ASK ANY chef worth his (Hawaiian sea) salt, "What's the secret of great food?" and the answer will always be: the best ingredients.
Assembling the finest, freshest and most unusual ingredients is the jumping-off point for truly memorable cuisine. Add culinary muscle, a flair for presentation and an instinct for flavor pairings and those ingredients go from terrific to positively awesome.
Here's a look at 10 ingredients that have chefs around town enthused about cooking in the New Year. Some are quirky, some reconceived favorites. All are delicious.
Chef Ari Weiswasser is crazy about this unripe version of the tropical fruit native to Mexico. Popular in Southeast Asian cooking, green papaya is bland on its own but acts as a tremendous flavor carrier.
Weiswasser, a Gladwyne native whose resume includes Restaurant Daniel and Gilt in New York, will marry the julienne fruit with tuna, lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar and lime in a signature dish at Pearl, a Pan-Asian fusion restaurant opening at 1904 Chestnut St. next month.
"Green papaya easily takes on the flavor of a marinade while keeping its textural integrity," said Weiswasser.
At XIX, chef Marc Plessis cries fowl unless he's using a Poulet Bleu, a homegrown version of France's mythical poulet de Bresse, a breed favored at restaurants including Per Se and Alain Ducasse. "It tastes like a chicken is supposed to taste, not the fatty, mass-produced birds we're used to."
Free-range, and blessed with feet as blue as a booby's, these birds are a bit older, a tad gamier and about 30 percent leaner than the average chicken. The result of a partnership between a Canadian poultry breeder and a California farm cooperative, the birds are available through D'Artagnan, the Newark-based gourmet purveyor (go to www.dartagnan.com and type "Blue" in the search window).
"They're three times the price of a good chicken," said Plessis, "around $4 a pound. But this bird is so juicy and flavorful - it's the Porsche of chickens."
At Penne, the gem of an Italian restaurant tucked into the Inn at Penn in University City, executive chef Roberta Adamo is thinking about your health.
A true goddess when it comes to handcrafted pasta, Adamo hears from her customers that they want to eat more whole grains. So, while not giving up her semolina entirely, she's cutting it with whole-wheat flour, spelt, faro and buckwheat, imbuing her cavatelli, gnocchi and angel hair with a nuttier flavor and a bit of texture.
"I don't worry about carbs," said Adamo. "But I try to eat healthier, add more vegetables in with the sauces, use whole grains." Her deft balancing of ingredients ensures that her pasta, whole grain or otherwise, is as light as a ricotta cloud.
If you think mush when you think lentils, think again. These pearly beads of low-fat protein come in all sizes and colors, and when they're not overcooked, they add flavor, texture and a healthy dose of fiber to anything they touch.
At Brasserie Perrier, chef/co-owner Chris Scarduzio loves lentils in soup, cooked, cooled and added to salad, and as a tasty accompaniment to fish and meats. Look for beluga lentils, little black legumes that shine like fish eggs when they're cooked. French green lentils are another type to try al dente.
Here's something you might find hard to believe, but it's true: duck fat is lower in cholesterol than butter or even lard. London chef Michael McNally learned that from chef and cookbook author Paula Wolfert, and he's been rolling in duck fat ever since.
"It brings flavor to everything - not an overtly duck flavor, just a better flavor, a silkiness on the tongue."
His latest use for the rendered fat is for frying french fries, which are served with a Gorgonzola dipping sauce. "Eat what tastes good, but eat it in moderation," is McNally's mantra. "And duck fat makes everything taste good."
It's no surprise that David Ansill, who is known for his creative use of unusual animal parts, likes squid ink.
"The ink sac used to get thrown away," he said. "I like the old-fashioned idea of using everything." A prized ingredient in Mediterranean cooking, essential to the Spanish dish Arroz Negro, or black rice, and for the inky hue in Sardinia's signature pasta dish, squid ink imparts a slight sea tang along with its tarry glow.
Ansill uses it in a braise of squid, chorizo, garlic and onion, and in a seafood sauce paired with pasta.
"You can serve fried calamari with a mayonnaise colored with it - that would be a great dish for Halloween," he said. Squid ink is sold in little packets - a little goes a long way - at DiBruno's and Fante's.
Moshulu chef Ralph Fernandez is thinking small for 2008 - as in micro herbs: precious, perfect, beautiful mini versions of Thai basil, cumin and chocolate spearmint.
"We have a standing order with Blue Moon Acres out of Buckingham, Pa.," said Fernandez. "The flavors are so explosive, you really don't expect it."
Fernandez uses little buds of Thai basil to garnish seared Kobe, roasted peanuts, scallions and cold sesame noodles. And he adds micro celery to his potato salad and micro cilantro to a sashimi of Hawaiian tuna.
"The eye appeal is so dainty and pretty, but the flavor is anything but small."
Olivier De Saint Martin is getting back to his roots. Both at Caribou Café, and at Zinc, his intimate French bistro on 11th Street, De Saint Martin is rediscovering the likes of celery root, parsnips, red beets, salsify, potatoes and turnips.
"These are noble vegetables," he said. "The flavors are simple, you don't need to fuss too much with them. Roots are good for you, and they've been making joy for poor people for so many years."
Patrice Rames (Bistro St. Tropez, Patou) predicts that 2008 will be the year of the bistro. And bistro cuisine will be fueled by a resurgence of homey, hearty braises using cheaper cuts of meat prepared in the classic slow-cooked French style.
"Due to today's economy, chefs are looking for lower-cost cuts of meat to stay competitive," he said. "Cooking in wine or liquid for hours breaks down the fibers and brings out wonderful flavors."
Chuck pot roast, brisket, rump roast, veal shanks, picnic pork roast, lamb shanks and shoulder and turkey legs and thighs are all good candidates for a budget bistro braise.
"This is rustic comfort food," said Rames. "It takes some preparation in the beginning, but then it just takes time."
Despite the fact that he presides over the swanky Oceanaire seafood restaurant on Walnut Street, chef David Wiederholt can't live without his bacon. Most adored is what he calls the gold standard, Nueske's Applewood Smoked bacon, which he pairs with scallops, incorporates into a tuna sandwich, crumbles on clams casino and folds into oysters Rockefeller.