Without ingredients, chefs have nothing. So which foodstuff is essential for your art? Rosie Birkett asks rising stars and stalwart chefs for their top must-have ingredient.
Asking a chef to choose their most-prized ingredient is a bit like asking a mother to choose between her children. Chefs have a wealth of produce at their fingertips and need all the tastes, colours and textures of different foodstuffs to create their dishes. But which ingredients hold particular significance for them? Which ones have defined their careers and cooking style?
Vivek Singh, the Cinnamon Club/the Cinnamon Kitchen
"I find it hard to choose just one ingredient, but if I had to it would be chilli. I didn't think I would miss it that much until our last holiday in France where I completely starved my body of chilli for two weeks. I missed it immensely.
"There is an addictive quality about spices in general, but chilli is particularly compulsive. That slight burning sensation on the palate is very moreish - even if you've tried it and burned your mouth before. It draws you back to it. I don't use limitless quantities but I do like to use it in most dishes - most Indian dishes have it in some form or another, or are accompanied by other dishes with it in.
"My favourite dish featuring it is a fiery Rajasthani Lal maas lamb curry. It uses a variety of chillies including Mathania chilli, which is very hot and in the dish itself they impart so much heat and smokiness that it doesn't taste hot, it tastes smoky. I've been cooking that dish for the past 12 to 13 years - ever since I went to cook in Rajasthan and I learned it from some old school chefs. When we have Rajasthani Lal maas on the menu we have to fly the chillies in specially to be true to its origin."
Tristan Welch, Launceston Place
"For me it's wild herbs. I'm passionate about them and they definitely help steer the way of the restaurant. I've only been using them for the past three years, and it's the unadulterated flavour behind them I love. They're rich and proud to be what they are and that's what's exciting. It's food as it used to be, before it was mass produced and mucked around with too much - it's very natural. I use them in most of my dishes, it's more a question of where do I not use them?
"One of my signature dishes is roast scallop in the shell with wild herbs from the Kent coast. I use sea purslane and work to the motto ‘what grows together goes together'. I also use a lot of sea aster and sea sandwort which is underused and underrated. It's quite juicy and tastes like a little pocket of sea water. I use sea beet with salt marsh lamb because it's a typical vegetable that the lamb would probably graze on. I also love wild chervil, sorrel and pineapple weed, which tastes like chamomile.
"My cooking style has really developed from classic French to modern British and I look at food in a different way now. I take core ingredients and look at their indigenous surroundings and that's how my dishes develop. I look at where the animal grazes - localities and the regions of the individual herbs and I find it's an amazing way of working. I have numerous foragers but the main one is Miles Irwin. It's how food used to taste, and how it should taste."
Paul Kitching, 21212
"It's an ingredient not a lot of chefs use often. My sous chef, Kate, keeps the stash in her room and the other chefs have to ask her permission to get it. She always has one or two pouches in her apron at the ready.
"I love it because it's a very forgiving spice. Flavour-wise it's wonderful - so sympathetic, mild and gentle - but still a real luxury. It's like the sun, that energy and brightness is very special, and it's a natural product not a strange powder or potion that someone has contrived."
Glynn Purnell, Purnell's
"Liquorice is one of my favourite ingredients. It goes back to childhood when we used to chew sticks of it on the way to school - and it's something my dad has always loved, too, so I'm sure that has had an influence. I like the idea of it because it's very British. When I used it for my beef course on The Great British Menu we went to Yorkshire and met a man who produces it in Pontefract. He was fantastic - he was like the Lord of Liquorice - he knew so much about it and it's a really interesting ingredient. At Purnell's we do a liquorice charcoal and liquorice purée and I'm now working on a liquorice tea.
"When I worked with Claude Bosi I used to use it with puddings because it's the sweetest natural thing on the planet - it's 50 times more sweet than sugar in its natural form. Now I use it with meat and it provides that sweetness - like pork and apple sauce, or turkey and cranberry. It's an old-fashioned ingredient and old things often come back round."
