Saturday, September 22, 2007

Shhh ... What's Your Secret Ingredient?

by Anna Sugden
There are more than a hundred ways with ground beef, or minced meat as we call it at home. Every country has their stock recipes which are filling and easy to cook. Over here it’s meatloaf or burgers. At home, it’s cottage pie or spaghetti bolognese (ground meat and tomato sauce). Dishes we learn from our parents, as students or from the first cook book. We all have our own variations on these dishes - that secret ingredient that makes our dish tastier than everyone else’s.

For spaghetti bolognese, I have three secret ingredients. One, I learned while backpacking in Greece is a pinch or two of ground Allspice. It brings out the flavour of the mince perfectly. The second is a teaspoonful of turmeric, which rounds out the flavour of the tomato.
The third, I picked up from fabulous Italian chef Antonio Carluccio. His wonderful TV series on Italian cooking was a feast to behold. He makes everything sound easy to cook and his recipes are delicious.

What was his secret ingredient?

Believe it or not … milk.

Figuring he hasn’t led me astray before, I tried Carluccio’s suggestion and added a cup of milk to my spaghetti bolognese recipe. And it worked. It made the whole dish richer and tastier. Who'd have thought?

As writers, our work often progresses or makes a big leap forward through the addition of a secret ingredient. It could be learning to use GMC to develop stronger, richer characters. Or increasing the amount of dialogue to intensify pace. Or using more deep point of view.

Those who have sold will often say that there was one thing - one special ingredient - that they had to discover about their writing, which enabled them to make that magical leap from unpublished to published. I know there were several a-ha moments in my writing career, which enabled me to make the leap to finalling in, and then winning contests, and to revisions requests from editors instead of form rejections. I’m still searching for that secret ingredient which will help me make that first sale. But, I know it’s there. I just have to find it.


So, what is your secret ingredient - either for meatloaf, spaghetti bolognese, another dish or in your writing?

57 comments:

Sue A. said...

Try adding paprika alongside black pepper! I swear it makes everything taste better. And don't be stingy. Make sure you use the sweeter paprika which I believe is the Hungarian variety. Spanish variety is a lot hotter and you can't afford to use as much of that.

Tawny said...

Now I'm hungry... and I'm a vegetarian *g*. Secret ingredients... to make my favorite yummy banana nut bread the secret is orange zest. It just punches up the entire flavor.

In writing... I'd have to say its taking it to the limits. Push the envelope, embrace your voice but go further in each story than the last.

Helen said...

When I make spaghetti bolognese I use parsley, oregano, garlic and basil which I learn't from a cook I used to work with and my kids always loved it and if we where at someone elses place and they had cooked spaghetti my kids would always say this isn't as good as Mums they can were so embarassing at times but I love them. I made spaghetti last night and my 20 month old granson kept saying more more please he had 4 bowls in the end so it must taste alright.Anna I am sure that secret ingredient is close and then I will have another book to read keep up the good work guys.
Have Fun
Helen

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Helen, thanks for the hint on the parsley for the spag bol. I'll give it a go. I already use oregano and garlic and basil but that might give it an extra zing!

In my writing, I was technically quite a good writer from an early age. I think it was because I was such an avid reader. The way to put sentences together sort of seeps into you naturally that way. But it took nearly all my life to learn how to write emotion and it's emotion that sells books, especially romances. You can be the best technical writer in the world and your stuff is dead on the page. How did I learn to write emotion? I think I learned to take risks with my characters and with what I wrote about, and I learned how to use really deep point of view (although that's one I still have to work on between first draft and final product!).

Great post, Anna. Really got me thinking!

Keira Soleore said...

My secret ingredient in cooking is to keep changing the ingredients, so the dish never tastes the same again (to my husband's despair, because there have been some memorable failures that he's had to eat).

Suzanne Welsh said...

There isn't one special ingredient that I use in any recipe. But I never pick up a recipe that I don't tweak it for myself. Italian Mac & Cheese got more fluid in the sauce and a longer cooking time. When I want to "make something new" I generally just experiment in the kitchen, adding ingredients that I know will go well together, sampling, tweaking. That's how I develop my own recipes. DH will say, "oh where'd you get this recipe?" as he chows down seconds. I always love to just shrug. Which is his clue to say "You made it up yourself?" (After 26 years of marriage you'd think he wouldn't be surprised!)

