Think back. Do you remember the first time you ever ate a potato? What about a carrot? An onion? Root vegetables and bulbs are one of the most basic elements of cuisine. Too basic, perhaps- and rarely memorable. When was the last time you ignored a filet mignon to fill up on steamed carrots? There are certain types of food that cooks love to prepare because they are delicious and easy. Seared Ahi tuna falls into this category, as does crab, bacon, strawberries and liquor. Potatoes, carrots and onions are rarely the headliners of a meal. They are familiar, comfortable, dependable, and predictable (read: rustic & homely) - but not surprising or tantalizing.
A cook with moderate experience is often faced with the challenge of making ordinary ingredients taste new and exciting. One advantage of root vegetables and bulbs is that they are dirt cheap, abundant, and often available quite fresh from local markets. For someone who cooks in their home, using inexpensive or leftover ingredients to create a nutritious yet savory meal can be a huge coup. Also, you need something to feed your vegetarian friends (at least before their species succumbs to evolutionary pressure).
I'll focus on taste this week, especially on seasoning effectively and tasting food while cooking. I want to highlight presentation as well, because I think I’m good at it, and because it’s the only thing you readers can experience (until they invent a way for you to taste this blog). To illustrate these concepts I'll show you the elegant supper that I created from our humble market veggies... but first you must read the following lecture.
At some point in the cooking process, every dish needs to be tasted and (if needed) re-seasoned (10 points to Gryffindor if you can recite Rule #1: Season Early, Season Often). The key to doing this right is to stop, sample the dish slowly and methodically and take a mental inventory of six fundamental flavors.
Remember- sans salt we would all be living in caves, hooting apelike at mysterious obelisks. Salt is truly the gateway to all other flavors. It makes our mouths water, which helps to dissolve sugars, lipids and aromatics and transport them to every taste bud. Solid salts like rock salt, onion salt, celery salt, and sea salt are great for adding flavor and texture. Table salt can be dissolved into soups and sauces. Chicken stock, shrimp stock, and soy sauce can also be used to add salt and flavor in liquid form.
This is a tricky one, because there's a big difference between “sweet” and “sugary.” My non-professional opinion is that if you can taste the sugar itself, you've added too much. Refined sugar is the usual suspect for sweetening food (berries, tropical fruits, beverages, and baked goods benefit from a healthy dose of white sugar). Brown sugar (in my mind) is a specialized ingredient with a more savory profile (good for barbeque sauce, sweet potatoes, bacon, sausage, ham, and in combination with cinnamon). Honey is excellent for sauces, glazes, and cheeses. Mirin is an interesting alternative in Asian cooking. Beer, wine, and liquor are good by themselves (or by yourself). When reduced, beer or wine can add sweetness and a variety of flavors to soups, stews, and S the B’s kick-ass chili. Hard alcohol and wine can be used to deglaze sauté pans, or as a base for dessert sauces. (Editor’s Note: Like Adam’s Framboise Lambic syrup… sigh.)
Tasting bitterness is not a particularly pleasant sensation. However, I use fresh herbs and spices to add a bitter element to my dishes. My favorites include basil (with Asian cooking, tropical fruit, pasta, or bruchetta), rosemary (chicken, beef, cream sauces), cilantro (salsa, some fish dishes) and mint (the only ingredient where lamb and ice cream share territory).
Not often are cooks are heard to say, “This dish is not sour enough." They probably should. Red meat is great marinated or glazed with a sauce containing balsamic vinegar or citrus juice. Lemon and lime compliment salmon, white fish, or shellfish. Sour Patch Kids, on the other hand, do not play well with other foods.
Black pepper is the staple in my kitchen, along with cayenne and jalapeño. Spice is more of a sensation than a flavor, and is a very individual preference. Use with caution- side effects may include watery eyes, hot flashes, intense sweating, and fire breathing at the dinner table.
Before I started cooking for a living, my diet was devoid of both nutritional value and the greatest of the six flavors. An aromatic flavor is one that hits your nose harder that your tongue. Cheeses, truffles, olives, green onion (scallion), ginger, and fish sauce (yes, fermented drippings of rotten fish) come immediately to mind. Also garlic and onion for savory dishes; cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves for desserts.
Anyway. Now that the rules of the game are set, here's the play-by-play.
Thrice Cooked Fingerling Potatoes with Blue Cheese... Salty, Pungent, & Spicy
Boil potatoes in lightly salted water until par-cooked (warm in the very center, but still crunchy). Chill in ice water until 10 minutes before heating and/or serving. I chose to sauté the whole spuds in butter, garlic, salt, and pepper. Then the entire sauté pan was placed under the broiler until the first evidence of burning started to appear. Large chunks of Gorgonzola cheese were added cold for a rustic presentation.
Puree of Carrot (AKA: Baby food)... Sweet
Trim the carrots at each end and cut to the smallest common denominator so they will cook evenly. Boil in lightly salted water. Puree two cups of carrots in blender with one tablespoon of butter, salt and white sugar to taste (sweet). This dish could have a different character entirely if sweetened with brown sugar or molasses (heavy cream and marshmallow topping optional). Pureed carrots can be plated under the protein, as a dressing, or on the side. I chose to go both directions and use the puree as an earthy base for the potatoes and as a vibrant side dish. When you have a rich color like this, you want to make the most of it.
Sautéed Walla Walla Sweet Onion... Sweet, Bitter & Pungent
Showing off the skillz, step by step. This also gives you an idea of what I'm working with- certainly no Viking range here!
Chop onion into half crescents. Add to a sauté pan with one cup water, 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Salt and sweeten with white sugar to taste. Cook the hell out of them, add more water or oil to prevent sticking and burning. When cooked thoroughly, onions lose some of their aromaticity, but they will also stop making you weepy. Sautéed onions are great when paired with grilled meat, hamburgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Long Green (Chiffonade of Green Onion)... Not particularly tasty
Proof that I kept all of my fingers.
Milford’s favorite garnish. I would advise honing your knife skills on this mostly worthless onion side product. Watch your fingers, soak the long green in ice cold water to maximize curling and serve as a cohesive bunch so that your guest can avoid actually eating it if they so choose.
Blackberries... Sweet & SOUR
Shock the Bourgeois' domestic efforts.
Such an unpretentious meal called for an equally uncomplicated dessert. Though the blackberries we picked up at the market were slightly under-ripe, I tempered this by drowning them in cream and eating them with a fresh-baked biscuit (one of the few gems in my girlfriend’s cooking repertoire).
The finished product- a savory and summery reinterpretation of "bland basics."