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Chef's Secret Ingredients


Ever wonder how professional cooks make their magic? We asked a few top chefs to share their secret weapons.

Elisabeth Schwarz, chef Wente Vineyard Restaurant, Livermore

“One of my favorite ingredients lately has been vin cotto, imported from Italy. Its name means
‘cooked wine.’

“The flavor reminds me of a very sweet balsamic vinegar. It’s wonderful in sauces and vinaigrettes, and works well with duck, foie gras, and salads. We recently served it with our seared foie gras on brioche toast.”

Wendy Brucker, chef and co-owner Rivoli Restaurant, Berkeley

“I love barley. Recently, I’ve started cooking it as risotto. I can’t deal with brown rice; it just tastes too healthy. But this is something that’s really delicious that’s whole grain. It has more flavor and chew to it than risotto.

“I sauté onions and garlic in olive oil and then add the barley. Next, I add chicken stock, and I finish the dish with butter and parmesan cheese. You can add the sort of ingredients you would with risotto: chanterelle mushrooms and thyme, or butternut squash and sage.

“I’m very excited about being able to put it on the menu now that the weather is getting cool again. It’s a wintery dish. I started making it at home, and it was so good that I decided to try it at the restaurant.”

Norman Pours, chef and owner Shiraz Restaurant, San Ramon

“For marinating chicken kebabs, I use a touch of fresh lemon with saffron. This gives my broiled chicken a unique flavor in addition to making it tender.

“Saffron, being the most expensive spice, has to be handled a little wisely. I grind it to a fine powder and dissolve it in water. You have to use water hot enough to dissolve the saffron but not so hot that you destroy its flavor and aroma. This takes some practice. I’ve found water above 100° F but below 110° F seems to be ideal.”

Michael Baker, chef Piatti Locali, Danville

“If there’s one thing I use in the kitchen that surprises people, it’s pasta water. I use it all the time to emulsify sauces. It’s starchy and salty, and can really marry the flavors of a sauce with the pasta. I simmer the sauce with a little bit of the pasta water.

“I also use some of the pasta water to reheat the pasta before I plate it. Really, I use pasta water in my cooking all the time.”

Noe Castro, chef and co-owner Ristorante Amoroma, Moraga

“One of the ingredients we use is guanciale (pronounced gwan-CHA-lay). It’s similar to bacon, but it’s not from the belly of the pig; it’s from the jaw.

“We use it all the time for carbonara sauce, in our spinach salad, and for our pasta amatriciana [pasta with fresh tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, guanciale, and pecorino cheese].

“You cannot import guanciale from Italy, so Niman Ranch makes it for us.”

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