Our Go-To Recipes for Our Favorite Secret Ingredients

Find out what Mark does with porcinis and how Sam Irby uses chicken bouillon

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

A month ago, we posted an audio session that included some of our favorite people — Samantha Irby and her wife, Kirsten Jennings; Kayla Stewart; and Holly Haines — talking about their favorite ingredients. (Are they actually secret? Well, not anymore.) People loved it. So we’ve got something a little extra: recipes, one from each of us. Go ahead: Make our ingredients yours. 

Kayla’s Kecap Manis

The weekend New York City went into lockdown, I was scheduled to fly to East Africa. The canceled trip was heartbreaking. As someone who thrives on international travel, I found myself desperate for ways to bring the cuisines of no longer accessible countries into my kitchen. Cue the constant presence of Lara Lee's Nasi Goreng Ayam (Indonesian chicken fried rice) on my dinner table. One of the hundreds of recipes from her cookbook Coconut and Sambal (which, full disclosure, I profiled for The New York Times), the slightly spicy, aromatic, and heat-filled dish transported me to past trips and gave me hope for future travel. I began making Lara's dish weekly, often more, during summer 2020, and I haven't stopped since. Pro-tip: If you're more of a seafood eater like myself, shrimp is an easy stand-in for the chicken. Also, do not skimp on drizzling your rice in extra kecap manis, which can be found in most Asian supermarkets and online.

Mark’s Porcinis

My not-so-secret ingredients included dried porcini and the makings of dashi: dried kelp (kombu) and bonito flakes. Of these, I think two things have really become routine that I do think are worth knowing.

Dried porcini make just about any dish better — including mushrooms. (Maybe not a mixture of fresh, wild ‘shrooms, but how often do you get that?) Just take a small handful, put them in a bowl, pour boiling water over them, and let them sit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, you can start sauteing your fresh shiitakes, criminis, button mushrooms, whatever. When the porcini are soft, cut them up and add them, along with a little of that soaking liquid. (Take care: There may be a little grit that sinks to the bottom of the liquid, but that’s increasingly unusual.) Cook as usual: The flavor difference is profound.

Increasingly, people soak beans overnight in salted water for improved flavor and texture. I almost never do that because I usually can’t plan that far ahead. (You might think I’m kidding, but no.) But I always cook beans with kombu, and not only for Japanese or Korean-style beans but any beans: They absolutely add umami — you will taste the difference — and, for whatever reason, they improve the texture as well. Just cook your beans as usual, with a piece of kombu, maybe six inches long; you’ll still need to add salt, but probably not as much.

Sam’s Bouillon

Lucky for me, I enjoy eating anything that has been boiled unrecognizable and can be consumed through a sieve. Good thing I can make potatoes like this.

1. Buy a bunch of those little waxy yellow potatoes you don’t have to peel and boil them in liberally salted water until they are tender enough to mash. Stick a fork into one while it’s cooking, and if the flesh gives way with the slightest bit of pressure, you’re good.

2. While the potatoes are boiling, take a bunch of smashed garlic cloves (how many you use is up to your garlic tolerance) and heat them in a little cream, like half a pint? Just bring it to a gentle simmer, and add some fresh black pepper, and a few shakes of loose chicken bouillon.

3. Drain the potatoes, dump them right back into the hot pot, toss in a chunk of butter, aggressively mash them with a masher, then (with the pot on medium heat) slowly pour a little garlic cream in while stirring until it reaches your desired consistency.

4. Mix everything well (or well enough: who cares!) and sprinkle in a little dried basil to taste. You probably won’t need more salt if you used bouillon, but listen: Do what you need to do.

5. Eat gingerly, right out of the pot while trying to avoid burning your tongue, until you fill the deep pit of despair inside. Immediately lie down from the exertion.

Kirsten’s Citrus

Preserved lemons are a gift to your future self! I think I first followed a recipe in one of Mark’s cookbooks. 

