The Flavor(s) of Love, or, Learning to Cook from the Heart (not a cookbook)

Quick – list a synonym for the following three foods: cinnamon, meyer lemons, mushrooms. Anyone? Anyone? Or are you too distracted by the title of this post? (Admittedly, it’s got me alternately saying “flavor flaaaav” over and over and singing “Seasons of Love” from Rent, with the word “seasons” replaced with “flavors”).

Well, even if you weren’t able to come up with any synonyms, I did want to share a couple of the gifts I received for Christmas that may shed some light on how food can have synonyms: The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg and The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit:

What’s so interesting about these two books is that they focus not on recipes, but on flavors that complement each other. Really, this is no new concept–we all know that certain foods just go together: peanut butter and jelly, apples and cinnamon, grapes and cheese, roast chicken and thyme, etc. But these books are organized in such a way to help you really become in tune with the flavors of your dishes, offering suggestions for compatible food whether you run out of a certain seasoning as you’re preparing a meal or whether you’re just looking for a little variation in some of your favorite recipes. I’ve only owned them for a mere 48 hours and already recommend them highly for anyone who knows even a little bit about cooking.

Essentially, both books are just lists of foods that work well together. The Flavor Bible begins with a discussion of taste and how to pair foods together in balanced ways. It then lists almost every possible food or ingredient you might prepare in the kitchen along with all the other foods or ingredients that work with it, all in a neatly prioritized list of more popular to less popular pairings. The Flavor Thesaurus is similar in format, but includes more stories, anecdotes, and recipes regarding many of the pairings. Segnit is more critical of the classical pairings and encourages thinking outside the (recipe) box to explore new flavors.

What I like about both books is the empowering confidence they give to encourage creativity in the kitchen. An aside: I suppose my first official experimentation with flavors occurred in 4th grade. I was at a friend’s house (a friend who first introduced me to the marriage of peanut butter and vanilla ice cream, mind you), and her mother had recently brought back some sort of lovely smoked chili pepper powder from New Mexico. We decided to use it to make some “salsa.” And we did this by adding some water to a bowl and dumping in spoonfuls of the smoked chili pepper and other spices until it turned close to the red color of salsa. Chunky salsa? Forget it. As a kid, you hate chunks – especially when you can discern individual vegetables. Ours was the thinnest, runniest salsa in the world. But it tasted delicious because we made it–we invented it–from scratch! (Unfortunately, when I attempted to recreate the recipe for my mom, she did not quite share my enthusiasm for the watery concoction, but politely made a few tortilla chips soggy in it before reaching for the jar of Pace).

I have always wanted to be the kind of home cook that could just add a dash of this or a dash of that or decide to chop up some of these and add them to a dish at the last minute. But it wasn’t until I started cooking more and more that I began to scratch the surface of how I could adapt a recipe to suit the ingredients I had or the flavors I like. And I would presume that many of us want to break free of being the type of cook who does what Segnit describes as producing “fingernail marks running below the recipes” in our favorite cookbooks.

My first practical application of the ideas in these books came last night as I prepared some biscuits with which to eat our leftover Christmas ham. I decided to make a trio of ham biscuits– a biscuit sampler, if you will. Consulting my own flavor memories and my new trusty guide books, I decided that ham would  pair well with cheese (I had pecorino-romano and American slices in the fridge), thyme, or dijon mustard. And therefore came up with this:

Ham Biscuit Sampler: (from left to right) Classic Ham and Cheese on Buttered Biscuit, Ham in a Dijon Mustard Biscuit with Caramelized Onion Relish, Fried Ham and a Drizzle of Honey in a Pecorino-Romano and Thyme Biscuit

I made a basic biscuit dough and divided it into three to add my jazzy ingredients separately (see below), put them into a 400F degree oven for 30 minutes, and crossed my fingers. They turned out brilliantly! I did try to make a Marsala wine reduction to drizzle on the pecorino-romano and thyme biscuit, and somehow that didn’t quite work out as planned which is why there is an unattractive mahogany blob atop that one in the photo, but one tiny failure pales in comparison to the sweet and savory flavors I managed to fit onto one plate – all variations on the same theme.

Here’s how I did it.

According to Michael Ruhlman, a biscuit dough is (by weight) 3 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part fat. From this ratio, we can assume the following:

Basic Biscuit Dough

– almost 2 cups flour
– 2/3 cup milk
– 6 tablespoons cold butter, diced
– 2 teaspoons baking powder
– 1 teaspoon salt

Biscuits are made by combining the dry ingredients. Then cut in chunks of the butter (either with a pastry blender or two forks or even your hands) until you have “pea-sized” crumbles in the bowl. Pour in the liquid and mix until it comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Roll out to a large-ish rectangle then fold into thirds. Roll out again then cut into desired shape and bake. (Note: If you want super flaky thin biscuits, this roll out and fold into thirds business is repeated several times over the course of several hours. I didn’t have time for that today).

From this recipe, I can safely say that my other biscuits are represented in the following recipes (each makes 4-6 large biscuits):

Dijon Mustard Biscuits

– almost 2 cups all-purpose flour
– 2/3 cup milk
*2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard*
– 6 tablespoons cold butter, diced
– 2 teaspoons baking powder
– 1 teaspoon salt

Pecorino-Romano and Thyme Biscuits

– almost 2 cups all-purpose flour
*about 7-10 sprigs thyme, leaves plucked from the stem (or about 1 teaspoon dried thyme)*
– 2/3 cup milk

*medium handful of finely grated pecorino-romano cheese*
– 6 tablespoons cold butter, diced

– 2 teaspoons baking powder
– 1 teaspoon salt

Naturally, if you want to do a sampler as I did, don’t make three separate doughs – just divide your basic dough into thirds and roughly mix in the other ingredients by hand. I cut mine into different shapes to indicate the difference in dough flavors.

I am inspired and energized by the idea that this is just the beginning of the many original dishes I might create in the new year. It requires an attention to detail, a passion for taste, and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to play. As adults we too often shy away from the type of unhindered creative play that children engage in as they learn about the world. I encourage you to join me in bringing that sense of play back to the kitchen. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – just go with it and see what you learn in the process. Send me your ideas, your thoughts, your trials and tribulations, failures and successes. Let us support each other that we may always be inspired to remember the adventure of cooking.

So who’s with me? Anyone? Anyone? YEAH BOOYIIE!

Oh, by the way, here are some stellar pairings for the ingredients I listed at the beginning of this novella of a post:

* cinnamon: apples, chocolate, ginger, pears, pork, red wine
* meyer lemons: cream, other citrus fruits, vanilla
* mushrooms: butter, cream, eggs, fennel, garlic, marjoram, parsley, sake

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One thought on “The Flavor(s) of Love, or, Learning to Cook from the Heart (not a cookbook)

  1. […] up with my own original twists and variations on classic pairings and dishes. Thanks to some of my Christmas gifts, I feel more confident about doing this and sharing them with […]

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