Chris Galvin, Galvin restaurants
"It has got to be salt. Really, I couldn't possibly cook without it. I know it's not good for you, but as chefs we couldn't live without it - it just does something wondrous to food. The best example I can think of is the humble potato. A little sprinkle of salt transforms this basic ingredient into the food of the kings. I love the fact you can use so many different salts. Heinz Beck has an entire menu for salt at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Pergola, in Rome.
The three main ones I love working with are Sel de Camargue - it's the most subtle salt ever, to the point where it's almost not a salt and it's beautiful with fish; Sel de Guerande which has bigger granules, is more minerally and is brilliant for preserving - we pack our duck confit in it; and organic British Anglesey sea salt - it's from Wales and I use that as an all-rounder. I couldn't cook without salt."
Anna Hansen, the Modern Pantry
"I'm going to say dried shrimps. I used to go down to China Town and buy things I didn't know what to do with, and they were one of those. They now form part of my signature dish of sugar-cured prawn omelette with dried shrimp sambal and they're a really interesting ingredient. You can use them in loads of different things to add a special richness - they're great in stews, in dressings and salads - they're multi-purpose and have this really delicious nutty, sea flavour. You can grind them up and use them in salads or grind them up super-fine and fry them.
"Any Chinese store will have them and they come in different grades of coarseness and different levels of moisture and fleshiness. I use the medium-grade one for my sambal."
Pascal Aussignac, Club Gascon
"The ingredient which I need most for my style of cooking is Piment d'Espelette, which I use to season with delicacy and power many of the ingredients I cook. It's a special sort of chilli, from the French Basque commune of Espelette in south-west France, near Biarritz, which is where we take our influence from. It's a beautiful spice which is not too hot. It gives enough power to a dish without being aggressive, but it's very red when ground so it gives a beautiful colour.
"We mix it with flower of salt - or with Maldon salt - and make what we call ‘crazy salt' because it has a nice crunch and intensity to add to meat, fish and foie gras. It can also be used for barbecuing and with vinegar and it respects the texture of scallops and white meat. It's versatile. Carpaccio of foie gras, which we serve at Celler Gascon, is the most popular dish with it. It's foie gras presented in thin leaves as a rose and seasoned with the crazy salt. The salt melts the foie gras and it's very unusual to eat foie gras raw. This combination makes the plate unique."
Helena Puolakka, Skylon
"I'm going to be very boring and choose chicken. My signature dish is a whole chicken ballotine which I debone completely, recreating the chicken inside the whole chicken skin and stuffing it with mushrooms and foie gras. Chicken has always been close to my heart since I was a kid and roast chicken was my favourite meal. You can take a good chicken and turn it into a lovely everyday meal and then take a better chicken and make something really delicious out of it. The ballotine is a challenging recipe because I take all the meat off the skin, keeping the skin whole, and rebuild it inside - it's something different.
"Last year I went to the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon and did it as demonstration to the students and I was surprised that they don't learn about deboning a chicken and making a ballotine. I don't know why I like it so much but if you cook it properly it's so delicious - all the different textures of the meat and skin.
"Where I get them from depends on quantities. Sometimes I use Black Lake chickens, sometimes label Anglaise, it depends on the purpose. For the ballotine I like to use the Black Lake variety because it's lean, the legs are big and there's more flavour - it's slightly gamier. Sometimes I use breast meat and leg meat - sometimes only breast. It's a very consistent dish and it's amazing how the chicken keeps the shape."
HELENA PUOLAKKA'S LEMON AND ROSEMARY ROAST CHICKEN
(Serves four to six)
For the lemon rosemary butter
- 100g salted butter
- 4 sprigs of rosemary, picked leaves and chopped
- 1tsp ground Maldon salt
- Zest of 2 lemons, grated
- Seasoning made from 3 sprigs of chopped rosemary leaves, 1tsp Maldon salt and zest of 2 lemons, grated
For the roast chicken
- 1 whole corn-fed chicken
- 4 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
- 4 shallots, peeled and cut in half
- 1 celery, cleaned and cut in long pieces
- 12 button mushrooms
- 4 Maris Piper potatoes, cut into 4
- Olive oil
- Few sprigs of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Mix rosemary, lemon zest and salt into the soft butter. Spread the butter under the skin of the chicken breast. Tie the chicken for roasting then brush the chicken with olive oil and rub the seasoning on the top.
