5@5 - Secrets of the best chefs
December 27th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

When Adam Roberts started his food blog, The Amateur Gourmet, as a way to unwind from the rigors of law school, he had no idea what he was cooking up. Nearly nine years later, Roberts is a full-fledged pro in the food world, with a passionate online following, a stint as an online show host for Cooking Channel and a food writing career that spans multiple publications and two published books.

He likens his most recent cookbook, "Secrets of the Best Chefs," to "an amateur guitarist getting to play for a year with The Rolling Stones...or an amateur athlete getting to train with the New York Yankees." In the course of writing "Secrets," Roberts worked side-by-side with some of the nation's most prominent and accomplished chefs, learning and translating their recipes and techniques to help enthusiastic home cooks (like him) who are eager elevate to their meals.

Readers who follow Roberts' and the chefs' approachable, easy-to-follow advice might not be ready to hop on the line in a restaurant kitchen, but they'll have friends and family standing in line, waiting for seconds.

Five Chef Tricks to Use at Home: Adam Roberts

1. How To Make A Smokier Eggplant Dip
Einat Admony is the fiery, sardonic chef behind New York's most beloved falafel (at Taim) and its most celebrated Israeli restaurant, Balaboosta. Her food is surprising because it's so flavorful; in fact, Admony emphasizes flavor above all else. For her, flavor is far more important than presentation.

This makes sense when you first see her babaganoush. It's is a purple gray color that not very sexy in the looks department (she addresses that by spreading it on toasted bread and topping it with a citrus herb salad) - but the flavor! When I cooked with her, Admony revealed her secret to maximizing the smoky eggplant flavor. She slices a large eggplant in half vertically, wraps it in aluminum foil, and places it in a dry skillet with another skillet on top of it, cooking it like that until the eggplant is charred black.

It's a totally bizarre way to cook eggplant but the result is an eggplant dip that actually gets you excited when you hear the words "eggplant dip." That's a big deal.

2. How To Improvise a Fish Stew
When I was cooking with Jonathan Waxman at his restaurant Barbuto in New York, a fisherman delivered a huge slab of swordfish straight from the boat. As if it were the most casual thing in the world, Waxman had me cut a filet of swordfish into cubes, throw sliced garlic, shallot and fennel into a pot with olive oil, adding the fish once the shallot was soft, along with mussels, heirloom cherry tomatoes, white wine, lemon juice and a tablespoon or two of butter.

Moments later, it was as if we were on the beach in Italy, toasting our wine glasses and admiring the view. The stew was phenomenal. The key, it turns out, is just cooking the fish just enough. The moment it goes from translucent to opaque is the moment you want to take it off the heat. As for everything else, use what you have; as long as the fish is fresh, the rest takes care of itself.

3. How To Make Pie Dough Easy with the Clump Method
I love eating pie and hate making pie. That was until San Francisco chef Gary Danko taught me his foolproof technique for making a pie dough (or, in his case, a crostada dough, though they're interchangeable) that rolls out with incredible ease.

It comes down to his signature clump method. Let me walk you through it:

Add your flour and very cold butter to a food processor, pulse with the tiniest amount of cold water. Dump the sandy mixture on to a piece of parchment paper and then with your hand, grab up some of the "sand" and squeeze your fist. This makes a clump, which you should put on the other side of the parchment. Keep doing this until you have a pile of clumps and then use the parchment to bring the clumps together into a disc.

There you are! Refrigerate for one hour and roll out like a pro. Who knew clumps could make pie dough such a cinch?

4. How To Transform Your Indian Food At Home with One Key Ingredient
Asha Gomez, chef of one of the country's best new restaurants (Cardamom Hill in Atlanta, Georgia), is from Kerala, India and had never heard of curry powder before she came to the United States. "In India, we don't have curry powder," she told me. "We don't even know what that is."

So what do Indian cooks use to impart a genuine curry flavor to their food? The answer: fresh curry leaves. Every dish that Gomez taught me (and I'll say right here that these were some of the most extraordinary plates of food I tasted on my entire cookbook journey) began by heating oil and then flavoring that oil with fresh curry leaves stripped straight from the stem. She threw the stem in too for good measure. And the aroma that permeated the kitchen was so enticing, so exotic and alluring, everything that came after was almost irrelevant. That one ingredient made for the best Indian food I've ever tasted.

5. How To Make the Best French Onion Soup of Your Life
At Naomi Pomeroy's Beast in Portland, Oregon, I had a French Onion Soup so good, I wanted to die after eating it because there was nothing left to live for.