In writing, that seems to be my method that's the secret, too. Experiment. Add elements that I enjoy together, sample, tweak. Write tighter. Bring out more emotion. Let the dialogue lead to the emotions or action in the next scene. I'm an AYU, but hopefully it's paying off.

Christie Kelley said...

Hmm, I don't think I have a special ingredient that I use, except garlic. If there's a chance it should go in a recipe, it goes.

As far as writing, I think my a-ha moment came after working with one of my cps for awhile. She constantly wrote WHY? on my manuscript. I finally got it. I needed motivation more than anything else in my writing.

doglady said...

Hmmm. In cooking, as in writing, I tend to throw in the unexpected. One of my favorites is a dash or two or three of Worchestershire sauce in any dish that includes ground beef. Seems to spike up the flavor. In writing my secret ingredients would have to be humor, especially in really tense situations. Oh and animals. They will bring out the soft side in even the toughest hero or the most aloof heroine. Unusual animals are even better - a very stand offish heroine of mine has a pet hedgehog!

doglady said...

Hmmm. In cooking, as in writing, I tend to throw in the unexpected. One of my favorites is a dash or two or three of Worchestershire sauce in any dish that includes ground beef. Seems to spike up the flavor. In writing my secret ingredients would have to be humor, especially in really tense situations. Oh and animals. They will bring out the soft side in even the toughest hero or the most aloof heroine. Unusual animals are even better - a very stand offish heroine of mine has a pet hedgehog!

AndreaW said...

I love to add a splash (or more) of mojo criolle (sp?) to a lot of my meat dishes. We also use it to marinade a lot of grilled meats. Man, is it good!

~Andrea

Donna MacMeans said...

My secret ingredient in cooking?
My credit card. Seriously, I love to cook, but lately it seems it takes an hour to prepare a meal that disappears in about five minutes and then another hour to clean up after. All this takes time, not to mention the planning and shopping. In my fantasy life, I'd have an inhouse cook, or go out for dinner every night of the week (grin).

In writing? I'd say to remember to write a "really" book. I'm stealing Jennifer Enderlin phrase here, but basically - if you're writing a suspense, it should be really suspenseful - keep you write on the end of your seat. If you're writing a sensual book, then it should just ooze sensuality - keep you ...mmm...whenever you want to be when you're feeling sensual (smile).

Anna Sugden said...

Welcome to the Bandita's lair Sue A. I love paprika ... I'll have to try adding it like you said. Thanks for the suggestion!

Anna Sugden said...

Mmmmm Tawny, banana nut bread. Yummy. That would go nicely with my cup of tea right now!

I think your tip for writing is perfect. Great advice. That's what I'm trying to do with my puck bunny book - fingers crossed it works!

Anna Sugden said...

I use those herbs too, Helen. I believe that combination really lifts the flavour and makes it special. How lovely that your grandson is such a big fan!

And thanks for the vote of confidence! We're all working for the day when every Bandita is published!

Anna Sugden said...

You're right, Foanna. Emotion done well really makes stories come to life. I think this is where deep point of view can be so helpful. Virgina Kantra's workshop on deep POV really helped me take my writing to another level.

One of the other things I learned to help boost emotion was word choice. Carefully selecting the words can turn telling into showing ... and feeling.

Anna Sugden said...

LOL Keira. Always keep 'em guessing! So how often does Nutella make its way into recipes as your secret ingredient?

Caren Crane said...

Anna, to make chili (with meat and beans, of course) really wonderful, add cocoa powder. Some people swear by coffee, but cocoa powder gives it that deep, rich taste.

For pumpkin pie and baked beans both, it's black strap molasses. If anyone tries to feed me theirs, I'll taste it, but rarely eat much. If it doesn't have molasses, it just isn't good!

Oh, and scrambled eggs always benefit from a dash of onion powder and Worchestershire sauce.

Anna Sugden said...

I wonder if it's your scientific background that makes you a natural experimenter, Suz? My hubby can take an ordinary recipe and with a little jiggery pokery turn it into something spectacular. I always tease him it's because he likes playing with things in test-tubes!

