What ingredient couldn’t you live without?

Two of Marylebone Village’s top chefs on the one ingredient they couldn’t live without.

Ben Tish - The Coach Makers Arms

My favourite ingredient could not be simpler. It has to be the lemon.

Being a Mediterranean cook, it’s one of the ingredients I find constantly inspiring, and one I use all year round. It’s citrus season at the moment, so they’re bang in season and we’re using them in multiple ways on our menus, in starters, desserts and mains.

My favourite pasta dish of all is a simple Sicilian dish of spaghetti, olive oil, sage, breadcrumbs and then loads of lemon juice, tossed through at the end. Lemon also works really well as a seasoning; it’s the balance of acidity that brings dishes together. If I’m seasoning a sauce I’ll use salt, pepper and a tiny squeeze of lemon. If grilling fish or even meat, like lamb, I’ll add a squeeze of lemon as it comes off the grill.

Lemon serves as the star ingredient in several of our dishes, like the steamed lemon syrup sponge and lemon meringue tart. Most of the restaurants in the Cubitt House group have a whole grilled market fish on the menu, served with half a lemon that’s also been placed in the grill so the juice is sweeter and smokier.In fact, I put lemons in most things. I always have loads around, at home and in the restaurant. As well as the juice, you also have the zest, which is amazing. It has a different flavour altogether; it’s far more aromatic. At this time of year, the lemons come with the stalks and the leaves on, which we can also use. We have lemon leaf ice cream as a special, and we save loads of lemon leaves in the freezer; they’re perfect for flavouring sauces and custards. I also have a Sicilian recipe I love, with pork or veal meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves and skewered – they get this wonderful, subtle lemony taste when you bake them. The leaves are quite different to the zest and juice: it’s more of a sweet scent and flavour, like a perfume.

Right now, our lemons are coming from Italy’s Amalfi coast and from Sicily: these amazing, big, knobbly lemons, sourced from a network of small-scale suppliers. We use every part of them – juice, zest, rind, leaves – and if we have a glut, we preserve them, packing them into a jar with salt so they create their own brine. We use these in dishes like the crispy squid, throwing them together with the squid into the deep fat frier. Lemons might not seem that exciting at first, but when you break them down and look at all the ways you can use them, they are truly amazing things.

Limor Chen - Delamina

I couldn’t imagine my kitchen without sumac. It is special, beautiful, versatile and I simply love using it; no dish can fail to benefit from its addition.

Sumac is made of dried berries, cultivated primarily in Turkey and Iran, and it’s very popular in Middle Eastern cuisines. The berries are crushed to a coarse texture, and the flavour is tangy and a bit salty. I want to add it to everything, to add saltiness, colour and a slightly lemony tang.

The first time I saw it was as a young teenager, when my dad added it to basmati rice, creating a lovely layer of colour and flavour. I remember the smell and the way it altered the taste and appearance of the rice. I remember thinking, “Wow! This is tasty!” and since then there’s been
no going back. That rice dish was the first, but there have been so many dishes since. Sumac goes superbly well with roasted vegetables and is wonderful sprinkled on salads of cucumber or tomatoes, as well as dips. Our hummus dish at Delamina has lots going on: crispy onions, a roasted tomato relish, parsley and crispy chickpeas, finished off with sumac and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. My daughter loves labneh with olive oil and sumac and some soft bread.

It is wonderful with fish. You know when you just want to add a slight lemony flavour? Sumac does that beautifully. You can use it as a marinade, but mostly I add a sprinkle at the end of a dish, to finish it off. Barbecued meats, koftas, chicken, shakshuka – sumac lifts literally almost any dish you could think of. You can even have it just with great sourdough or a fluffy pitta. Olive oil, a bit of sumac, bread: that’s enough. That’s why I love this spice so much; unlike liquorice, coriander and other spices which can be a bit ‘love it or hate it’, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it. It’s easy on the palate, but it adds richness – and I think it looks superb.

You can find sumac in the niche sections of big supermarkets, or in Turkish shops. Look for coarse-ground sumac with large chunks of light burgundy pieces; fine and powdery is not as good. I stock up on sumac whenever we go to Israel, to Tel Aviv. I go to a spice merchant where they crush everything on site, so it’s wonderfully fresh. The potency and colour fade with time, but in the fridge, it lasts for months. In my forthcoming cookbook, My Tel Aviv Table, there’s a special mention of a few ingredients I regularly use and love – and sumac, of course, is one of them.