Adding oomph! Chefs share their secret ingredients for spicing up dull dinners


Once upon a time the cupboards and refrigerator doors of American kitchens were filled with a reliable, unchanging cast of characters. Cinnamon. Plain yellow mustard. Sage. Ketchup.

For the more adventuresome cooks, maybe even some lemon pepper.

Today, though, options for spicing up the dinner plate have exploded.

More than 4,600 new sauces and seasonings have been introduced since 2000, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, a nonprofit trade group. These newcomers run the gamut of flavors, from ginger wasabi sauces to mouth-burning chili-head meat rubs. There’s also a buzz among foodies about some seasonings, such as preserved lemons, sumac and smoked paprika, that have been used in ethnic cuisines for generations.

The points of origin for many of these trendy seasonings read like the world atlas – Spain, Thailand, Japan, Morocco, France. But thanks to a global economy and the Internet, they are available not only to restaurant chefs and avowed gourmets, but also to the average Joe and Josephine.

In an effort to sort out the good from the bad or the just plain weird, we asked local chefs which seasonings they use to give dishes a little extra oomph. We were looking for some “secret weapons” that home cooks could add to their arsenal.

Several chefs were fans of flavored vinegars, singling out sherry, pear, balsamic and Champagne varieties. “Just changing the vinegar in your vinaigrette can make such a big difference” in the taste, says Cody Hogan, chef de cuisine at Lidia’s, a Kansas City restaurant. Other chefs were fond of international travelers such as sumac and smoked paprika, from Turkey and Spain, respectively.

The Food Network and other television cooking programs deserve much of the credit for the stampede to specialty seasonings, says Josh Hodapp, general manager at gourmet grocer Dean & Deluca in Leawood, Kan. “TV makes an ingredient real for people,” he says. “It makes them comfortable when they’ve seen it used.”

Store clerks can tell when an ingredient is getting its 15 minutes of fame, says Pam Conaghan, manager of Penzey’s Spices in Overland Park, Kan. After allspice berries were featured in a brining recipe on the Food Network in November, Penzey’s sold out of its small containers of the berries. All the store had left were big bags, which eager customers divvied up at the counter, she said.

When using allspice berries, coriander or any other unfamiliar flavoring, home cooks should embrace a sense of adventure, says Beth Barden, chef at Succotash in Kansas City’s City Market. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

“I would encourage people to think outside the box,” she says. “Think in terms of flavor instead of where things come from.” For example, add a little Asian flair to soup by substituting lemongrass for the more familiar lemon juice. Mix things up by using ethnic seasonings – Mexican, maybe, or Middle Eastern – with typically American dishes.

If deviating from a recipe is outside your comfort zone, Barden suggests turning to a Web site for reassurance. Many, such as, offer up multiple recipes if you type in your special ingredient.

Experimenting in the kitchen can be expensive. A 1-ounce tin of wild fennel pollen costs $30 online, and you might pay $21 to $39 or more for an 8-ounce bottle of white truffle oil. But Kansas City chefs emphasize that these are not everyday seasonings and that only a little is needed to make a dish taste special. Think dusting, not dumping, and sprinkling instead of submerging.

Not all the chefs we spoke with are impressed by the wave of trendy sauces, herbs and spices. Tim Doolittle, for example, remains a big fan of salt and butter.

“Whenever I need to round out the flavor of a dish, or whenever a flavor is missing or not bold enough, I drop in a little butter,” says Doolittle, chef at a cafe that is scheduled to open this summer. “It smoothes out everything and makes it cohesive and makes it make sense.”

Ditto with salt, he says, though it should be kosher – never iodized.

Likewise, chef Ted Habiger of Room 39 says that when it comes to seasonings, you can’t beat freshly ground black pepper.

“I don’t usually use a lot of marinades, flavor injectors and infused oils,” he says. Instead, he’s “fairly liberal with the pepper grinder.” When he entertains at home, Habiger says, his guests are amazed at how delicious a good-quality cut of meat can be when it’s simply showered with pepper and thrown on the grill.

Do-it-yourself recipes

The shelves at specialty groceries are full of all kinds of spice blends. It’s convenient to buy the blends premixed, but making them yourself is more fun. Experiment with the proportions to suit your family’s taste.

If you’re allergic to the high price of wild fennel pollen, try this recipe from Lidia’s chef Cody Hogan for a rub made from less expensive fennel seeds. If you do make the rub with fennel pollen, the flavor will be even more complex and interesting.

Fennel Pollen Rub

2 tablespoons fennel seeds or fennel pollen

2 tablespoons sea salt

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients in a spice or coffee bean grinder. (If the grinder has been used for coffee or has had any strong spices in it, clean it first by grinding some bread or dry oatmeal in it.) Pulse the ingredients until powdery. Check seasonings and adjust to taste. To use, sprinkle the rub liberally over meat or fish and grill, roast or saute. Store any excess rub in a tightly sealed container.

