Ah, trendy ingredients, the thing food writers love to whine about. Every year, there are posts about the worst ingredients of the past year and predictions of the worst ingredients of the coming year, and yet they're nearly always wrong.
Sometimes, these trends are actually useful–the nose-to-tail craze currently going on, for example, is trying valiantly to reverse decades of American snobbery about which parts of an animal killed for its meat are worth eating (“ugh, why would anyone eat a beef cheek?”).
1. Truffle oil
Blame the British. Their insatiable appetite for all things curry have led to the total bastardization of perfectly serviceable South Asian spice blends. Curry powder doesn't exist as such in India; individual spices are typically ground together either at the shop or at home, then cooked in fat as the base to a sauce. Prepared sweet curry powder, the Western kind, rarely gets cooked in fat. It ends up being used dry in mayonnaise, dusted onto French fries, and generally gets dumped in wherever a mediocre cook knows he needs to jack the flavor but doesn't know how, and the result always ends up tasting like desiccated House brand Japanese curry.
Real balsamic vinegar–marked aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena and sold in tiny bottles with three-digit price tags–is amazing, a thick, black liquid the result of more than a decade of aging and ve-e-ery slowly evaporating in barrels. It's used by the drop as a final garnish on things such as a bowl of fragrant wild strawberries. The crap that gets doled out everywhere from Applebee's to American Airlines is not even close; it's red-wine vinegar and caramel coloring sweetened with either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. It doesn't matter–chefs all over the country use cupfuls of the Cold Duck of balsamico, feeding the insatiable appetite for sweetness.
Chipotle–for the love of all that's holy, please pronounce it “chee-POHT-lay” and not “chee-POHL-tay”–is the name for a smoked jalapeño pepper. It's a northern Mexican chile that has a beautiful, smoky burn. The cemita poblana, the famous Pueblan sandwich, relies on chile chipotle for its heat, which matches perfectly with deep-fried, garlicky milanesa and cool, creamy avocado. In the United States, however, nearly all chipotles are sold canned in a very spicy adobo sauce and thrown willy-nilly (and “raw”) into whatever's handiest. Restaurants with Southwestern themes seem unable to restrain themselves from using it in everything from salad dressing to sandwich spreads.
It's got a strong taste that has to be acquired, it plays amazingly well with ingredients from pears to beef, and best of all, some of the best in the world is made right here in the United States. Too bad it has fallen into the hands of people who think the best possible thing to do is to throw it in everywhere. A good, even great bowl of rib-eye stew ruined by an enormous hunk of Maytag lurking like a U-boat under the surface; hot, crispy, salty French fries turned eye-watering by a liberal shower of Gorgonzola; in place of nice, normal, non-threatening queso cotija in a dish of refried beans.