Taste and Flavor: Designing Your Own Recipes

When I was first learning how to cook it was hard for me to tell if a recipe was going to be any good just by looking at it. Any time I wanted to make a dish for the first time I wound up reading recipe after recipe to compare and contrast the ingredients. I still do this to some degree, but by now I’ve gotten used to flavors that pair well together. Unless I’m jumping into an unfamiliar ethnic cuisine, I’m rarely surprised by a combination of ingredients. Now that I’m confident in the kitchen, my next culinary adventure is creating my own recipes. To that end, I recently took an Herbs and Spices class through Portland’s Culinary Workshop. I also received The Flavor Bible as a holiday gift, which is a helpful complement to the class. So what am I looking for when I scan an ingredients list in a recipe? Well, there are a few basics every cook should know.

First, do you know the difference between taste and flavor? Taste is what our taste buds can physically detect. There are only five essential tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Flavor is the combination of taste and aromatics. Basically, the smell of our food significantly contributes to its flavor. When I read a recipe, the first thing I look for is a balance of the five elements of taste. I also look for an interesting, but compatible, variety of textures. Finally, I’m hoping to find combinations that make sense. That’s where The Flavor Bible and the Herbs and Spices class comes in. Melinda Casady, co-founder and instructor at Portland’s Culinary Workshop, pointed out that if a combination hasn’t occurred before, there’s probably a reason. Food is central to human life and we’ve been cooking our food for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Although food can be innovative, the best meals still rely on some basic principles for success.

herbs demo at PCW

herbs demo at PCW

I’ll give you an example. Friday night I had dinner at Grain & Gristle and I ordered their grilled chicories, beets, bitter chocolate, pistachio, and balsamic. I’ve never tried this dish before, but I had a sense that it would be delicious. The chicories and chocolate I knew would be bitter, while the beets, pistachios, and balsamic are all a little sweet. The pistachios also added some salt and crunch. Sure enough, the result was a well-balanced, savory and flavorful dish.

Learning what pairs well together can be a lifelong process, but there are some great resources out there if you want some inspiration. Melinda recommended Culinary Artistry, which is often used as a textbook in culinary schools. Besides books, the next best resource is your self! Think about your favorite foods and what ingredients make them irresistible. In the class we walked through some of the most common fresh herbs and dried spices and discussed common pairings. When Melinda got to thyme I immediately thought “oranges.” This is not a particularly novel combination, but I know from experience that it’s a delicious one.

star anise-key ingredient in chinese five spice

star anise-key ingredient in chinese five spice

I learned a few helpful things in this class that I would like to share. Just as salty balances sweet, sour balances bitter. Melinda’s example was using a lemony (sour) dressing on a kale (bitter) salad. Sweet can also help mellow out hot (honey and cayenne, for example.) Consider the strength of a spice or herb before pairing it up—rosemary has a heavy pine note that will overpower delicate dishes. Fresh herbs typically go in at the end of cooking or are enjoyed raw, while spices go in at the beginning of cooking. Buy whole spices and toast and grind them yourself when you can. In class we compared the freshly toasted spices with pre-ground spices and the difference in aroma was significant. You can use a coffee bean grinder if you have one that comes apart and can be easily cleaned.

The class was a confidence builder as much as anything. I was reminded of how much I’ve learned about flavor and food pairings in the past decade of cooking. The best part is, gluten has nothing to do with taste or flavor. Being diagnosed with celiac hasn’t kept me from enjoying flavorful food. Now that I have some new knowledge and inspiration, I look forward to sharing some of my own recipes on the blog in the year ahead. Some combinations I’ll be ruminating over in the meantime…

  • Juniper and Lamb
  • Nutmeg and cauliflower
  • Mint and Duck
  • Lemongrass and Coconut

Do you have a combination that you love? Share it in the comments! Maybe I’ll be inspired.

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Portland’s Culinary Workshop

DSCN1264Last week I took my first cooking class at Portland’s Culinary Workshop. I signed up for their Healthy Cuisine class and it was such a great experience! Co-owner and chef Susana Holloway designed a menu that accommodated a variety of dietary needs, looked exciting, and tasted delicious. The (entirely gf) menu for the evening consisted of:

Bright beet dip with crackers

Steamed Salmon wrapped in Banana Leaf with Miso Glaze

Sautéed Gingery Pea Shoots

Roasted Root Vegetables with Cashew Cream

Coconut Butter “Pumpkin Pie”

A few years after culinary school, Susana went back for a degree in nutrition. Her passion for healthy food was immediately evident. At the start of class she told us that we would be focusing on nutrient rich, whole foods—not low fat, chemically altered substitutes. That’s when I knew I was in the right place. To me, eating healthy doesn’t mean counting calories, it means designing meals that provide a variety of nutrients, and includes healthy fats and natural sugars (in moderation.) Nuts, seeds, coconut, and natural oils were our sources of fats, and naturally sweet vegetables and fruits provided the sugars. We also focused on cooking methods that enhance flavor without diminishing nutrients, such as steaming and quick sautéing.

the owners' must-haves

the owners’ must-haves

Even though I’ve spent time cultivating my cooking skills, this class expanded my knowledge and taught me some new techniques. This was my first experience cooking with banana leaves and now the process of preparing banana leaves is something I could easily do again. The salmon was steamed in an orange miso glaze. If you’re like me, you avoid miso because it’s hard to know if it’s celiac-safe. Susana used a chickpea based miso that was both gluten and soy free.

salmon in orange miso glaze

salmon in orange miso glaze

after warming on an open flame, banana leaves become soft and pliable

after warming on an open flame, banana leaves become soft and pliable

It was also the first time I’ve made a nut-based cream. I roast root vegetables as a regular staple throughout the fall and winter, but the cashew cream makes this otherwise simple dish feel special. The best part is, there is no cream in the cream! The pre-soaked cashews blend into a rich, creamy texture without any dairy required. This is a very basic version, but in class we added some lemon, olive oil and fresh herbs that contrasted nicely with the earthiness of the vegetables.

My other favorite was the bright beet dip. The brightness was due in part to using raw beets. I am guilty of having held the assumption that beets really need to be cooked to rid them of their natural “dirt” flavor. Not so! Once peeled, chopped, and blended they were so delicious I could hardly get enough. Here’s a recipe that will give you an idea of how to transform raw beets into a bright, flavorful dip.

bright beet dip

bright beet dip

This class reinforced my belief that a lot of flavor comes from using fresh ingredients and a combination of herbs and spices. It was fun and I left feeling full, energized, and excited for my next cooking class at Portland’s Culinary Workshop.