– Cody Hogan, Lidia’s

Mojo is an “American thing” that has a bit of jerk flavoring to it, says chef Tom Harley of MelBee’s in Mission, Kan. He suggests sprinkling mojo on french fries, risotto, fish and meats, including chicken, venison, beef and duck. You can also experiment with the spice blend in baked goods. Harley has used it in a cinnamon-beet risotto cake served at the restaurant.

Melbee’s Mojo

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon granulated garlic

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon nutmeg

Dash cayenne pepper

Pinch salt

½ teaspoon cardamom

½ teaspoon curry

Stir together all ingredients and keep in a covered container.

– Tom Harley of MelBee’s

This blend is greater than the sum of its parts. Mix these ordinary herbs and take a deep breath. Can’t you just smell the south of France?

Herbes de Provence

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon marjoram

1 tablespoon summer savory

1 tablespoon thyme

1 crushed bay leaf

1 teaspoon lavender

1 teaspoon fennel

Mix and keep in a covered container. You can also buy this spice mix already blended.


Chefs share their secret ingredients

Look for the following specialty seasonings at ethnic and gourmet groceries or on the Internet.

Product: Sumac

Chef: Michael Smith of 40 Sardines, Overland Park; Liz Huffman of Blue Bird Bistro

What it is: A berry commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking. Sumac has a high-end lemony flavor and adds a rosy hue to foods.

How to use it: Sprinkle ground sumac on french fries, pita chips or chicken that’s been rubbed with butter.

Product: Ponzu sauce

Chef: Miguel Sanchez of Central Exchange

What it is: A Japanese-style condiment made from rice vinegar, soy sauce and mirin that adds citrusy flavor

How to use it: Add to vinaigrettes for a dash of sweet acidity. Also good in Asian-themed sesame oil marinades, especially for fish, or as a dipping sauce for jumbo prawns.

Product: Smoked paprika

Chef: Beth Barden of Succotash; Michael Smith, 40 Sardines

What it is: Pretty red powder, also known as pimenton , that is made in Spain from sweet pepper pods. It boasts a deep, smoky flavor and comes in sweet and hot varieties.

How to use it: Sprinkle on everything: sweet potato fries, pork chops, chicken, fish, potato salad. Add to sauces, soups and salad dressings.

Product: Wild fennel pollen

Chef: Cody Hogan of Lidia’s

What it is: Pricey powder with an aroma and flavor reminiscent of licorice.

How to use it: Rub on lamb, beef, pork or other meats before grilling. Also good sprinkled on steamed vegetables or potatoes.

Product: Truffle oil

Chef: Liz Huffman, Blue Bird Bistro; Cody Hogan, Lidia’s

What it is: Extra-virgin olive oil infused with the famous fungus. Aromatic, earthy oil fills the nose and has a nice finish.

How to use it: Both chefs drizzle it sparingly over risotto. Also good on potatoes or baby greens, or in soups, pastas and sauces. Use as a dip for crusty bread.

Product: Spanish sherry vinegar

Chef: Robert Krause of Krause Dining in Lawrence

What it is: An alternative to balsamic vinegar. Sherry vinegar is not as sweet and syrupy.

How to use it: Instead of pumping up a dish with salt, use a small amount of vinegar. Ideal with braised meats, tuna or other hearty fish, osso bucco. Good for deglazing the pan for pork or chicken.

Product: Coriander

Chef: Celina Tio of the American Restaurant; Michael Smith, 40 Sardines

What it is: A lemony-flavored seed that resembles a peppercorn.

How to use it: Dust tuna steaks with ground coriander seeds, or toss crushed seeds with vegetables sauteed in olive oil. Coriander also makes a nice seasoning for meats.

Product: Thai sweet chili sauce

Chef: Miguel Sanchez, Central Exchange; Jennifer Maloney, Cafe Sebastienne

What it is: Sweet red sauce made from chilies and Thai seasonings.

How to use it: Mix it into meat loaf. Combine it with sesame oil, olive oil and rice wine to make a dipping sauce for chicken or vegetables. Can use in place of ketchup or any standard chili sauce.

Product: Herbes de Provence

Chef: Liz Huffman, Blue Bird Bistro

What it is: A mix of dried herbs – usually savory, rosemary, fennel, thyme, basil, tarragon, lavender and marjoram – with sharp and flowery notes

How to use it: Rub on chicken, game, lamb and seafood before cooking. Excellent in a slow-and-low braised meat dish, paired with red wine for deglazing the pan. Which seasonings do chefs use?