Friday, August 15, 2008

A Taste Experiment

I'm still unhappy about the chevre thing. But I suspect that most people who bothered to read it just thought I was nuts, or at least a little overzealous. So as an attempt to clarify myself, I think it's time for us to do a little taste experiment. With any luck, it will ruin you.

I need you to go find some foods that you like. I'll use some of my own favorite foods as an example, but the same principles will apply to whatever you choose. I'm going to start with fresh strawberries, and Nutella.

First, take a fresh strawberry and slice it in half. Tap the cut half against your tongue, just for an instant. What did it taste like? Did it taste like a strawberry? You might have caught a little zing. It probably didn't taste much like a strawberry though. It's kind of like when you start to plug a lamp into the wall, and then it doesn't make it all the way and falls out. There might have been a spark between the plug and the outlet, and the lamp may even have lit for a fraction of a second, but it was largely useless.

Go ahead and stick the half strawberry in your mouth, but don't chew it yet. Feel it with your tongue. Even if you washed it (you did wash it first, right?), the outside part of it probably feels a little rough. The cut side of it is much smoother, but is it completely smooth? Maybe not completely. Do you taste much strawberry? More than before, but you're still not experiencing the whole strawberry. So go ahead and chew it. Pay attention to the flavor, and the mouth feel. Have you ever spent so much energy tasting a strawberry? Go ahead and swallow it. You can eat the other half too, if you want to. When you're done, drink some water. You want your palate to be clean for the next part.

Grab yourself a spoonful of Nutella. You can tap it against your tongue if you want, like you did with the strawberry. Taste a taste of it. You don't have to lick off the whole spoonful all at once, save some for a second taste. While you're tasting it, think about the flavor and the texture. It's much smoother than the strawberry, isn't it? But is it completely smooth? Maybe it's a little gritty. That's okay. When dealing with things like chocolate, any particles larger than 20 microns will feel gritty to the tongue. Nutella doesn't have to go through the same process as chocolate bars, plus it has hazelnuts in it, so there may be some grittiness. Go ahead and finish off your spoonful, but don't drink any water just yet.

Before you drink any water, I want you to eat another strawberry. There's going to be some Nutella residue left, and that's okay. What you're tasting now is a burst of strawberry combined with the aftertaste of Nutella. The strawberry tastes a little different now, doesn't it?

This next part may remind you of a certain recent movie. With a clean spoon (no double-dipping), grab some more Nutella and another strawberry. Taste them together. Think about how they tasted separately, and now how they taste at the same time, each at full-strength. Do you like it? Was the strawberry sweet enough, or was it too tart? Could the strawberry have used more time to ripen on the vine? How well do the flavors match?

You might want to try this experiment again, using something other than Nutella. How about a spoonful of Hershey's chocolate syrup? Maybe a melted bar of Guittard chocolate. Maybe even a bar of Amano Chocolate. With each different type of chocolate, the experience is going to change. How about a different fruit? You might want to try raspberry or blueberry. Maybe a mango or pineapple. If you're really feeling daring, try lettuce or celery. Try something that you know will taste horrible. Light has no meaning if you do not also know what dark is.

We're not done yet, but it is time to move onto the next part. For this part you need three pieces of chicken. Go with whatever you like, but I would recommend chicken tenders because they're small, quick and easy to cook, and without seasoning they are probably the most flavorless part of the chicken. That's important. That's also why I didn't choose beef, lamb, bison, or some other strongly-flavored meat. Vegetarians, feel free to use three slices of zucchini or yellow squash. The idea will be close enough.

These three things need to be cooked. Use as neutral of a cooking oil as possible. Canola oil or cooking spray is fine. Olive oil is not. The first piece needs to be cooked with no seasoning at all. The second should be seasoned with salt and only salt. The third should be seasoned with one of the following: chile powder (and salt if the chile powder doesn't have any), Italian seasoning, herbs du Provence, Chinese 5 spice, garam masala, or whatever else you like. The point is, it needs more seasoning than just the salt and pepper. Be careful not to accidentally season one piece of meat with another piece of meat.

When it's finished cooking, go ahead and try the unseasoned chicken. Tastes like crap, doesn't it? Seasoning helps food taste more like itself. Without it, meat (and often other foods) are just not worth having. Try salting it and taking another bite. Better, but at this point you're just flavoring the food with more salt, not seasoning it.

Before you taste the second piece of chicken, rinse your mouth with water and taste a couple of grains of salt. Unless you really like salt, this will probably not be the most enjoyable experience of your life, especially if you used regular table salt instead of Kosher salt. When you have an idea of what salt tastes like on its own, rinse your mouth with water again and try the piece of chicken that was seasoned with just salt. It's better, isn't it? It might even be worth eating the whole thing. The salt has actually had time to get together with the chicken and mingle with it. The flavors have had time to marry, and that's important.

Go ahead and rinse your mouth with water again. Smell the spice mixture by itself. Does it smell the way you expect it to? Taste it. Does it taste the way it smelled? Rinse your mouth with water and try the piece of chicken that it was meant to flavor. Since you (or the spice blend) added salt to the chicken, it was properly seasoned. But the rest of the spices have also caused some seasoning to happen, and they've also added some flavoring. If you've chosen a spice blend that you like, this should be the best of the three pieces of chicken.

