Ok, lets get this over with, I have been sitting on this article for a month, trying to get a better more coherent presentation of the facts and it still eludes me. I can’t decide, is it chemists in the kitchen or is it chef’s in a laboratory? Over the last few years an increasing number of restaurants have appeared that are stretching the limits of the dining experience. It seems that it is quite possible to fool the taste buds as they connect with the rest of our senses. In fact one restaurant in Spain served a 40 course dining experience to accomplish exactly that:
Some months back, I wrote an article on herbs in an attempt to describe, what goes with what in cooking with herbs. It was an interesting exercise, basically my conclusion is, that it is a matter of individual taste. Your combination of herbal flavors will reflect your personal tastes, so if you want to create some unique combination, there is no rule against it. The flavor of your creation however, may or may not be all that exciting.
Magical dishes, magical words: A great cook is, when all is said and done, a great poet. . . . For was it not a visit from the Muses that inspired the person who first had the idea of marrying rice and chicken, grape and thrush, potatoes and entrecôte, Parmesan and pasta, eggplant and tomato, Chambertin and cockerel, liqueur brandy and woodcock, onion and tripe? — MARCEL E. GRANCHER, CINQUANTE ANS À TABLE (1953)
A fellow chef recently introduced me to a great book that he has been using to help him in choosing his herb combinations for his rubs and flavorings. It is called The Flavor Bible. This is not a cook book, rather it is a guide that you can use to explore and experiment with your cooking. The authors have done an extensive amount of research and interviewing to assemble a huge index of spices and herbs that have affinities with each other.
The book starts out by exploring the way in which we taste our foods. Besides the four major tasting senses of salt sweet, piquancy (or hotness) bitter and sour we also have another which has been identified as umami or our ability to discern flavor. Of course our sense of smell and the way that food feels in our mouths is also extremely important. All of these elements add up to the dining experience. In the kitchen this means that as we cook we are combining our ingredients to achieve subtle combinations of sweet and sour or saltiness and piquancy.
Finding the correct combinations of the four basic tastes leads to further exciting our sense of umami or flavor taste bud. In fact that is our quest as cooks. We are always looking for the right combinations of subtle sweet and sour, heat (piquancy) and bitterness, when we get it right the whole body says ahh! The chef’s at El Bulli and many other restaurants around the world are looking for ways to intensify that experience. This has led them on a journey into some very non-traditional areas.
To find a way to intensify flavors they have begun experimenting with extreme cold, using something as simple as a nitrogen (iSi) cream whipper it is possible to infuse and concentrate herbs or chocolate nibs into water or an alcohol base like vodka. (You can easily spend a day chasing all the links in the comments on this page alone.) This was developed by Dave Arnold, Director of Culinary Technology from the French Culinary Institute. This is just one of the many projects that they are involved with. Slow cooking, pressure cooking, liquid nitrogen and many others are being examined.
You can also infuse your food by using a carbonation technique shown in this video. The “Mister Fizz” forces the flavor of the marinate right into the chicken.
If you are the adventuresome type which of course you are having read this far, this book will give you a wealth of ideas about creating unique flavor combinations. They have combined interviews and quotes from some of today’s cutting edge chef’s with a huge index of spices and herbs and food pairings. In several cases these pairings are totally different from anything you may have thought about previously.
There are some wonderful changes that have occurred over the last several years in the food industry. You have probably noticed some of these trends. Restaurants that either own or have close relationships with with gardens, that produce their meals with fresh from the garden produce. In some cases they are even ranching and raising their own meats as well.
Cooking methods are being exploited to chase after the best possible flavor combinations. Like “Sous Vide” meaning under pressure where they are cooking an entire meal sealed in a vacuum bag. In a few hours at a precise temperature of 139 degrees they produce a perfectly cooked medium rare steak with all the trimmings in a single bag. It is interesting stuff, as they are studying how the proteins in food break down and combine with other flavors in a low temperature environment. We have always been taught that food must be cooked at higher temperatures of 160 degrees, now they are finding that it may not be necessary.
The scientists, chemists and biologists are also now getting involved in the kitchen. “Molecular Gastronomy?” The dining room on the “Enterprise” of Star Trek gave captain and crew the ability to order anything they wanted for dinner and it was instantly available. This is now getting closer to a reality as concept restaurants like Restaurant Moto are now capable of delivering an experience of concentrated food essences including an edible menu.
The Flavor Bible is a great reference book that will help you to decide the question of what goes with what in the herbal world. As well as fruits and entree pairings, some of which are not what you might expect. If you decide to make the purchase, I would recommend that you purchase the hard copy of the book. I had borrowed my friends copy for review purposes and then bought the downloadable book. That was a mistake, as I discovered that as you begin chasing references around the electronic version has no index to give you the pages you need to visit. The hard copy is only $20 so your savings are not that significant.
HOT HOT HOT!! Spice up your Summer cooking with our huge selection of Chili Peppers and powders at SpicesForLess.com