Monday, February 8, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 8: Where the Flavor At

So you may be staring down a pile of beautiful fresh produce and wondering what to do with it besides eat it plain.  If you're just coming down off of a diet of high-sodium, high-fat, high-industrial-chemical-flavor food, real food can taste a little bland at first.  Not to worry, for it's just your taste buds adjusting.  Before I got pregnant I almost completely eliminated extra salt from my diet.  Everything tasted like cardboard for a couple of weeks, then gradually came back to life in my mouth.  A few weeks later I ate some kind of frozen horror show food (eggrolls or something like that) from my parents' freezer and couldn't believe how ridiculously salty it was.

There are ways to flavor food with real ingredients.  There is always the spice cabinet, but don't overlook things like fresh citrus juice (NOT from a bottle, and certainly NOT from concentrate), buttermilk, "fancy" cheeses, fresh herbs, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, nuts, flavored oils and vinegars, olives and pickles, stocks and broths, yogurt, butter, and simple classic sauces.

Here are some ideas to get you going (and here's a great article on the subject):

  • Broccoli: saute in olive oil and butter with sliced garlic.  Squeeze fresh lemon juice over it before serving.
  • Couscous: add chopped olives, walnuts, chopped red bell pepper, and chopped dates.
  • Green beans: blanch and toss in a vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar, olive oil, fresh parsley, minced garlic, and crushed red pepper.
  • Carrots: steam and toss in butter, honey, and tarragon.
  • Corn on the cob: go Mexican style and smear it with a small amount mayonnaise.  Roll it in crumbled queso fresco, farmer cheese, feta, or grated Parmesan, then sprinkle on chili powder.
  • Portobella mushrooms: marinate in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.  Roast or grill.
Your cooking method can impart flavor too.  There is a whole world of grilling and barbecuing out there.  Try tossing a few handfuls of wet smoking wood chips on your coals sometime.  Oven roasting vegetables brings out an incredible amount of flavor.  If in doubt, roast your vegetables.  Toss them in oil, add salt and pepper, and put them on a sheet pan in a 375 F oven until they're as toasty as you want them to be, stirring occasionally.  Cook vegetables and grains in broth. 

How to pair flavors

Where to begin?  Here's your homework.  Get a paper and pen.  Take out all of your dry herbs and spices.  Take the caps off.  Grab one at random.  Grab another one.  Put them both together under your nose and inhale.  Inhale carefully.  It's not my fault if you're sneezing up cayenne for the next day and a half.  How does it smell?  Do the two things go together?  Do they remind you of anything?  Does it smell like rotting bison ass?  Write your thoughts down.

For example:

You'll start finding patterns.  You'll quickly discover what you like and what you don't.  You may notice that some things smell "warm" and others "cool."

Extra credit: try pairing spices with cheese and giving it a whiff.  Herbs and fruit.  Fruit and vinegar and herbs.

It may take time, but eventually you'll build a mental (or written) list of what goes with what.  And eventually your taste buds will wake up and you'll appreciate the sweet crunch of a fresh peapod, the natural umami of an artichoke, the different flavors and textures of greens, and so on.

A word of caution: not everything you cook needs to have the ingredient list length of your average Indian food recipe.  Less can be more.  Experiment with two or three flavors at a time.  Unless you're actually cooking Indian food.

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