What made the soup so good? Well, the onions were cooked for a very long time, until a deep, deep dark brown. The finished soup was seasoned with 30 year-aged balsamic vinegar and truffle salt (two of Pomeroy's favorite ingredients). But the real reason for the soup's magnificence was the stock she used to make it, a stock made with veal bones roasted in an oven and then simmered with water and other vegetables for almost 12 hours.

I adapted this recipe for the home cook while writing this book and recreated the soup in my kitchen. It's probably the most involved recipe in the book, but the results speak for themselves. When you eat it, you'll want to die too because life just doesn't get any better than this.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Heidy Dedek

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    January 10, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  2. Chuck Norris

    Chuck Norris can light a fire by rubbing two ice-cubes together.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Alasdair

      There is no theory of evolution, just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live

      December 28, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  3. Shante's mom

    The whole idea of this article was to get our juices and imagination going. I thought I made great onion soup but have to try those veal bones. The fish stock hit the nail on the head. Fresh and not overcooked. I do believe that is the biggest mistake that most people make. Mittens, there was no mention of fat, butter or oil. Johanna, pretzels wouldn't do it for me. Happy New Year to all, may you live healthy,try something new, and more importantly love each other and appreciate each one's differences.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  4. AGeek

    Without specifying that 'curry leaf' is actually from Murraya koenigii and not a 'Curry Plant' (Helichrysum italicum), you're potentially pointing people to an inedible (though fortunately not poisonous) plant. Knock it off. Either give the complete information or exclude it entirely.

    December 28, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  5. raypay

    you folks need to go to some sort of buffet and eat your guts out! my favorite is chinese buffet!!!

    December 28, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  6. Shawn l

    I have made french onion soup from scratch a few times now, made my own beef stock with beef bones... the texture of the broth is much smoother, and thicker from the gelatin. My brother LOVES french onion soup so I made it for him after he had surgery. Top with some home made bread and cheese, and broil till bubbly.

    December 28, 2012 at 5:05 am |
  7. Kevin

    I am still looking for the secret of good french toast. I've tried nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla extract, milk, and flour in various combinations but still can't get it right. My next step is to try whipping/heavy cream instead of milk. Anyone?

    December 28, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • Shawn l

      French toast is all about the bread! The bread should be a bit stale, a nice brioche... I like mine custardy, so I let it suck in the egg and cream, cinnamon and nutmeg then I use a grill. Comes out perfect each time.

      December 28, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • flandrumhill

      Kevin, one of my great grandfathers was a railroad cook in the early 1900s in Canada's near north. He was known for the tastiness of his french toast. According to my grandmother, her dad's secret ingredient was brown sugar, which he dissolved in the milk. She made it frequently according to his recipe, which also included eggs, whole fat milk and a touch of vanilla extract. No cinnamon. We never needed to add syrup to the cooked toast – the brown sugar made it sweet enough already. Give it a try.

      December 28, 2012 at 5:20 am |
    • C. Brion

      Adding cinnamon to Pain Perdu / French toast seems to me like running the vacuum cleaner during a symphony–it kind of takes over and doesn't let you enjoy the other flavors. Try omitting the cinnamon, and use a nice jam instead of bottled syrup. Hope that helps you find the flavor you're seeking.

      December 28, 2012 at 5:25 am |
    • Kevin

      Brioche, brown sugar, & no cinnamon–I'll give them all a try. Thanks!

      December 28, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  8. Kanageloa

    A lot of these so called secrets are well known and can be found on numerous websites or in books. This seems to be a filler for the most part.

    December 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • KandyKane

      Did you even read the article? Tell me where you found the recipe for the swordfish stew. How about the way to roast eggplant?

      December 28, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • jmddc

      Why would you make a comment like that based only on reading a short article? The book is very good and could hardly be called filler

      December 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  9. J.J

    Hard to argue the authors enthusiasme. Look for the real deal. I don't think you've found it yet.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  10. Mittens Romnutts

    Secret of ALL chefs – just add more fat, butter or oil.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Michael

      You sir, know exactly ZERO chefs. I'm guessing you always wanted to be one but you ended up being ignorant instead.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  11. johanna

    it's 4 am where i live (austria) and for lack of sleep, i came into the kitchen. reading this article, i couldn't help but grab the first thing within my reach – salted dry pretzels – and scarf them down. your vivid description above made me almost imagine i was eating that onion soup, the indian curry – and my stomach is slowly getting disappointed. i think i should go to bed before i do some real damage. thank you for the nice dreams i will be having, hopefully:))

    December 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
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