and sipping homemade lemonade while listening to the transistor.

Julie's tips: Pine nuts - watch out, as they continue cooking after you remove them from the heat, so just get them lightly golden, then transfer them to a cold plate to stop the cooking. Mint - use plenty of it, picking it as close to the ground as you can to encourage new growth and prevent rust from forming. It will discolour in heat, so add just before serving.

Brett McGregor
NZ's first MasterChef winner and author of Taste of a Traveller

Fish sauce is a brilliant ingredient. I love it for its complexity and depth. It gives your dish an authentic Southeast Asian finish and adds another layer of flavour.

When holidaying in Vietnam with my family just a few years back, we noticed a very strong smell of fermenting fish and it turned out to be a fish sauce factory. I had to see how this salty addition to so many of the dishes I cook was made, so I visited the factory. Just let me say it wasn't for the faint-hearted!

Brett's tip: Start with a little and add until you are happy with the taste of the dish. Too much can have dire consequences and overpower the other flavours.

Lauraine Jacobs
Food writer

It's hard to single out one current favourite ingredient as I'm an ardent promoter of the amazing array of New Zealand artisan producers. But right now it's the season for fabulous citrus fruit and I can't get enough locally grown sweet oranges. Cut them into shiny segments to use in salads with cold-smoked salmon, watercress and spinach or simply slice and drizzle with Heilala vanilla syrup for an easy dessert.

Lauraine's tip: Always take the extra time to make sure you remove all of the white pith from the oranges. This little detail will ensure the segments look, and taste, absolutely splendid.

So there you have it. The ingredients our chefs, food writers and cooks value most for their everyday cooking are not so much weird as they are wonderful in their simplicity and seasonality. They all agree that using ingredients in season ensures you're getting the product at its best, and probably, its best price.

As every foodie knows, the quality of the finished dish invariably lies with the ingredients that go into it.

What you need to know

* Auckland Food Show, Thursday, July 28 - Sunday, July 31.

* Ticket price includes entry to all live cooking shows and the new baking theatre, where the above chefs will cook live.

* Food Show Masterclasses Series - tickets $35 per session. The Art of Making Paella, Knowing Your Meat, Cheese Tasting, Wine Matching. Chocolate Truffle-Making.

* Bookings essential - these classes have limited numbers.

* Tickets are available online.

- NZ Herald

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