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Balance And Harmony In Food

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    Balance And Harmony In Food

    Just before this section are sections on how taste and smell work and discussions of how smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight work.

    It is helpful to think of a meal as a musical performance. Some dishes are a simple flute solo, direct, pure, elegant, uncomplicated. Think grilled steak, salt and pepper only. Some dishes are string quartets, complex, harmonious, exquisite. Think grilled chicken, dry brined, with an herb rub. Some dishes are the whole orchestra, graceful, luxurious, swelling with sumptuous depth and compatible notes. Think a grilled duck with a mole velvety sauce fashioned of chiles, onions, broth, pureed almond, herbs and spices, and knitted together with unsweetened dark chocolate. Some dishes are a brass band, loud, boisterous, attention getting. Think Southern style pork ribs, unctuous with rivers of fat, salted, rubbed with herbs and spices and sugar, smoked, with a layer or two of succulent sweet tomato-based sauce amped up with vinegar and half the spice rack.

    Chefs refer to the combo of flavors as a dish’s flavor profile. Like music, our food has instruments with distinctive characteristics, and some seem to harmonize effortlessly, they complementeach other, while other conflict violently, they contrasteach other. Both can work. A yellow blouse can complement a brown skirt or contrast a blue skirt. A violin can play a duet with a cello or with a French horn.

    So let’s put it all together. Let’s make a dish that has all the components, but let’s make it balanced. Let’s make it so nothing is sticking out and overpowering the other elements.

    Let’s make The Big Salad. In Seinfeld episode 88 Elaine asks George to get her The Big Salad to go from Monk’s Café. "What's in The Big Salad?", George asks and Jerry replies "Big lettuce, big carrots, tomatoes like volleyballs." So that’s a start. The lettuce, presumably iceberg, brings us a lot of water, cold water hopefully, and perhaps a hint of bitterness. If Monk tossed in some arugula and romaine it would have noticeable bitterness. The carrots bring in crunchy texture and a bit of sweetness from natural sugars. If monk left the skins on, they too would bring in some bitter notes. And those tomatoes? Well if it is August, they are sweet, sour, and savory. Their texture is tender in contrast to the carrots, and the jelly in the center is thick and viscous. Anybody object to some small cubes of boiled potato for more textural variety and the slowmo sensation of starch changing to sugar in our mouth? Or hard boiled egg? In Southern France the classic Salade Nicoise has both potato, hard boiled egg, boiled green beans, thin sliced onion, olives, bell pepper, tuna, and of course, anchovies. So right off the bat we have some serious complexity going on. Let’s amp it up to 11. Let’s get it firing on all cylinders.

    We can start by grilling up a chicken breast and slicing it and serving it hot on top. That will add temperature contrast to the cold lettuce and more umami. Hey, what the heck, lets toss on some bacon bits and bring fat, and salt to the party and even more umami. Now let’s liven things up a bit with a few sprinkles of hot pepper flakes, and maybe toss on some black grapes sliced in half for more sweetness and puckery astrigence from the skins and seeds. We could sprinkle on some blue cheese to add more astringence as well as saltiness, and get this thing smelling strong.

    And we haven’t even started to make the dressing yet! There’s a chance for another balancing act. We could go with the most basic vinaigrette, vegetable oil and white vinegar, fat and acid. But that’s pretty boring. Lets give it more depth and switch from plain white vinegar to white wine vinegar. Let’s take it up another notch and switch to an extra virgin olive oil which has olive flavor and a peppery punch in the back of the mouth. How about a little mustard to add flavor, but more important, to act as a emulsifier to make sure that the oil and vinegar mix and stay mixed for a while? But that vinegar is really tart and it is really overpowering. We can reduce the vinegar or we can bring it to heel with something sweet, like sugar, or honey. Hey, we made a honey mustard vinegar! Sugar doesn’t alter the acidity in the vinegar, doesn’t turn it off, but sugar harmonizes with vinegar and makes it less oppressive. In fact sugar acid balance is one of the most important core concepts in creating dishes. It varies from person to person, but there does seem to be an, ahem, sweet spot where the two coexist in perfect harmony and finding that consonance is a big step to making you a great cook.

