"It’s often the little details that make the big difference in cooking. That final pinch of salt stirred in at the end, a scattering of parmesan shavings, a couple of well-placed sprigs of parsley or coriander. Small touches of well-chosen ingredients can often make all the difference to a finished dish, transforming good ingredients into a great meal without the need for unnecessary expense or extravagance."
It’s about knowing what to use to bring out the best aspects of a recipe. We all know, for example, that a pinch of cinnamon emphasizes everything that is great about cooked apples, or that a squeeze of lemon is essential for getting the most out of a piece of fish. Inspired by Electrolux series, Secret Ingredients where they speak to Michelin chefs about this very subject, I started to think about my own secret ingredients that transform my everyday cooking into something unique, special, and ultimately delicious. Here are my top five.
If you’re a fan of syrupy Middle Eastern pastries like baklava, you’ll understand why I throw a generous pinch of crushed cardamom seeds into a homemade treacle tart. Something about this fragrant, citrus-scented pod cuts through sugar beautifully, lending a hint of aromatic mystique and tempering the sweetness of a dish. It takes a classic British dessert to new and exciting levels. I also love to add cardamom to rhubarb; it’s the perfect match for those sweet-sour pink stalks.
So much more aromatic than normal thyme, this works anywhere you need a hit of zesty citrus to prevent dishes from cloying. My top use for this gorgeous herb is to throw generous amounts of its leaves into creamy pasta sauces, such as carbonara, or cheesy risottos. Don’t be shy, strip a handful of stalks and let the fragrant leaves do their magic. They work wonderfully with cheese, cream, and bacon. I also like to stir lemon thyme leaves into my scrambled eggs in the morning, to add a lovely herbal note and jazz up breakfast.
Plain white flour has almost been outlawed in my kitchen in favour of this. It’s a little more expensive, yes, but it’s also better for you and has a delightful nutty flavour and robust texture that white flour lacks. I use it in all manner of desserts to counteract other types of sweetness, but it’s particularly good in the pastry for a fruit tart or in the topping for a crumble, as well as in hearty cakes for afternoon tea.
Yes, you can use this for salad dressings, but that would be ignoring its full potential. Balsamic has an irresistible savoury-sweetness that adds depth to all sorts of rich dishes. My favourite use is to stir a tablespoon into a Bolognese sauce or a beef stew, where it adds colour and a lovely, addictive tang that complements the meat perfectly. It also works well in vegetarian tomato-based stews and sauces. On a sweeter note, it performs beautifully stirred into halved strawberries with a pinch of sugar for dessert, where it heightens their sweet-tart flavours.
One of the most versatile spices to have in your storecupboard, this smoky, tangy red powder will add fabulous moreish depth to almost anything. My top tip, though, is to combine with avocado: a pinch sprinkled over avocado on toast (along with a generous amount of salt and lime juice) transforms this humble and healthy treat into something really special.
Other excellent uses include mixing a generous amount of smoked paprika with breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil to make a crunchy topping for baked fish, or adding a teaspoon to tomato-based stews and sauces (it’s great with tomatoes, chickpeas and red peppers).
It’s also excellent mixed with lemon zest and salt and rubbed over the skin of mackerel fillets before pan-frying.