Think about how you ate those three pieces of chicken. I didn't tell you to let any of them linger in your mouth before chewing them, but did you anyway? After the strawberry experiment, I'm betting some people did. Hopefully some people also paid attention to things like texture, mouth feel, maybe even how dry or juicy the meat was, or how tender or tough, depending on how well it was cooked.

You don't have to do this next part right away, but I do encourage you to try it. Think about some sort of dish that you like to make that uses a spread. It could be as simple as a sandwich with mayo, or even a bagel with cream cheese. It could be more advanced, like a pasta or potato salad, again with mayo or maybe even just oil. I want you to make your dish again, exactly the way you normally do, but I want you to change the spread to something that you've never used before. If you're feeling ambitious, make the same dish twice, one the normal way and one the new way. On your bagel, try a slice of cheddar, or even a dollop of Cheez Whiz. On your sandwich or salad, try using bleu cheese or ranch dressing instead of mayo, or mayo instead of oil. Yes, I said ranch. I've never hidden my contempt for ranch dressing, and I'm not hiding it now. I've already done this particular experiment hundreds of times, and at least one of those did involve ranch. This experiment is now for you.

Compare your new creation with the old. Did the new ingredient improve your dish? Did it make it worse? Or has it become another way to prepare your dish, along with the one you already knew and loved? I encourage you to try this experiment again and again, on other dishes. Don't just swap out spreads, try pineapple instead of tomato in something. Lamb instead of chicken. Don't be afraid of anything, except possibly spending too much money. If you feel iffy about the possible outcome of your dish, try making a small test batch first. I don't want you wasting food.

Speaking of wasted food, we have now come to the next part of our experiment. Go to a local fast food chain and buy a burger. Then go to another and buy another burger. Maybe you could get together with some friends and have each one go to a different restaurant and pick up a burger. Don't go for anything fancy, just get the cheapest, plainest burgers you can find. This will probably work better with friends, because you can cut each of the burgers into portions to be shared with others. The last thing I want you to do is eat four whole burgers at a time, and I certainly don't want you to be wasteful. Vegetarians, make your own substitution. Go with a salad, a veggie burger, whatever you think is most appropriate.

But I do want you to sample four different burgers at the same time. If you can just get ahold of two or three, that's fine. You'll probably notice that each burger is vastly different from the others. Each burger joint has their own way of cooking the meat, their own type of buns that they use, and most certainly their own types of toppings and condiments that they add. Each of these things is important, and the combination of them will define that restaurant's offering. Take note of which ingredients you like, which ones you don't, and why. Did you not like that onion because it was raw? Would you have liked it better if it was cooked? Take these things into consideration.

For the last part, it's time to go shopping. Go to the grocery store and pick out a type of packaged product. It doesn't really matter which one you pick out. You could go with raspberry yogurt, chocolate pudding, wheat bread, even canned asparagus. The important thing here is that you pick up at least two different brands of the same item, making sure that you also get the same flavor for each kind. For instance, don't pick up banana-flavored Yoplait yogurt and strawberry-flavored Dannon yogurt.

I think you know what to do by now. You're comparing the two different brands. You're not just deciding which is your favorite brand, you're deciding why. Perhaps you like them both, but each has an element that you like that the other doesn't have. Maybe this brand is creamier, but this one has a stronger fruit flavor. Maybe one is too sweet, but the other isn't sweet enough. Maybe one would be perfect if they did such and such.

I hope you're able to try some of these experiments, maybe even all of them. What I'm trying to do here is teach you how to taste food. Once you know how to taste food, it will be that much easier to know how to eat food. Trust me, you're probably doing it wrong. And when you know how to eat food, then you will have some idea of how to cook food. You need to be aware of what your diners target audience is going through before you try to make them happy. If you are preparing food for somebody, your number one concern should be giving them the maximum enjoyment of your abilities. If you are cooking solely for technical merit or some crap, then I hope you're not cooking for anybody but yourself.

One last warning. Beware of snobbery. This world has a lot of great food in it. This week I found myself deciding whether to visit a high-end restaurant for dinner or a hole-in-the-wall little kabob place. Price was of little concern, since work was paying for it anyway. I'd been to both a few times, and greatly enjoyed them both. That night I decided that kababs were going to win out, though I did order a type of kabob that I hadn't tried before. I had no regrets about my decision then, and given the choice now, I might choose the kabobs again.

The point is, I would like you to refine your taste. But I don't want you to refine it so much that you can't be happy with the rest of the world. Maybe your mother-in-law's cooking doesn't surpass Thomas Keller's. I doubt that anyone's does. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it when you go to visit. You should enjoy it, unless she truly is a horrific cook. Learn to enjoy the fine things in life, but not at the expense of the other things in life that make you happy.

1 comment:

  1. I've been tasting things like this for years, however, I imagine you would be revolted by my resulting preferences.

    For lunch, I often like a green salad with craisins, jalapenos, garbanzo ("garbage") beans, ham, chicken, cheese (including chevre!), pineapple, peppers, nuts, bacon, tomatoes, eggs, shrimp, and honey mustard dressing. Every bite has a different but massive and always good flavor.

    That doesn't mean I take everything from the salad bar. Hold the onions, black olives, carrots, and celery because they don't contribute enough. If they don't have honey mustard, I'll fall back to ranch before I waste my tongue on thousand island, italian, or some bitter flavor that poorly resembles blue cheese. I don't cover the whole salad with dressing since a lot of that stuff is better without it.

    For dinner, there's nothing like a Brazilian feijoada, some weird salads, and lots of water. With an orange, of course, to help digest it all.

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