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Chefs' Secret Ingredients

<I>The Union Square Cafe Cookbook</I>, by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano.
The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano.

If your idea of an unusual culinary combination is ketchup on scrambled eggs, maybe you'd like to try something a little more exotic. Some chefs at popular restaurants slip secret ingredients into their dishes all the time. NPR's Linda Wertheimer reports on some examples for Morning Edition.

While some chefs include unexpected ingredients for the fun of it, others say they really do make a dish taste better. Take the fried calamari at New York's Union Square Cafe, a combination that proprietor Danny Meyer says resulted from an experiment. He says the sugar in graham cracker crumbs caramelizes so quickly that it gives the outside a light golden crisp before the calamari has a chance to overcook.

The recipe is in the restaurant's cookbook, but the graham crackers aren't mentioned on the menu. "We actually had a few people who were kind of sticking their finger down their throat, going, 'Yuck, that sounds disgusting.'" Meyer says. "These same people, when you don't tell them what's in it, can't stop eating the calamari."

At Guastavino's, another New York restaurant, chef Daniel Orr says he tries unusual combinations for taste and fun. He uses finely ground coffee on beef, for that dark-roast taste. And he's tried Coca-Cola and chicken. Guastavino sometimes serves chili with peanut butter (with a special warning to peanut-allergy sufferers).

"That is just a part of cooking today. Taking ingredients that people know, and using them in different ways I think is very intriguing to people. They find a sense of humor in it" such as when he coats chicken in potato chips, Rice Krispies or even corn flakes. "There's something kind of homey and comforting about it as well."

Jose Andres, the executive chef at Cafe Atlantico in Washington, D.C., takes his business seriously. But he says fun ingredients can add another dimension to a meal. He sometimes sprinkles Pop Rocks candy on his desserts, like the meringue-topped frozen mango Wertheimer tried when she visited his restaurant.

"People can leave with a smile and feel like they've been surprised for a day," Andres says.

Below is the Union Square Cafe's fried calamari recipe.

Fried Calamari with Spicy Anchovy Mayonnaise

If you clean the calamari yourself, separate the tentacles from the body. Remove the ink sac and cartilage from inside the head, and under cold running water, peel the dark skin from the body. Rinse well.

Serves 4

Anchovy Mayonnaise

1 egg, at room temperature

4 to 5 anchovy fillets

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

3/4 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil


1 pound fresh, clean calamari

4 cups light olive or vegetable oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. In a food processor, combine the egg, anchovies, lemon juice, parsley, and cayenne. Blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the oil to make a mayonnaise. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and refrigerate, covered tightly, for up to 2 days, until ready to serve.

2. Cut the calamari, into 1/4-inch rings. If the tentacles are large, halve or quarter them lengthwise. Refrigerate until ready to use.

3. Pour the oil into a heavy-bottomed, straight-sided 3-quart saucepan, about 8 inches in diameter. To prevent the oil from bubbling over when frying the calamari, the pan should be no more than one third full. Heat the oil to 360 degrees F on a deep-fat thermometer. (To check the temperature without a thermometer, drop a small piece of bread the size of a crouton into the oil. It should float to the surface immediately and brown lightly in about 45 seconds.)

4. Combine the flour and graham cracker crumbs in a bowl. Divide the calamari into two or three batches for easier frying. Toss each batch in the flour mixture to coat evenly. Shake the calamari, in a mesh strainer to shed excess coating. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, gently lower each batch of calamari into the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. The cooked calamari can be kept warm in a low oven while you continue. Check your oil temperature (360 degrees) and repeat with the remaining calamari. Serve hot with chilled anchovy mayonnaise.

Recipe reprinted from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, published by HarperCollins. Copyright 1994 Danny Meyer and Michael Romano. Used with permission of the publisher.

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As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.