You need:

  • Clean sterile jar

  • Lots of kosher salt

  • Whole lemons, preferably organic

I sprinkle a little salt in the bottom of the jar, slice the lemons as if I’m going to quarter them but don’t actually cut them clean apart, and stuff as much salt as possible in the slits. Press the lemons into the jar, as many as will fit, and fill in the gaps close to the brim with more fresh lemon juice. Put the jar(s — make multiple if you’ve got the lemons and the time) in the basement, forget about them for a while, maybe check on them and shake them a little bit if you don’t forget, and after a couple/few weeks you’ve got the most delicious funky condiment you could hope for. Sometimes I add other spices in the mix — cloves, dried hot pepper, bay leaves, etc. Love the preserved lemon rind diced super small and scattered on top of salads or soups. Love the brine in a salad dressing. Sometimes pulverize everything for a marinade.

Holly’s Chili Crisp

I'll put chili crisp on anything, but I especially enjoy it on some soft scrambled eggs with a little fried bread (superior to toast!) and avocado. I don’t have a recipe (I know some of you were about to be like, RECIPE???), but I made a cute little Instagram Reel of the process, here

Melissa’s Sichuan Green Pepper Oil

Chongqing sauce with bird's eye chiles and green Sichuan pepper oil

In a bowl, combine 7 tablespoons chicken stock (hot or cold) with 2 tablespoons light soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoons salt, 2 thinly sliced bird's eye chiles, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoon green Sichuan pepper oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons cold-pressed rapeseed oil, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Typical use: Cold chicken, says Fuchsia Dunlop in The Food of Sichuan (where this recipe comes from): Though I also use it for fish with chiles cooked parchment.

Kate’s Parmesan Rinds

My dad made this risotto with parmesan rinds for us all the time growing up. The trick was taught to him by his dear friend, Andrea Graziosi. The whole idea behind it is that you get to chew on the rinds, which is suchhhh a treat — and probably old hat in Italy.

Andrea and Mark’s Risotto With Parmesan Rinds

Makes: 4 to 6 servings 
Time: 45 minutes

MB notes: If you don’t have homemade stock on hand, I suggest simmering a carrot, an onion, a couple of celery stalks, and a garlic clove in water for 20 minutes, then strain and use that. If you must use straight water, up the olive oil or butter a bit, or use the optional saffron.

  • 6 cups chicken, beef, or vegetable stock

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • Large pinch saffron threads (optional)

  • 1½ cups arborio or other short- or medium-grain rice

  • Salt and pepper

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or water

  • 2 to 4 tablespoons softened butter

  • As many parmesan rinds as you have/want, roughly chopped

  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, or more to taste

1. Warm the stock in a saucepan if you’d like. Put the oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens, 3 to 5 minutes.

2. Add the saffron, if you’re using it, and rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is glossy and becoming translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add a little salt and pepper, then the wine. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.

3. Use a ladle to begin adding the stock, 1/2 cup or so at a time, stirring after each addition; add the parmesan rinds with the first bit of stock. When the stock has been absorbed, add more. (You might not need all of it.) The rice should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat at medium to medium-high and stir frequently.

4. Begin tasting the rice after 20 minutes; you want it to be tender but still with a tiny bit of crunch — it could take as long as 30 minutes to reach this stage. When it does, stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter and at least 1/2 cup parmesan. Taste, add more butter, cheese, salt, and/or pepper if you like, and serve immediately, passing additional parmesan at the table.

Kerri’s Water

Here’s my gateway recipe to cooking with water:

Roast Chicken Thighs With Mustard Pan Sauce 

You can use this same technique with anything not-too-lean like pork chops, burgers, even salmon steaks; just adjust the roasting time accordingly. And instead of mustard, try miso, chopped fresh herbs, harissa or other chile condiments, or tomato paste. 

