secret ingredients

Every self-respecting cook has one or two… or more. Secret ingredients don’t need to be fancy; in my kitchen it’s usually Worcestershire, sour cream or black pepper. Each adds a little depth and unexpected flavor to a dish, without overpowering it. Hence, you can use some pretty basic items to spice up even the classiest meals. Here are a few ingredients you probably have in your pantry right now, and plenty of ideas to experiment with.

1. Graham Crackers

That’s right, those honey-flavored crackers are more versatile than you think. Chef Danny Meyer of New York’s Union Square Cafe breads fried calamari with them; you can do the same with breaded fish fillets. Use them in a crumb crust, or as a flour for cookies. Bonus: Make your own graham squares!

2. Coffee

You’re spending extra for delicious, fair-trade and organic coffee—so why not get the most out of it? Rub it on a brisket, mix it into a marinade, or double up with espresso biscotti. And don’t forget to toss a cup into your next pot of chili!

3. Chili Powder

You probably already know that chili powder works wonders with chocolate—so stir a little of it into your next batch of brownies, cup of cocoa or chocolate cake batter. But don’t stop there! Sprinkle it on a spinach wrap, mix it into a pineapple vinaigrette, and indulge in a spicy walnut brittle.

4. Cornflakes

You can’t deny that crisp cornflake crunch, and the unassuming cereal is packed with resistant starch. So crust your chicken or fish with crumbled flakes, stir them into stuffing, and use them like crisped rice for crunchy, gooey no-bake cookies.

5. Mustard

Mustard—good dijon, brown or homemade mustard, not that yellow stuff—adds a tangy spice to just about any savory dish. It’s an essential part of a good simple vinaigrette and adds zip to everything from herb-crusted lamb to filet mignon. Feeling daring? Try this mustard-spiced lemonade cocktail.

6. Potatoes

Yes, potatoes. A secret ingredient. Specifically, leftover mashed potatoes. Think I’m nuts? Just try them as a base for soup or dip. Stuff them into shrimp or peppers. And then candy whatever’s left.

7. Peanut Butter

You already know how to make peanut sauce, but have you ever tried putting peanut butter in your meatballs? Baking it into cakes and stirring it into chili? Or try this gooey peanut butter salad dressing.

8. Cream Cheese

You can’t go wrong with cream cheese, or its skinny sister Neufchatel. It’s a central ingredient in these spicy spinach wraps, spiced pumpkin spread and pesto schmear. But it really shines in the creamy sauce for this butternut lasagna, or mixed into mashed potatoes. Add a little to your smoothies for an incomparable richness that’s not too heavy on the calories.

9. Anchovy

Okay, let’s be honest: Not everyone keeps anchovies around. But if you’re a fan of those little salted fish, you’ll be happy to hear they’re considered a top chef’s secret ingredient. They actually tend to cook away, leaving their umami goodness behind. Try them in this savory beef stew or a shroomy tomato sauce. Experiment with a traditional French beet-anchovy salad or an Italian lamb stew. By the way, make sure you’re buying ethically-caught anchovies!

image: mcunn934

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