Global Flavors, Local Ingredients
The first bite …
There are many old kitchen maxims that have been foisted upon countless generations of cooks and chefs, preached with a reverence usually reserved for holy scripture or the latest Taylor Swift album. There is one saying that has aged for me like fine … milk: “The first bite is in the eye.”
I heard this daily in culinary school and during my tenure teaching, I propagated this lie. In fairness, “lie” may be too harsh a word. The lesson of this cliché is the importance of how visually pleasing food stimulates our senses and appetite. This is true—and it also has led to an era in fine dining of visually enticing dishes that are totally lacking in flavor. Flavor is the foundation of eating. Presentation entices us, aroma draws us in, but flavor stimulates and satiates our palates, embeds in our memories, and keeps bringing us back to the table.
Flavor exists in every ingredient. The task of the cook is to maximize each one and layer them in such a way that they explode in the mouth, triggering receptors in the brain that make you say “yum.”
Heat changes the natural flavors of food. A fresh red pepper is vibrant on the tongue, sharp and bright with a hint of bitterness and residual sugars that dissipate quickly from the palate. Roast that same pepper and peel it, and the bitterness is replaced by a robust flavor with depth, sweetness, and complexity. Red pepper slices on a chicken sandwich, meh; roasted peppers on the same sandwich makes the chicken taste better. Add mayonnaise, and another layer of complexity and taste sensation is achieved. Add roasted garlic to the mayo and the flavor goes up a few notches. Add lettuce, and now the texture and flavors change. Swap the lettuce for arugula; the peppery tones of the arugula accentuate the richness of the pepper. Want a sweeter flavor? Add basil. The variations are infinite and there are few wrong choices, but some combinations yield more pleasant results than others.
Different cuisines and cultures use the same ingredients in different applications. In this country, cinnamon is often associated with sweet foods or desserts. My first encounter with cinnamon in a savory application was courtesy of Mexican cuisine and it was mind expanding, like listening to Dark Side of the Moon for the first time.
Braised beef layered with cinnamon, chilies, garlic and many more ingredients—since that first taste of machaca beef, I have searched for new and different flavor combinations like Lewis and Clark. Much like those explorers, the wisdom and knowledge of indigenous cultures were indispensable in my journey to search out more flavors and how to use them.
The classic (old) Euro-American culinary relies heavily on layering complimentary flavors and the mantra “fat is flavor.” To be fair they didn’t use many spices and herbs because they didn’t grow in the colder climates of Europe and North America. That was the point of Columbus’ voyages, and the ensuing Columbian exchange altered the great cuisines of the world permanently and enriched our palates, changing the character of why we eat food from merely fuel for the body to flavor and pleasure for the mind and soul. Flavor for me as a chef is not a singular entity, rather an amalgamation that becomes greater than the sum of its ingredients.
No worries—I am not abandoning my beloved triumvirate of cream, butter, and bacon; rather using less of those items and adding more acids like citrus juices and different vinegars. Hot peppers dried, fresh, and/or fermented is another way to layer flavors. Coconut milk is a versatile alternative to cream and can be utilized in similar ways. Add a little cornstarch, sugar, and vanilla and it can be whipped like cream as well.
This season, try these recipes highlighting flavor profiles that are less commonly found in South Jersey: Halibut with Crabmeat Crust and Minted English Pea Purée; Grilled Octopus with Za’atar Spiced Chickpea Salad; Roasted Pepper and Fresh Ricotta Rolls with Pistachio Pesto; and Grilled Peach and Blackberry Crumble with Coconut Whipped “Cream.”