On a large roasting tray, colour the whole chicken with olive oil from side to side until golden, then add carrots, shallots, celery and mushrooms.
Bring the potatoes to the boil from cold water, and as soon as they start boiling strain them out.
Roast the chicken for 17 minutes at 180Â°C while stirring the vegetables. Turn the chicken to the other side for another 17 minutes. Check the vegetables regularly and when tender move out of the tray.
Now add the potatoes and let the chicken cook another six to 10 minutes on the back then remove from the tray and place breast underneath on a rack and cover with foil. Let the potatoes roast until golden and crispy. Add the vegetables into the tray with potatoes and finish off with chopped parsley and knob of butter.
ANNA HANSEN'S SUGAR-CURED PRAWN OMELETTE WITH SMOKED CHILLI SAMBAL
This is a great and versatile South-east Asian preparation I first learned of from my great friend and fellow chef, Gianni Vatteroni. It has endless incarnations and can include many other flavourings and spices. Stored in a fridge, it lasts for several months.
INGREDIENTS (serves six)
For the smoked chilli sambal
- 2.5 litres rapeseed oil for frying
- 250g sliced red peppers
- 250g sliced white onions
- 250g whole ripe cherry tomatoes
- 80g garlic, sliced
- 80g peeled ginger, julienned
- 25g dried shrimps, ground finely in a spice grinder
- 1tsp chipotle chilli flakes
- Â½ tsp chilli flakes
- 125ml tamarind paste
- 40ml fish sauce
For sugar-cured prawns
- 18 tiger prawns, peeled, split lengthways and deveined
- 1 lemon grass stalk, bashed gently and chopped in to 4
- 30g peeled ginger, sliced
- 3 lime leaves, shredded
- 1tsp chipotle chilli flakes
- 1tbs soy sauce
- 1tbs fish sauce
- 100g sugar
- 15g Maldon sea salt
For the omelettes
- 12 eggs
- 1 bunch of spring onions, sliced
- 1 green chilli, sliced super finely into rounds
- 1 bunch of coriander, picked
- 3tsp smoked chilli sambal
- 24 sugar-cured prawns
To make the sambal, heat the oil in a pot to 180e_SDgrC then deep-fry the red peppers, onions and cherry tomatoes separately in small batches until they are a deep golden brown, almost burnt-looking. Drain on paper towel and then tip in to a large bowl. Fry the ginger and garlic, in separate batches also, until just golden brown.
In a small frying pan, fry the ground shrimps in a little of the fryer oil until aromatic, add all the ingredients and mix thoroughly. Now blitz the sambal in batches in a food processor until almost smooth. Allow to cool. Place in an air-tight container and refrigerate until needed. It will last in your fridge for several months.
Mix all ingredients for the sugar-cured prawns together well and leave to marinate for 24 hours, then rinse and pat dry. Store the prawns in an air-tight container in the fridge until ready to use. Shelf life: six days.
For each omelette, whisk two eggs in a small bowl with 1/2tsp of sambal which provides the seasoning, so avoid the urge to add salt. Heat a knob of butter in an omelette pan over moderate heat and when it begins to sizzle add six prawn halves. Toss these in the pan until almost cooked then pour in the eggs. Swirl the pan once or twice then reduce the heat. Sprinkle over three green chilli rounds and a small handful of spring onions. When the eggs look almost cooked, fold the omelette in half. Slide on to a plate and keep warm while you repeat the process.
To serve, garnish with picked coriander and a spoonful of the sambal.
