Let’s face it: As a restaurant critic, chef collaborator and writer, Peter Kaminsky has eaten better than the rest of us. But when he found himself at his doctor’s office considering his mortality, he decided he needed to change the way he eats… but not to give up pleasure. He started thinking, instead, about how to maximize his FPC—flavor per calorie. In his new book, Culinary Intelligence, he helps us to strategize on eating healthfully by applying the flavor-supercharging ideas of chefs. This excerpt is from a chapter breaking down the elements of taste. – Ed.
Tartness, like sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, complements the tastes in food, adding life to recipes that would be much less interesting without it: the tanginess of lemon juice, the acidity of wine or a ripe tomato, the undefined but unmistakable zing of a dash of vinegar in a ragout, balances other tastes. Without this balance, the overall taste experience can be flabby, amorphous, uncontained. Tartness frames other powerful, unruly flavors in a recipe.
I think of the other tastes as pushing the flavors in a dish forward; tartness feels as if it is pulling flavor. Try sucking on a piece of lemon and then biting into a freshly cooked shrimp sautéed with garlic. After an initial puckering, you feel your mouth filling with flavor, like a tire being pumped up with air. Very often tanginess is the one missing element that completes a recipe, puts a bow on it, and advertises that it is as full-flavored as it is going to get.
Sometimes the effect of tartness is completely in the background; for example, with beans or lentils, a dash of vinegar or lemon brightens up the occasional palate-deadening effect of these healthful foods. Even though tartness stays below the conscious threshold of taste, the chickpeas or white beans or lentils will wake up.
Tartness is so assertive that one tends to forget that it often serves as a mediator. When we add tartness, we can often increase saltiness or sweetness without fear that it will dominate the recipe. The net result is more overall flavor.
With many meats— which are full- flavored but have no acidity— adding a little tartness is crucial in boosting flavor, almost as important as salting. Argentina’s ubiquitous chimichurri sauce (see below), which combines tartness, saltiness, sweetness, and an herbal aroma, is a prime example. It works with any grilled meat, fish, or poultry.
I haven’t reduced it to a formula, but instinctively I sense that when you use acid as a seasoning, rather than as a dominant flavor— on a slice of roast lamb, a serving of sweetbreads, or a crispy grilled chicken— you effectively double the sensual experience of each mouthful: thus, you are satisfied with less.
In long braises and stews, the acid component of wine keeps the flavor very immediate and focused. Such recipes require acid or they become lackluster, even flabby. Because red wine has bitter tannins as well, it works hand in hand with the acid in the grapes to balance the unctuous rich meatiness of short ribs or boeuf bourguignon. In tomato sauces, white wine is transformational, adding extra tanginess to the sweet, umami, acidic taste of tomato.
Without vinegar or lemon juice, salad dressing would be an uninspiring mix of fat (oil), salt, and pepper. Tartness pulls the fresh taste of a salad together. If not for lemon juice, the sugar in apple pie, or anything based on cooked fruit, would completely dominate. Tartness, with perhaps a pinch of salt, adds just the right amount of counterpoint to a homemade pie’s powerful melody of sweetness.
In Argentine cuisine there aren’t a lot of cooked sauces. I once mentioned to Francis Mallmann that, in all the years I had known him, and even though he had trained in the great kitchens of France and Italy, I had never seen a stockpot in any of his restaurants. He said I surely must have overlooked some. What he would not dispute is that Argentines, Uruguayans, Chileans, and Brazilians like their grilled meat finished with bracing sauces made from fresh ingredients. Salsa criolla, pebre, and mandarin oranges (added to the Brazilian pork- and- beans stew known as feijoada) are all used to focus and embolden the flavors of beef, lamb, pork, fish, and poultry. Of these sauces, I believe that the greatest is chimichurri.
A gaucho without his ingredients for chimichurri is like an American cowboy (or major- league baseball player) without a chaw of tobacco. The mix of sharp, tart, spicy, herbal tastes and the roundness of olive oil pumps up the flavor of already intense ingredients. Traditionally the gauchos make their chimichurri with dried herbs. Francis uses fresh herbs. His recipe gets my vote.
Makes 2 cups
1 cup water
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 cup fresh flat- leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons crushed red- pepper flakes
¼ cup red- wine vinegar
½ cup extra- virgin olive oil
1. Prepare the saltwater solution (salmuera in Spanish): Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt, and stir until the salt dissolves. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool.
2. Mince the garlic very fine, and place in a bowl. Mince the parsley and oregano, and add to the garlic with the pepper flakes. Whisk in the vinegar, and then the olive oil. Whisk in the salmuera and transfer to a jar with a tight lid. Keep in the refrigerator. Chimichurri is best prepared one or more days in advance, so that the flavors have a chance to blend. Serve with côte de boeuf, or any cooked beef.
Excerpted from Culinary Intelligence by Peter Kaminsky. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.