Making it all come together, deliciously

CHEF'S CORNER

September 18, 2002|By Michael Gettier | Michael Gettier,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Why does a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich taste so good?

There's just something to the combination of the smoky bacon, the crisp lettuce (perhaps the raison d'etre for iceberg lettuce) and the acidity of the tomato that tastes so great. With the addition of a bass note of black pepper and gustatory lubricity of the mayonnaise, the package is complete.

This synergistic combination of ingredients is what drives a cuisine with depth of flavor. The different components of a dish complement and enhance each other, not competing for the palate but standing on the shoulders of each other, offering heightened flavors. It is not the laundry list of ingredients that makes a dish successful, but the way they work together.

We are all familiar with this concept to some extent: When one salts, it is not to taste the salt, but better to taste the ingredients. A touch of sugar in coffee or tea is not to layer the bitterness of the drink with the sweetness of the sugar, but to combine the two to create a smooth and mellow flavor.

Some flavor combinations can be more obvious than others. While the combination of pancakes and maple syrup is familiar to many, a touch of sherry in mussel soup might not be as intuitive.

There are different components of flavor, the skillful combining of which ensures a successful dish. In the kitchen we think of flavor much like music - bass, mid range and treble, with both short and long notes. As some examples, the treble: salt, vinegar, lemon juice, raspberries. The mid range: onion, leek, mushroom, cognac. The bass: black pepper, glace deviande, roasted garlic.

Indeed, these are very subjective subjects (as flavor itself), but the application of a full range of flavors leads to a rich and full cuisine. Along with the actual flavor considerations are choices of texture, such as the crunchiness of lettuce in the BLT or the slight al-dente nature of a well-made risotto.

At Antrim 1844, we make a smoked asparagus soup that is greatly enhanced by a small amount of sesame oil; the slight nut and smoke flavor of the oil, though not easily identifiable, adds to the overall flavor of the soup. It is interesting to note that the successful combination of flavors relies on not only what is put in, but what is left out. The only vegetables in the soup are leek and asparagus; when more ingredients are added, the flavors quickly lose focus, and more becomes less.

This illustrates that the point of seasoning is not to stack flavor upon flavor, layer upon layer until the cacophony of tastes overwhelms, but rather to bring about the orchestral blending of the flavors to make the whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Certainly it can be seen that if the members of the orchestra were playing their own theme, specific to that instrument with the intention of highlighting it, the result would be chaotic at best. Just as the instruments must play in a method to subjugate their individual sounds for the vision of the conductor, specific ingredients must play their parts for the vision of the chef.

The results of these small marriages of food can be profound to the taste buds. A touch of cayenne in a white sauce, not to employ heat but to add a foundation of flavor; a pinch of tarragon and cognac in a lobster bisque; even a small dice of celery that is necessary to complete our shrimp and Roquefort gratin - not that one misses the taste and slight crunch of the celery but the dish just doesn't seem complete without it. If a sauce just doesn't taste right, add a slight pinch of sugar.

The ability to compose these types of synergistic combinations comes from a subjective understanding of flavors and how they tend to interact with both the palate and other flavors. The development of this understanding is very easy - taste. Constantly. Taste at the beginning of cooking, before a certain ingredient is added, and after. Take specific note of the changes caused by a pinch of sugar, a dash of salt and a splash of vinegar.

The balances of acidity and alkalinity will become more and more intuitive, just as the repertoire of taste-familiar ingredients will grow. With careful tasting, more and more flavor combinations will be drawn into the circle of what can be successfully combined in an intuitive manner. The quiver of culinary arrows grows with each taste.

As we approach the fall season, as a chill comes to more days and the terrace gives way to the fireplace, deeper and richer flavors of foods are more appreciated. Again, our analogies with music seem appropriate. Just as in the spring and summer the lighter, more pastoral musical compositions seem in season and in the fall and winter the more complex great symphonies are appropriate, so it is with food.

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