PAUL KITCHING'S SAFFRON, APPLE, CAULIFLOWER AND ONION SOUP
For the stock syrup
- 500ml water
- 500g caster sugar
- 1 vanilla pod
- 1 lemon
- 1 pinch of saffron
For the apple purée
- 1 pinch of saffron
- 1 large green apple
- 500ml stock syrup
- 1 cinnamon stick
For the cauliflower purée
- 1 pinch of saffron
- Â½ head of cauliflower
- 200g unsalted butter
- 100ml water
- Salt and pepper
- Truffle oil
- 100ml double cream
- For the onion purée
- 1 onion
- 200g unsalted butter
- 50ml white wine vinegar
- 50ml water
- 1 pinch saffron
- For the black rice
- 50g black rice
- Salt and pepper
- 150ml water
For the dried sweetcorn and cauliflower
- 1 corn cob
- Pink peppercorns
- Â½ head of cauliflower
For the onion soup
- 100ml chicken stock
- 200ml double cream
- Onion purée
To make the syrup, split the vanilla pod and put the seeds and pod into a large saucepan, then pour in the water and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Cut the lemon in half and add to the pan, bringing to the boil for one minute. Pass through fine sieve and leave to cool then add saffron and leave to infuse - do not pass out.
To make the apple purée, wash the apple and cut into 1cm pieces. Then place the apple into a pan and add the cinnamon stick and saffron. Cover with the stock syrup. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and cook the apples until soft. Remove from the heat and pass through a medium sieve. Discard the cinnamon stick and keep the liquid.
Put the apples into a food blender and blitz, slowly adding sugar liquid until a smooth consistency of purée is achieved. Pass through a fine sieve into a 200ml squeezy bottle. Put to one side until service.
To make the cauliflower purée, start by floretting the cauliflower. Dice the butter and melt it in a medium saucepan without colouring it. Add the cauliflower and saffron and just enough water to cover. Simmer until the cauliflower is soft, adding more water as required. Remove from the heat and pass through a sieve, retaining the liquid. Put the cauliflower into a blender and blend, gradually adding retained liquid. When a smooth, thick consistency has been achieved, transfer the mixture to a bowl and season with salt, pepper and a little truffle oil. Put to one side until required.
To make the onion purée, wash, peel and chop the onion into 1cm diced sections. Sweat down in a pan with butter and saffron. Add white wine vinegar and water. Cook down until onions are soft. Drain off onions retaining liquid. In a blender, blitz the onions while slowly adding the liquid until a smooth thick purée is created. Pour into a bowl and season with salt and pepper.
To cook the rice, bring the water to the boil. Add the rice and cook until soft. Strain and refresh under cold running water.
To dry the sweetcorn and cauliflower, preheat the oven to 60e_SDgrC. Take the sweetcorn off the cob by standing it upright and cutting down from the top to the base. Discard the core. Place in a bowl and leave under cold running water until water runs clear. Put the sweetcorn on a tray lined with greaseproof paper and sprinkle with pink peppercorns and saffron. Place the tray in the oven and leave for 3-4 hours or until completely dry.
Cut the cauliflower into florets and grate it through the finest section of the cheese grater. Spread evenly on to a tray lined with grease proof paper. Place the tray in the preheated oven and leave for three to four hours or until completely dry.
To finish, heat cauliflower purée in a pan, add double cream and heat until bubbling. Reseason with salt, pepper and truffle oil. Pass through a fine sieve into a 200ml squeezy bottle
To make the onion soup, reduce 100ml chicken stock in a pan. Add 200ml double cream. When warm, whisk in onion purée. Reseason and pass through fine sieve into a small saucepan. Froth with a hand-held blender to create foam.
To serve, in a small bowl put a pea-sized dot of apple purée in the middle of the base. Cover with a layer of cauliflower purée about a quarter of the way up the bowl. In a small pan, warm the rice sweetcorn and cauliflower and spoon over the purée around the bowl. Foam the onion soup and completely cover the rice and purée. Serve quickly before foam dissolves.