Tuesday questions, seed pod edition

I add cardamom to my pumpkin pie.  Not too much, mind you.  Enough that you get a little hint of it, but not so much that you’re prompted to ask “what is that?” when you taste it.  I don’t know when I first decided to try it, but it must have been years ago.  On a subsequent trip home for Thanksgiving, I told my dad to get some and when I arrived I was presented with a bag of pods from the international food shop.  Confounded, I called one of my best friends who happens to be of Indian extraction and asked what the hell to do with them, and was given step-by-step instructions for extracting and pulverizing the seeds.  If you’re a fan of the spice it makes a nice addition to the pie (and now I’m kind of partial to pounding the little seeds myself).

Anyhow, cardamom is my semi-secret pie ingredient.  I don’t tell people I put it in, but I’ll divulge it if asked.  However, I have an additional secret ingredient that I never tell anyone.  Again, I add just a little tiny bit, and I think it makes it more distinctive and flavorful.  (I always get compliments.)

So this week’s special Thanksgiving question is multi-layered — do you have secret ingredients?  Did you come up with them yourself, or did you learn/inherit them from someone else?  And are you ever willing to share them, or do you truly keep them to yourself?  (I was going to start off by just telling you what I put in the damn pie, but I couldn’t make myself do it, even pseudonymously.)

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. A tip, more than a secret ingredient: drape several strips of bacon on top of the turkey after you flip him (which you should be doing from breast-down to breast-up about 45 minutes into the bake). You’re not going to be eating this bacon, mind. But you are going to be enjoying its flavor, its fat, and its ability to trap the turkey’s juices in the bird while he cooks.

    Draping bacon over a ham is, um, close to redundant. If I’m doing a ham, I’ll include cumin in the rub and star anise if I can get it. Not a huge leap, I know, but it’s something of a secret ingredient. Don’t like those things on turkey so much, though.

    And I’ll mince up a few cranberries (maybe 8 of them) into an apple pie. If I get tasked with pumpkin pie this year, I’m definitely using your cardamom trick, Dr. Saunders. It sounds intriguing and tasty. How much, maybe 4 seeds ground fine with a mortar and pestle?

    • Yeah, 4-5 seeds is about right. Much more and you approach the line between “intriguing mystery flavor” and “this pie tastes weird.”

  2. The closest thing I have to a secret ingredient is the baker’s chocolate that I put in my chili. IIRC, it was a throw-away reference in the introduction of a recipe for something else.

    Also, I’m told my sangria recipe is somewhat unusual, but it comes straight from my Aunt.

  3. Pear and ginger in cranberry sauce, butter in Italian tomato sauce, apples in broths, vinegar in a lot of unexpected places, fontina in risotto, vodka in pie crust. Keep expecting my Italian in-laws to call me out on the butter, but they never do.

  4. I have a couple that come to mind:

    Ground cloves in my pumpkin pie (I like the cardamom idea a lot, if I could get some from Penzeys by tomorrow I’d try it this year).

    Raspberry extract in my molasses/mustard glaze for pork.

    Cayenne pepper in oatmeal raisin cookies (just enough to be a touch spicy).

    Soy sauce in my tuna salad.

  5. Wow, so many to choose from – I think. It’s kind of hard to say, because most things I make that I feel I have made my own I no longer use recipes for, so I’m not entirely sure what I’ve added and what was there to begin with. However, untraditional things things that get comments frequently include:

    I use a bit of both cinnamon and cumin in BBQ rubs.

    A tossing in a very light sprinkle of toasted sesame seed oil to chow main noodles when they come out of the wok.

    Even if I’m not taking the time to make a Likko-like Game Day Burger, a bit of worshteshire while forming the patties.

    An extra pick of salt in chocolate chip cookies.

    Light sugar, instead of salt, on the rim of margaritas.

    A hint of freshly ground chipotle peppers in various sauces, even non latin ones. Which reminds me:

    I usually make a red and green mole for chicken or leftover turkey this time of year. It’s a delicious enough and unusual enough thing to do that I thought I might do a post on how to make them over the holiday weekend. (Thus continuing with my mission to drive Erik crazy by posting on stuff that this site was never intended for.)

    • Kitty makes about four different kinds of chocolate chip cookies.

      One of them leaves *out* a lot of sugar. They don’t pancake like normal chocolate chip cookies, they come out sort of moundy and a lot airier.

      I love ’em.

  6. I’ll try just about anything, and oftentimes I make stuff up as I go, sometimes forgetting what the heck I put in it before I take it off the grill and thus it really *is* a secret ingredient.

    Most of my secrets aren’t really ingredient-secrets, they’re process-secrets. How I bank the coals. How I half-freeze the butter I use to make biscuits. Stuff like that. And they’re not so much secret as just … nobody asked.

  7. I’m gabby about foods. Can’t stand secret ingredients.
    Did make a completely sacriligious marinade once (indian/chinese used on beef)
    That said, no thanksgiving this week for me.
    Will dine on ropa vieja (don’t forget the green olives, diced finely!), collard greens, and some beans,sausage and greens(simple recipe deserves such a simple name. but don’t forget the liquid smoke!)

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