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Chefs reveal their tricks

Crafty cooks work their magic.

Certain chefs are quite secretive about their cooking “secrets.” But we found a group of pros that was willing to share a few culinary tricks.

At Talula in Miami Beach, chef-owner Frank Randazzo features Cork Braised Mediterranean Octopus with hearts of palm, artichoke and arugula. To tenderize the octopus, he tosses wine corks into the braising liquid. “I read about using corks to braise short ribs, so I decided to try it with octopus,” says Randazzo. Supposedly, it’s the enzymes in cork that do the tenderizing. Now Randazzo is a firm believer. “I was never able to get my octopus tender before.”

A creamy polenta can rapidly solidify into a dense softball. But Frank Brunacci, chef at Sixteen in Chicago, came up with a home run. “After cooking [five parts liquid to one part polenta], I whirl it in the Robot Coupe, then sandwich an even layer between two sheet pans,” he says. For service, Brunacci shapes small pieces with a cookie cutter and briefly sautes them.

It took Chris Cheung several months to perfect the sought-after Steamed Chinese Bao Buns with Liquid Foie Gras Filling he serves at New York City’s Monkey Bar.  The challenge: to prevent the foie gras from seeping into the dough. “Bao are typically filled with roast pork and held in a warmer, but you can’t hold foie gras—it melts,” Cheung notes. To keep the foie gras from leaking, he enclosed it in a wonton wrapper and inserted the “package” into the center of the dough. Worked like a charm. And he steams each bao to order, so there’s no seepage.

Seth Bowden, chef at Cortez Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco, discovered a novel way to clarify stock. “Instead of using egg whites [the classic method], I set the liquid with gelatin, freeze it, then let it thaw through cheesecloth,” he says. The flavor is not altered or compromised by the addition of egg white.” Bowden uses the same technique to clarify fresh juices.

Another trick for the stockpot is put to use by Rodney Friedank of Table 301 in Greenville, South Carolina. When making broth-based soups, he adds okra to his mirepoix along with the standard onions, celery and carrots. “When the vegetables are strained out, the liquid has nice body,” Friedank claims. He credits Paul Prudhomme for this idea, picked up while the two were cooking at a charity event.

The rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano is never discarded by Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja Restaurant in Denver. “I soak it in milk or cream and use that as a sauce base for Eggs Benedict,” she says.  Jasinski also makes Parmesan emulsions by steeping the rinds in olive oil and letting them infuse the oil over a long period of time. “It imparts a Parmesan taste without the heaviness.”

At the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina, Daniel Benjamin figured out how to keep sugar from crystallizing on a saucepan’s sides. “I cover the pot with an inverted bowl,” he says. “Water condensates inside the bowl and a little drips down into the pot, washing away the sugar crystals.”   

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