Experimenting in writing is very important. It's the only way we can learn and improve. In my 'All you need is a six pack' workshop, I encourage new writers to experiment, but to follow their guts when it comes to choosing what works for them. Too often they follow all the advice they're given blindly and end up in a mess! I also remind them that as your writing progresses you will change and adapt ... and that's ok!

It will pay off for you, Suz! I have faith!

Caren Crane said...

I forgot to add that my secret ingredient in writing is usually humor and "realness". By that, I mean my characters tend to say things I would say or my friends or family members would say. I try to use mannerisms and speech patterns I have observed. That way, I can keep the story more real-sounding. People seem to like it, because they can find somebody they can relate to in the story. That, of course, is exactly what we want!

Now, if I can just find an editor who relates to them...

Anna Sugden said...

Your CP is very wise, Christie!Motivation is often what's lacking in a lot of the work I judge in contests. I think it's the least understood of GMC - although I've noticed more articles and workshops on it recently.

Go you on the garlic!

Anna Sugden said...

Worcestershire sauce is a great secret ingredient, Doglady! There is something about it which enhances flavour.

A hedgehog - how cool to use that as a pet! Funny little creatures - who knew they could move so fast?!

Anna Sugden said...

Come on Andrea - spill to the confused Brit. What is mojo criolle? Sounds fab.

Anna Sugden said...

LOL Donna - the ultimate secret ingredient! Especially when there are so many good places to eat out (or get deliveries/take-out from) here. We're spoiled with Manhattan on our doorstep, but even in our small town we have five great places!

Writing a 'really' book is really good advice. In today's competitive marketplace, it's the only way to stand out. Goes with Tawny's advice about pushing the envelope too.

Can't wait to get my hands on Mrs Brimley!!!

Anna Sugden said...

Cocoa powder, Caren? Well, if milk in spag bol works, why not?! I'll give cocoa powder a try in chili next time I make it.

Realness is a good secret ingredient because it helps readers get lost in the writing. I know there is an editor out there who will love your humour and realness - how can they not?!

AndreaW said...

LOL Anna! Mojo Criollo is a Spanish marinade that is mostly made up of garlic, onion, and citrus juices. We marinate just about everything we grill in it overnight. Really good stuff!

~Andrea

Kirsten said...

Morning Banditas! Anna, what a fabulous topic!

I'm with Donna on the credit card. It's a good thing my husband didn't marry me for my skills. (snort) I'm pretty simple when it comes to food: add butter and salt, and I'm happy. This works for vegetables, pasta, rice, eggs, even a big juicy steak...

Doglady, welcome back! I've been hoping to see you here so I could say thanks for the opera recommendations!! They must be good because they all have holds at my library, so I'm in a cue. I'll let you know my favorites when I get them. :-)

Anna Sugden said...

Mmmm Andrea - off to Google recipes. Thanks!

Kirsten - good butter can make any dish better! We hunt out English or Irish butter because it's richer in flavour.

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Pam, how interesting that your prickly heroine has a 'prickly' pet. Did you do that deliberately!

Donna, love the 'really' suggestions. You're so right! REALLY! And I like all the other Banditas are slavering for Mrs. Brimley! Not long now!

C.L. Wilson said...

Oh, ya'll are making me hungry!!! (And I just ate!)

My secret ingredient? Hmmm...don't really have one. Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onion powder, basil, and cayenne pepper are some of my favorite spices though. Dried crushed red pepper for spaghetti - makes it all the more yummy!

Thing I learned before selling? Quit writing category because I'm too wordy to write a complete novel in 80,000 words! I need at least another 20-30K more.

That and try to keep surprising the reader. If you keep them guessing - they keep turning pages.

Terri said...

I just love it when Anna uses the phrase "jiggery pokery"! LOL

When it comes to cooking, I'm not much of one, but I do have a couple of secrets - anytime a recipe calls for evaporated milk, I use sweetened condensed milk instead, which gives a much richer texture and flavor. I also love a pre-mixed spice called Jane's Crazy Salt - it goes wonderfully on broiled fish or red meats.

As far as writing goes, I think it has so much to do with characterization - you have to make your characters live and breathe on the page and in the mind of your reader. The best story in the world is going to fall flat if your characters are two dimensional and flat, imho. :)

Good topic, Anna!

Anna Sugden said...

Oooh crushed red pepper - nice one, CL! Will add that to my list.