    The most obvious examples are Chinese sweet and sour dishes. Take the sugar out of sweet and sour pork and it is inedible. Take the vinegar out, and it makes your teeth squeak. This sweet/sour tango is what makes most barbecue sauces a treat, sweetness with vinegar. Sugar can also do the delicate dance with salt that makes sweet ketchup love salty French fries and honey glazes the perfect pair for salty hams. So it is handy to remember that when the tomato sauce is too tart, when your hand slips as you are pouring the salt into the pot, a sweetener can't remove the excess acidity or salt, but it can balance them and bring harmony to the world.

    Let’s turn up the amp and add a pinch of salt. Salt opens up the tastebuds so more tastes get through. Salt also plays off the sugar and if you have never had a potato chip dipped in chocolate, put this book down and go melt some chocolate. This combo, called sucre et sale, sugar and salt, by the French is another classic. Think salted caramel candies.

    Now let’s get in some smelly aromatics by smashing a garlic clove and toss it in because, well, you just need garlic in everything and you never know when a vampire is near. While we’re at it, let’s add some mince shallots because shallots and garlic go together like peanut butter and jelly. Maybe we have some fresh herbs in the garden so how about we add the heady aromas of some finely chopped thyme? If we’re doing the Nicoise thing, we need tarragon and maybe some chervil.

    What we have done here is make sure this dish has it all. It will look great, smell, great, taste great with sweetness, acidity, sourness, bitterness, spiciness, fat, saltiness, umami, and soft as well as crunchy texture. We have the full orchestra!
    OK, maybe I’ve gone a bit overboard. Sometimes you want a brass band, but sometimes you want a flute solo. Sometimes the more stuff the better. Sometimes, not so much. But always you want to stimulate the senses, and the mind.

    HOT TIP: Amping Up Your Salad. If you want to really improve the salad, slice the tomatoes into wedges, and then slice the onions, and then place them in a bowl. Salt them generously. They can take the salt and the salt amps up the flavor. Then drizzle some balsamic or red wine vinegar on them and a sprinkle of oregano. Toss them in the fridge for 30 minutes to an hour.

    Winning Teams
    In deciding which way to go, it is helpful to learn some of the great combinations. Sugar acid is one great balletic tandem, and acid and fat is another. Fat coats the tongue, and acid washes it away. Sweet and salty is another as in salted caramel or potato chips dipped in chocolate (if you haven’t tried this, put the book down and go do it now). Red wine and red meat, white wine and white meat are traditional, but my favorite wine combination is sweet French Sauternes with a great blue cheese like French Roquefort, Italian Gorgonzola, or English Stilton. Pork and apples. Ham and pineapple. Strawberries and chocolate.

    Here are some flavor combinations where 1 + 1 = 3

    Acid <--- > Sweet (Example: Lemonade)
    Sweet <---> Salt (Salted caramel)
    Fatty <---> Acid (Fried Chicken with Sauvignon Blanc)
    Sweet <---> Spicy (Kansas City BBQ Sauce with Cayenne)
    Bitter <---> Sweet (Tea or Coffee with Sugar)
    Salt <---> Umami (Salted Steak)
    Umami <---> Bitter (Soy sauce and Wasabi)

    Geeze my mouth is watering.




        Pass the gravy please. And, what’s for desert.


          OK - 100 years ago the Chinese dynasty emperors had a chef for each meal of the year. One chef, one year to prepare and cook, one meal to deliver per year. And they were busy every day, just like I'll be when the book comes out.

          I'll get fired. I'll go broke. I'll whine to family and friends 'but what about the MEALS!'

          It'll happen to others. You'll have a class action suit on your hands. That's when you'll know YOU'VE REALLY MADE IT AND CHANGED THE WAY WE LIVE!.

          And you missed the combo of original Doritos scooping out fresh avocado in your narrative. Just sayin' you missed a big one.

          Meathead I can't wait. But maybe you should delay this till I retire?


          • Meathead
            Meathead commented
            Editing a comment
            Doritos and avocados! How did I miss this?

          • EdF
            EdF commented
            Editing a comment
            You going to be making a movie about this food apocalypse? Sounds like it could be a good one!


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