Here goes: Figure four servings, over rice or mashed potatoes with some vegetables alongside. Heat the oven to 425°F. Put 4 to 6 boneless chicken thighs in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet. Cast iron or carbonized or stainless steel — all fine. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oven is hot, pop the pan in there and cook, turning once or twice, until the chicken is golden and sizzling, and the pan is crusty with delicious-looking bits—about 30 minutes. (While the chicken cooks, get your other stuff together, set the table, whatever. It’s hard to overcook this cut, so it’s more important when you declare the thighs “done” the pan is radiant and fragrant.) Transfer the chicken to a plate and put the skillet on the stove. Carefully tip the pan and spoon off whatever fat you think you don’t want, knowing that you’ll be depriving yourself of flavor. Put the pan over medium-high and immediately pour in about 1 cup water. Use a spatula to scrape everything off the bottom of the pan as the liquid starts to bubble away. When the sauce starts to thicken, whisk in 2 tablespoons mustard — any kind you like, including yellow. Seriously. Continue to cook and stir until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Off heat, taste, and add more mustard if you’d like, salt perhaps, and lots of black pepper. Return the chicken to the pan with any juices from the plate. Spoon and turn the pieces to coat and serve.

Daniel’s Baharat

I’ve been cooking some version of this baharat bowl pretty much every week since quarantine started —never the same way twice. More often than not, it’s been vegan, some combination of eggplant, carrots, onions, and cauliflower, but this version with chicken is the one I made the other night.

1. Lay some boneless, skinless chicken thighs on one side of a rimmed baking sheet. Cut a bunch of carrots into sticks and scatter them on the other side, along with some sliced red or yellow onions. Drizzle (more like drench) everything liberally with olive oil, then sprinkle generously with salt, pepper, and the Baharat spice blend (see below for a recipe). Toss to make sure everything is coated.

2. Broil (my preference) or roast at 500 degrees until everything is nicely charred, the chicken is cooked through, and the carrots and onions are tender. (If you’re broiling, keep the baking sheet at least 8 inches away from the flame to give the food a chance to cook through before it gets too dark. If anything starts to burn, just switch from broiling to roasting until everything is cooked through.)

3. When it’s cool enough to handle, chop the chicken into chunks, and divide the chicken and vegetables among your serving bowls. Now’s the fun part. Top with any or all of the following, depending on what you’re up for and what you have in the house:

  • Tahini sauce (tahini thinned out with water, seasoned with salt and lemon juice)

  • Dollops of Greek yogurt (or sometimes I just smear it on the bottom of the bowl)

  • A mixture of chopped cucumber, tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice, salt, and pepper

  • Thinly sliced radishes

  • Toasted pistachios, pine nuts, or torn bits of pita (for crunch)

  • Chopped Kalamata or oil-cured olives

  • Harissa (or any hot sauce you like), or Aleppo pepper

How to Make Baharat (from How to Cook Everything)

Grind 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon each whole cloves, cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and allspice berries to a fine powder. Put in a small bowl with 2 teaspoons paprika and 1/2 teaspoon each ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg; stir to combine. Makes about 3 tablespoons.

Here’s the List of Your Secret Ingredients

Before we forget, remember the discussion thread where we asked all of you to share your favorite secret ingredients? Well, an incredible number of you joined that conversation. Not only was it a blast, but the list you came up with is pretty epic. The team did our best to comb through the thread and pull out all of the ingredients you mentioned. Here they are, organized not-so-elegantly into four rough categories: condiments, spices, fridge/freezer, and pantry. Check it out.


A Note From Mark

I've been writing about fish for 40 years, and although much has changed, a couple of things have not: One, it’s important to know where your fish is coming from. And two, not unrelated, it’s critical to support independent fishers.

Last Man Fishing, a new documentary (narrated by me!), portrays the complex struggle between corporate giants and family fishers who are focused on conservation, quality — and survival.

For a limited time, you can see the film as part of a special preview screening event at bit.ly/lmfscreening. After you've watched Last Man Fishing, please join me on Thursday, March 25 at 8:30. p.m. ET for a conversation with director JD Schuyler; Captain Darius Kasprzak of Kodiak, Alaska; and Molly Masterton, Oceans Staff Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. We'll be talking about the challenges of the modern seafood industry and the creative solutions that have been implemented in coastal communities by small-scale fishers.