10/13/11

Flavor


When you talk about things in their general or abstract sense that can take a lot of words. Being first and foremost an intellectually lazy pusser, Cooky Cat will now give you the Q & D (quick and dirty) on a key pillar culinary concern, Flavor. Otherwise this could turn into a book-length piece, and the next thing you know he will have to become an expert on grass fed beef and such exotica as finger limes. That’s to name just a few of the thousands of subjects that could fit in the umbrella of flavor. So we’ll be brief.

First let’s get the technical points. Taste—what the tongue does—has five distinct components:  

Salty
Sweet
Sour
Bitter
Umami 

(We think it is arguable that the American diet is overly salty and sweet. If that is so, then perhaps there needs to be balance with more sour and bitter? And, if you have lived for more than a few generations, you undoubtedly are aware that the taste of things has been falling. Discuss amongst yourselves.)

What’s that umami? If you are not familiar with umami (a Japanese term meaning pleasant savory taste), it refers to savoriness or deliciousness. The fifth taste; recently arrived, and still not fully understood. Evidently the factor for umami in foods is salts of glutamic acid, known as glutamates. In a Japanese store recently we came upon a small bottle labeled “Umami”; whad’ya know, good old MSG. Umami rich foods are things like broths, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, concentrated sauces. Mother’s milk is also rich with umami. Oh, mama!

Now, when we talk about flavor, that is the sensory impression based on a combination of taste and smell. It’s the signature flavor that makes something taste like what it is in itself, it’s essential signature; for instance, how the taste of an anchovy fillet is different from that of an apple, to draw a sharp distinction. Closer together, honey versus maple syrup. Still closer, clover honey versus tupelo or orange blossom. 

As you may know Cooky Cat is all about cooking that lets the inherent flavor of the ingredients speak for themselves. For example, broccoli: steam until tender, a little butter and salt . . . serve it. You want it fancy on Delancy? Ok, some velvety lemony hollandaise. Less fancy, sauté with garlic and olive oil. Of course, there is room for interesting combinations of ingredients. That’s where the magic and alchemy comes in. But, by and large, he isn’t too much for culinary extravaganza and bringing in wild pairings. Piled high stunt foods? Cake in the shape of anything other than a cake? NO WAY! (There's a bakery near us that is featured on one of those trendy cake shows. The line of customers can be a block long. Just how good can a muffin be?) No cats with dogs for him. Cats with mice, now you’re talking. He might be tempted by anchovy ice cream, but what cat wouldn’t be tempted by anchovies and cream. But, in combination, certainly not! Cooky Cat would only give it a sniff. 

When we talk about the total impression of a particular dish, what makes it good, the total gestalt is the result of the combination and balance of tastes and flavors and such things as texture/mouth feel, color, shape, size, portion, even temperature. And, then there is personal taste. Our friend as a boy used to like carrot sticks with yellow mustard. He would even sometimes add a dash of prepared mustard to chicken soup. Go figure.

So what makes for a good dish? All you really have to do at least is to follow a decent recipe. The work of choosing which elements and in what proportions is done for you. Now there are countless recipes for any single item. Our suggestion is to compare a few and see how they differ and decide where your preferences lie. Also, if you want to take away or add some elements according to taste. That’s for the cooks. The chefs, the ones who create the recipes, they are the few. 

But here are a few of the secrets to being a good chef. Great is where Cooky Cat resides and you will have to get to that level on your own. He can only do so much. Besides, he likes the room at the top.

If you want to cook like a chef, you just need to look within, Grasshopper. First, you know what you like taste-wise. And, you know what things taste like. Think like a painter. Imagine a culinary palette. You have tastes and flavors, textures, colors, shapes. Start somewhere and just see what comes to mind to add in and pair with it. Let’s say pasta, that’s easy. Or, is it? What kind of pasta shape? A sauce? What would you like? Ok, a cream sauce. Add some cheese in that sauce? Or maybe later, right on top as you serve it. How about a vegetable? What do you like? Broccoli? OK. Like how? Plain or maybe sautéed with olive oil and garlic. Do we serve the broccoli on the side or mixed in? Now, anything to go with that? A salad, of course. What to put in it? The dressing? Hey, that pasta dish is a little starchy/cheesy. Maybe a salad with a dressing with some zing. You know what our friend would say? Mustard! 

So it goes. See what you have on hand and go from there. Cooking to a recipe is fine, but the action in a good creative kitchen is usually based on what is good from the market and at hand in the pantry.

Don’t miss nutrition. Nutritionally, a meal, or the sum of meals for the day, should have variety and pay attention to some generally accepted notion of what food groups to be sure to include on a daily basis. 

Cooky Cat loves food. But, let’s get real here. Food, bottom line, is about nutrition. Certainly it is more; especially in its social and community associations. But, food as entertainment, that has reached excessive levels, and on that Cooky Cat has to say Basta! Perhaps it’s from mama admonishing about all those people starving in other parts of the world to guilt you into liking you food and finishing what’s on your plate, but the idea of people sitting around debating the merits of the terroir characteristics and flavor of something like the flesh of some hapless slaughtered beast versus some other just seems like things have gone too far off from center. Enjoy your food; but, COME ON. Foodies are especially fond of discovering the differences among food stuffs. Some recent culinary deconstructions: coffee, olive oil, chocolate, cheese, sea salt, vinegar. Wine, of course as ever. Now even water! COME ON!

A most recent revelation has been the idea of mixing in fruits in savory dishes. This is certainly not new in culinary history, but Cooky Cat has turned his attention in that direction. Could it presage a trend? Watch and see.

Here is a recipe for Lamb with Quince and Honey. The honey to balance the tartness of the quince. Notice the complexity of spices. Right there is a good example of checking in with your own preferences to see what to eliminate if you want. The dish will work with just the three main ingredients, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. You will notice that the recipe is for a Moroccan tagine. Use a classical clay tagine if you have one, or if you must have one. But a good braising pot will do the trick. (Not to diss the tagine. The traditional Moroccan cookware is fabled for how it adds flavor to dishes. Just don't let not having one keep you from preparing this dish, or anything else called a "tagine" recipe.)

Fall is quince season. Get going. (We just got some right off the tree at the farmers market and they have the most exquisite perfume.)


And, speaking of pasta in a creamy cheese sauce . . . COME ON!

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