LOL on the category learning - with the word counts getting ever smaller, I think everyone struggles! I know I do.

Thanks again for bloggin with us yesterday - it was such fun!

Anna Sugden said...

Welcome back, Terri! We had such fun when you blogged with us!

I'm learning so much today - Jane's Crazy Salt is on my list - I like premixed spices like that too.

Great point about characterisation. I agree with you totally - I also think you can get away with more if you have great characters that the reader loves!

Anne-Marie said...

Hi hostie Anna and everyone. Hmmm, secret indredient. Did I mention hmmm? lol I make spagetti sauce by cooking down tomatoes and the whole nine yards. An important ingredient I add is a 1/4 cup of sugar and a bottle of red wine. The 1/4 of sugar stops the heartburn, and the cup of red wine works to make people forget if it tastes like crap. lol

My writing, I'm still trying to get the feel of it all. One thing I've learned, is don't force yourself to write something that doesn't come natural. Sassy comedy is more natural to me (anyone that knows me may, or may not agree) than RS. Go figure, cuz there's always a mystery going on at my house. lol

Keira Soleore said...

V.Anna asked, "So how often does Nutella make its way into recipes as your secret ingredient?"

Well, like the Italians say, one glass for the cook, it's one tsp for the me, zip for the family, other than the dinner, that is. :)

Anna Sugden said...

Anne-Marie!! Lovely to see you - welcome to the Bandita's Lair!

Red wine - works for me *grin*. And you know what they say - only use the stuff you'd drink!

Writing what comes naturally is really good advice. Sassy comedy - you? Yep!

Anna Sugden said...

You don't share your Nutella, Keira?! LOL.

I can see the Bandita's are going to have to put some in our treasure chest for SF!

Aunty Cindy said...

GREAT post, VA! And some GREAT suggestions here in the Comments!

Cooking wise (which I gave up years ago. The DH cooks, NOT ME!), I'm with Christie -- GARLIC! LURVE garlic in just about everything! Also FRESH everything. It just tastes better.

Now this is interesting, you mentioned turmeric. My Gramma always used turmeric in her Spanish Rice recipe and I passed this little secret along to my son, as that was one of his favorite dishes. Most people have no idea what turmeric is! And Caren, my Gramma ALWAYS put black strap molasses in her baked beans! What a coincidence that TWO of my Gramma's secret ingredients got a mention today.

As for the secret ingredient in writing... I think it's like garlic. Find something you like and STICK WITH IT! Don't worry about trends. They come and go. Start your own!

AC
who may have to break down and cook some Spanish rice

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Oh, man, now I have to make pumpkin pie. I was already craving it since Solstice is tomorrow and it's officially going to be FALL - Yeah!! :> I put blackstrap in mine as well, Caren, and in my ginger snaps. Love the suggestions on chili too, and spag. bol. w/ milk and the extra spices. Yum. When we were dating, my DH thought I couldn't cook. When I moved in, and started cooking, he was my slave. Snork! Fav. secret ingredient? Low salt soy sauce, it adds a depth to some dishes. Good butter is a must. :> For writing, as others have said, its keeping it real and injecting humor, because that's how we cope, in "real" life. Fun topic. I see we're going to have to start a recipe section. Grins.

Anna Sugden said...

My mother is Persian, as you know, Aunty C, so that's where the idea for turmeric comes from. I love the depth it gives tomato-based sauces ... but don't spill it on your clothes. It's a bugger to get out.

Isn't it lovely having a hubby who cooks?!

So important to follow your heart and your interests rather than trends. I think it shows in your writing otherwise ... and some day the trend has to catch up with you *grin*

Anna Sugden said...

Low salt soy sauce - another great tip Jeanne. I'm taking notes!!

Joan said...

Hi, all my Bandita buds! And welcome to our friends.

I'm finally crawling back into cyber space and Anna, your post has made me crave, not spaghetti bolgonese but....bologna! (What can I say? A Weight Watcher off her points is a weird thing)

In my cooking/baking my secret ingredient is less a substance than a technique. Remember smooshing?

As to writing I think learning how to go into deep POV has enhanced my characters immensely.

Now, there is a song in my head "My boloney has a first name..."

Gahhh!

Anna Sugden said...

