The Key to Great Cooking
It's a chilly morning at the farmer's market and I've just prepared bite-sized sourdough crostinis slathered with farmer's cheese, golden scrambled eggs with a dollop of Ecuadorian fermented vegetables, called Curtido. A woman comes up and eagerly pops one in her mouth. Her eye's widen and she says "these are the best eggs I've ever had". I wish I could take more credit for such a delicious bite but I know the credit is mostly in the local ingredients I'm working with that day. I talk to her about the difference in color and taste in pastured eggs. But we speak even longer about the incredible flavor the fermented vegetables impart to the whole bite. Cooking is not about any singular ingredient but the sum of the parts.
Anyone can become a better cook by understanding one universal concept: the importance of contrast in cooking, aka flavor balancing. Personally, I prefer the word contrast because I think it describes what actually makes a dish balanced or, as my mother says, the reason it "tastes like more". Contrast is the reigning truth in good cooking. It is one of my secret weapons in my culinary nutrition, after more than 10 years of nourishing and teaching: cooking with contrast is what can transform an unhealthy eater to a diehard, plant-eating, more mindful cook. When you understand contrast in flavors, you help develop your intuition as a lifelong cook and in doing so, you are more equipped to invest in your health. Sure, I can tell someone the benefits of eating more omega 3's, polyphenols, fiber and how to get it through food. But it's so much more fun to give people that same information through a delicious experience.
"If it isn't delicious, it doesn't matter how nutritious"
Every great chef is attuned to the contrast in flavor that makes good food hit all the points on the tongue. While most chefs will talk about the importance of using enough salt, the use of acid may be just as important. Acid is the key flavor that creates a counterbalance so that all of the flavors come together harmoniously. I just love the way author and chef, Samin Nosrat, explains the importance of acid. Geek out to her recent interview on The Splendid Table and then go buy her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
So this is what happens now every Saturday at my local farmers markets. For 5 hours I improvise with whatever the farmers bring to the market. And here's the thing that's so special about cooking at the markets: nutritious blends with delicious without pretext. That's right. I don't have to convince the market goers why they should eat more leeks, greens, and pastured eggs for their health. I just have to make them salivate. I do this by counterbalancing notes like asparagus soup with lemon, rhubarb and cheese, grass-fed sliders with pickled onions.
How do you create more pow in your chow?
If your food is falling flat and you're still looking for that next level of yum, start to look for ways to incorporate more acid, either during cooking or as a finishing touch. Many of us reach for more salt or sweet to lift a dish, but acid may be the flavor you're missing. Here are some ideas to get you going:
- lemon/lime juice and zest
- vinegar ie. apple cider, red wine, balsamic, sherry
- tomato paste
- citrus fruit like oranges, grapefruit, tangerine, pommelo
- Herbs like lemon balm
- ferments ie. sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, yogurt
- cheese, like goat or sheep, that tends to be more tart
- pickled vegetables
Let's circle back to that Curtido I used with those golden eggs. The farm stand selling it, sold out within an hour of my demo. Through some culinary improvisation, I inspired the palates of the market goers; the shoppers were happy to have a new ingredient in their arsenal; and the farmers delighted in the quick sales. It's a beautiful thing how a little contrast on the table can bring together so many people.