Hi Dear Hearts!
How wonderful it is to chat with you again! June was the most interesting month of the year so far. Here, in the Upper Midwest, there are so many festivals and events each weekend that I can barely think of anything else to do. Hon, the farmers markets, and Norse festival, and Swiss polka festival (I love the yodelers! And, of course, the charming Dairy Queen fulfilling her burdensome duty of serving fresh cheese curds to passers-by) and hot air balloon races were delightful, and charming, to the point of unbearability. So much good food and libations, well, should be left only for the most special of times…but they are flowing freely each weekend somewhere nearby! Dear Rose is getting a bit spoiled with all of the elegant small-town kindnesses. But, I do think of you often, Hon and will always send along the latest.
This month, Dear, we must continue our talk about food building blocks and now it is time for Taste. Most cooks, but not myself by any means, consider taste to be the Queen of the dish- it’s most important and over-ruling aspect. Not so! As I have talked with you before, it is but one of many different aspects of a prepared food dish that must be considered. But, Dear Heart, it tends to take credit for everything, doesn’t it? Many people will forgive a tough or unpleasant feeling morsel, but if the taste is incorrect, the food will be judged inedible.
Unlike the type of vehicle or mouth feel, which involve the food’s physical qualities, taste is the tongue’s interpretation of the chemical properties of the food. But, your personal preferences are also involved. Taste is complex, Dear, and cannot be taken lightly. There are now recognized five different types of tastes that the human tongue can perceive; these are: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. We all know the first four, but the fifth has only recently (officially since 1985) been allowed into this elite club. Umami, quite simply, is the savory taste of food. It is linked to the presence of the amino acid L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides, such as guanosine monophosphate (sometimes referred to as GMP on food labels) and inosine monophosphate (sometimes referred to as IMP). I apologize, Dear Heart, for all of the science language, but I did want to make it clear that I was not making this all up! Like salt, umami enhances the taste of foods. You have experienced umami when you partook of a savory broth that felt meaty (deepest apologies to the vegetarians among us) and rich. If you have ever used bouillon to enrich a soup, you used it to increase the umami of the dish.
Taste, Hon, is something that most of us instinctively know how to control- we use a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper or a bit of herbs or spices to give a dish the flavors we wish to have. Most vegetables and meats add their own characteristic favor to a dish, some mild and some gregarious (recall the distinct fragrances of fennel, celery and onions). Herbs and spices go beyond the common and well into the realm of personality. There are more herbs and spices than one could possibly account for in a short essay such as this, but taste each one before adding it to the dish to assess its flavor compatibility, its strength and its appropriateness.
I have just covered so much, Dear, that I want to stop and say few things before going on. Salt does not necessarily add flavor, so much as it enhances (or magnifies) flavor…unless you use a lot of it; then the food will taste, well, salty. There are types of salt, the most common being sodium chloride. But, there are also salts made from potassium chloride for those who are trying to control their sodium intake. Different salts taste different. Pepper adds an edge(sometimes heat, depending on the type of pepper- there are many!); when used in moderation, the actual flavor can blend to the point of anonymity, unless you add a lot of it. Herbs are fresh or dried leaves or non-woody plant parts (except the fruit) which add unique flavor to a dish. Spices are generally fruits, such as berries or seeds, or bark or roots that have essential and aromatic oils; besides flavoring they can also add color to the food or mask other (perhaps undesirable) flavors. Herbs can usually be added directly to the dish or placed in a spice bag or cheese cloth, then removed (the latter is for those that do not break down during the cooking process). Spices can be added whole to the dish (only if small, otherwise they are put in a spice bag and later removed) or crushed (using the flat side of a knife, or a mortar and pestle) before adding. The flavors of salt and pepper are eternal during cooking, that is to say they are not changed by the temperature or duration of cooking. Herbs and spices, on the other hand, might. The use of herbs and spices is a high and ancient art that is long-learned and whose mastery is well-earned. Indian and Middle-Eastern cooking have an ancient and rich cooking tradition with numerous and complex mixtures of herbs and spices. Dare I say such a thing among the company of friends, but one article I read accused them of being addicted to spice orgies. Scandalous accusations, to say the least, from some bland-palleted Western curmudgeon.
Well, I hope I have given you enough to ponder with this brief essay. Please spend some time, alone, with your spice rack (or wherever you store your flavorings) and begin tasting a little of them to understand what each has to bring, literally, to the table. When cooking, Dear Heart, please do not add flavorings to a dish unless you have experience with it or are following a recipe. It is always prudent to take a few tablespoons of the dish being prepared into a separate bowl and add a small bit of the proposed flavoring to that first. If the result is pleasing, then proceed with caution when adding the flavoring to the entire pot. Remember, salt flavors immediately. Peppers and herbs, if well-ground, take up to ten minutes to fully release their flavors into the food, so don’t add more until you taste again some time after adding it. Whole spices take longer for their flavorings to escape their often hard little packages. Restraint is better than ruin when it comes to them. Don’t forget that some spices and herbs (such as cilantro) are unstable and will fade, rather than amplify, with cooking. Consult a good reference book on herbs and spices for specific qualities and characteristics- no kitchen should be without one.
Goodbye for now, My Dear! My thoughts are always with you and until next time, Kisses to you!