Step away from that bologna, Joanie!

There has to be something better to spend your points on!

Suzanne Welsh said...

Oh Jeanne and Joan...it is fall, and in Texas that means it's under 95 most days. Once the high stays under 90 for a few days I'll be making Homemade Gingersnap cookies. A very dear friend of mine who now lives in England, Ouida is her name, gave me this recipe about five years ago. I make them every fall. The only family member besides me who loves them is "Rocky the wonder dog"! But the nurses and staff at work can't wait. Two have already asked "is it gingersnap time yet?"

On top of that they've asked when I'm bringing my cheesy corn chowder? :) To die for. The secret? Fresh corn cut off the cob, heavy cream and loads of cheese!

Joan said...

Ok, Cheesey Corn Chowder may be worth losing points over! Yum! Fed Ex some over to KY, will ya Suz?

I love gingersnap, molasses type cookies. My fav.

Carla said...

What a great post, Anna. I love reading all the secret ingredients. My secret for Italian food is to eat my mom's. Yum! I cook more Tex-Mex, myself. My secret ingredient is Coca-cola. Use it when frying up fajitas and you'll have a richer, slightly sweeter tasting meat.

As for writing, I try to concentrate on characterization and sensory detail. I write Historicals, so I want people to not only identify with my characters, but to feel they've transported to another place and time.

jo robertson said...

Great post, Anna. I'm getting pretty hungry!

I'm a dessert freak, so I always think in terms of something sweet. I use lemon in a lot of my desserts. I like the zing of it, but it's not something you can overdo.

Anna Sugden said...

Suz - that cheesy corn chowder sounds so yummy. I think we will definitely need a recipe section!

Anna Sugden said...

Hey Carla - welcome! Folks - this is two-time Golden Heart winner and my very good friend Carla Hughes! Her fab gladiator book is tearing up the contest circuits.

Coca Cola - another cool secret ingredient to add to my list! Thanks!

Anna Sugden said...

I'm hungry too, Jo - had to indulge in Ben & Jerry's Banana Split ice cream *grin*

Anna Campbell said...

Carla, you are the contest QUEEN! Welcome to the Banditas!

Joan said...

Carla, welcome to the Lair.

And Yay gladiators! All hail, Rome (and fabulous romance fiction set in it)

doglady said...

Kirsten, you are entirely welcome! Opera and "serious" music are like a religion in my house. Where I work there is the most horrendous mix of Muzak in the history of horrendous! Sometimes I feel as if I am in a nightclub, other times in a sleezy motel, and others in a redneck honky tonk. The first thing I do when I get home is hit the stereo remote for some preprogrammed opera! I cannot wait for you to hear this singers I suggested. They are all marvelous and all different. Anna C has listened to some of them and she can vouch for the beauty of their voices.

Actually, Anna, I wrote the part about the pet hedgehog first and then I realized she was just like her pet! I had a pair of hedgehogs as pets for almost 20 years - Pins and Needles (not very original, I know) I think I loved them so much because they reminded me of the part of my childhood my brothers and I spend in England. That is where we saw a hedgehog for the first time. Some of my former students actually have descendants of my two sweeties.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

This might sound weird but I swear it tastes so good. I add a little grape jelly to my spaghetti sauce. It gives it just a little tang.

Lisa said...

My latest tactic to push my writing to the next level is "Don't think. Just write."

After all the studying we've all done, try to have faith in yourself that you've internalized enough of it that it will come naturally. This let's you concentrate on the emotions of story, which is what really makes it compelling.

I'm hoping that tactic works. It seems to be working for me right now.

jack said...

unfortunately, here's a link to antonio carluccio talking about a traditional and best bolognese recipe,where he says he wont use milk as it doesnt add anything to the overall dish...strange.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-1244297/ANTONIO-CARLUCCIO-The-secret-perfect-Spag-Bol-Dont-let-Brit-cook-it.html

jack said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C J T said...

I am a trained chef which is irrelevant but have been told on numerous I occassions that my spag bol is the most flavoursom they have tried. I have a few secret ingredients. I agree Worcestershire sauce is a must in spag bol as is wine and loads and loads of herbs including oregano and parsley, I also however add half a tin of cream of tomato soup. give the spag bol a really nice richness. Dont forget lots of black pepper.