My eyes opened to a very drafty terrain. From the inch of window left cracked open, a crisp, much too chilly breeze had crept into my bedroom. I rolled over to check the clock. 5:50 am.
Darn. Again I had underslept. I convinced myself to lie in bed for half an hour longer, before finally giving in. I pulled on my woolen socks, wrapped my shawl around my shoulders and went to the kitchen to start my chai. As I sat on the wooden stool by the window, I savored the sanctity. It was just me, my plants, and the aromas of pungent ginger and warm elichi cardamom. How sweet is the flavor of sleeping dawn?
Taste – What we taste on the tongue.
Aroma – The odor, the smell.
Flavor – When taste and aroma collide, along with texture, mouthfeel.
Chef Barry Maiden seemed upbeat and excited about the day’s lesson. As I walked in, he enthusiastically handed me a few Q-tips as he concocted solutions, poured liquids, and drew a chart that looked somewhat like my tongue, as he referred back to his Apple screen. I couldn’t help but join in his excitement. Flavors are fascinating.
- We drink some warm citrusy tea.
- Chef reduces it by half and we taste it again.
- Lesson: During reduction, aromas can get lost and flavors become denser. Remember that when you reduce a sauce or syrup.
- We close our eyes and Chef Barry puts a skittle in our palm. No peeking! Close your nose, chew, release your nose, and guess what color, he asks. The sickeningly sweet plastic in my mouth is just not understandable anymore for me. I have to spit it out. I fail miserably.
- Lesson: Skittles are gross. Our eyes give us a lot of information about flavor.
- We do a taste bud survey, trying to map out where in our mouth do we taste the most sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami flavors. I have a fond memory of elementary school here, although I don’t think our teacher was as democratic as Chef Barry is today. And there was no umami test back then either. All of us have different answers, but overall, we come pretty close to what science argues.
- Lesson: Our tongues are all different in regards to sensory details. When making food for someone else, consider who you are seasoning for. Their palate may differ from yours. Perhaps chew on the other side every now and then to see if you can heighten other tastebuds.
- We eat grapefruit.
- Then we eat it with salt.
- Then we eat it with sugar.
- Then we eat it with salt and sugar.
- Valencia doesn’t like grapefruit and gives me her extra.
- Lesson: Salt makes the grapefruit taste sweeter.
- Lesson: Salt and sugar balance the flavor of grapefruit perfectly.
- We drink white wine.
- We taste a lemon and drink more white wine.
- Lesson: Acid with acid makes the sweetness stand out.
- We drink some red wine.
- Then we taste some brie (for the vegetarians) or salami and drink more wine. I taste both before handing the rest of my salami over to Valencia.
- Lesson: Fat makes the wine more refreshing and softens the tannins.
- Lesson: Salami is tasty.
Slightly buzzing with the nature of science and wine, we discuss the game plan for the rest of the day. A salad and soup off!
Chef Barry puts on a game show voice: Achieve perfect seasoning. Balance the flavors. Get creative. Who will prevail and who will be sent home?
We laugh. Today is not stressful. More like, fun and experimental. I am assigned peanut soup and arugula greens. I cannot wait!
Peanut soup – I know I want some spice, as I have been rather obsessed with chili for the past few weeks and love my mama’s peanut curry. I season with salt, cayenne, and a dash of sugar. My garnish is three fried jalapenos, some crisp raw shallot, roasted peanut crumbles, as well as a few arugula leaves. Chef tastes it, thinks for a second, “All yours needs is this,” he says, squeezing in some fresh lime. “Now it is perfect. Nix the arugula, try an herb.” Heard that, Chef.
Salad: My salad is a spin off of the peanut butter cookie Lara Bar. I know I need sweetness to cut the punchy arugula. I put in fresh orange segments, chopped dates, radish for crunch, and roasted peanuts. I blend up a citrus jalapeno date dressing – the dates make it so creamy, which is a cool discovery. I personally love the whole thing. Chef says it has good flavors and textures but to cut the dates up finer so that they only come in the mouth every third or fourth bite. Good advice.
Last but not least, Chef Barry’s class would not be complete without a Steak Off. “Show your skills. Steaks and red-wine pan sauce up in 15!” Yes Chef!
We get moving to sear our meat and reduce our red wine. Steak cooking is always a bit of a mystery to me, as I never know exactly what flavor it is that I am looking for. But I am getting better at recognizing the texture, color, and feel of the steak while I sear and baste it. So that is exciting.
I cook my steak to medium and got a “very good job” from Chef regarding my red wine reduction sauce. “A good nappe,” explains Chef, as he shows how the shiny glaze coats the back of the spoon.
We learn a lot today. Here are some of my Taste and Flavor notes from the day:
- Flavors at hot temps are more pronounced.
- Cold flavors are dulled.
- Taste your food how you are serving it. Chef’s example: In deviled eggs, taste the filling with an egg white, cold temp.
- Did you know that soups and salads are the most popular things to order at a restaurant? I would not have realized that.
- Salt and pepper, acids, and sugars are all very very important in balancing flavors.
- Umami: the savory, soy sauce, anchovies, capers, natures glutamates.
- Taste and season as you go. If your palate gets fatigued, take a break, drink some water, or have someone else taste it.
My tastebuds are changing. I can feel it.