Thursday, March 12, 2015

5 Senses: The Dining Experience

Flavor Profile
   Your flavor profile is the bouquet of everything that goes into your dish. This gives your food personality. Your guests have usually made up their mind about the dish before it even touches their lips. The biggest mistake for the unprofessional cook is to underestimate the importance of plating. Here is the order in which people enjoy their food; smell, sight, taste, touch, after taste & hearing. When all of these experiences are pleasant the guests leaves having enjoyed the meal, when even one of these is lacking in quality the entire taste of the dish may be compromised.

   Smell. About 75% of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. And your guest starts smelling his/ her meal before it has even left the kitchen. This means the entire aroma of your restaurant or home may affect the way their food tastes. This means if you have heavily scented candles or are wearing perfume, it may affect the way your meals taste. This means when you burn your rice, and scoop the white rice off the top, it will still taste burnt even though it isn’t scorched. To create a pleasing aroma, that your guest will take notice of, add some fresh herbs or citrus zest to your dish, just before serving. It will act like a palate cleanser for the nose!
   When I am cooking for a large group or just cooking a lot of food, to minimize some of the excess aroma I crack a window. It’s not to say that the smells are bad, in fact often, they are pretty wonderful, but I don’t want my guests to get an overload of the smells before they get to the dish. This way, when I walk out with their plate the fresh aroma comes with me, and it adds to the initial appearance of the dish.

   Sight. Just like children, adults are making up their mind before they even know what it tastes like! A simple but beautiful plate design is my first choice every time. It gives the dish a clean, gourmet look without making it look overly complicated and intimidating. The other focus you should have is color. When you have a plateful of potatoes, pasta or mushrooms, it may taste great but it’s very drab looking. Brighten the plate up with some Broccoli, Carrots, Tomatoes or other colorful veggies.

   Taste. What we’ve all been waiting for. It is important to remember that the enjoyment of your food isn’t solely based on taste, that is not to say, however that taste is something we can skimp on. Rather than talking about ways we can boost the flavor of your dishes, as that is what the entirety of this blog is about. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what pitfalls can quickly ruin your diner’s experience.
   Seasoning. Probably the biggest trap of cooks everywhere is seasoning. You have an amazing soup, it’s seasoned perfectly, and as it’s simmering away waiting for dinner time it’s condensing and the salt to soup ratio is going up. Your soup is getting saltier and saltier by the minute! A perfectly seasoned dish is the goal of every cook. There is only one way to achieve this goal, tasting. When you put a dash of salt in your sauce, taste it to make sure it’s just the way you like it. When it comes to salt, under seasoning is always better than over seasoning. If you accidentally add to much salt, you can counter act the taste by adding a bit of lemon juice. If you don’t add enough seasoning than your dish may taste like it’s missing something, but guests can always add a bit more as needed. The only way to know, is to taste your dish as you’re cooking & again before serving.
   Bitterness. Many green vegetables, for example are bitter. Brussel’s Sprouts are a perfect example, even when properly cooked they may hold onto some of their bitter flavor. Preparing bitter greens with garlic or spicy peppers is the perfect way to hide that bitter taste.
   Burnt. Once you burn it, it is burnt. There are however, two types of burnt. Burnt flavorful, as in you blackened it & it has a beautiful dark crust but it is not yet bitter. And burnt burnt- it’s time for a trip to the trash can. If you accidentally burn something to that first part where it is flavorful and not yet bitter think about how you can make that a good thing. Spicy & BBQ flavors go very well with that blackened cut of meat or fillet of fish, so play that up and add some spices and call it Cajun!
   Home cooks burn things for usually one of two reasons, the heat is too high & they lose control or they get distracted and forget… leaving it cooking too long. I have a magical solution for both of these for you today. If you have kids running around or find yourself easily distracted by the television set a timer. Always, always set a timer, even when you know you won’t be distracted this time. If I have a crazy day & need a timer, I always set my timer for a few minutes before I expect it to be done, that way I have time to get to it & I have some wiggle room if I estimated wrong. If you have experienced the losing control of your heat: you’re sautéing and everything is going well until all of a sudden your garlic is starting to burn and it doesn’t matter how much you stir that bad boy is getting more cajuny by the second! I have two tips for you, if the pan is getting too hot, take it off the burner for a few seconds to a minute and let everyone settle down. The other tip is to have a small glass of water or stock nearby. When the pan starts getting to excited through a splash in there and it will settle things down. Also keep in mind, medium- high heat is as high as you will ever need to go, almost assuredly. You want to keep things only as hot at you need them, higher heat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to eat sooner, sometimes it means you end up ordering carry out instead.

 Touch. Texture is one of the most missed aspects of cooking a dish. Perhaps because not everyone is texture-sensitive, but I am! I can enjoy just about any flavor, but if my broccoli is mush or my banana is too firm- I just can’t swallow that. (pun attempted…) As a chef, two things come to mind; first, don’t over or under cook your food- it needs to be just right. Depending on the dish there’s some wiggle room in what that means. When cooking meat, I use a thermometer & make sure it is the exact temperature that I want it. For vegetables I check if they are fork tender & I taste one. For pasta, I taste test. Keep in mind; if you take your pan off the burner but leave it in the pan, it is still cooking. When you pull that roast out of the oven, the internal temperature is continuing to cook the meat. Don’t allow these things to scare you, just keep in mind, if your sautéed mushrooms or seared asparagus is done to perfection- get it out of the pan. This is where timing is important, and learning that comes from experience. You want everything done at the exact same time so everything is perfectly cooked & hot. If that’s a problem with what you’re making, turn it into a fancy meal & serve courses- your family will get a kick out of it and you’ll be able to relax and cook everything the way you want- perfectly!
   Second, you have to be aware of what all the different textures are that are going into your dish and answer one very important question- do they work together? If they don’t, that doesn’t mean you have to trash anything & start over. Simply serve those items separately to avoid any unhappy eating.

After Taste. This is rarely something you need to adjust your dish for, but it is something you should keep in mind before serving your dish. The most common issue I’ve seen with after taste is when eating something fried & fatty and you’re left with that fatty coating in your mouth, that totally ruins what would have otherwise been a delicious dish. Acid is the best way to cut through that fat. It can be as simple as serving your crab cakes with a lemon wedge, or a splash of balsamic vinegar when you’re finishing sautéing. Wine or citrus sauces are a great pairing with heavy, fatty dishes.
   You can also serve a palate cleanser after the dish. A fresh flavored sorbet is my favorite palate cleanser. Something as simple as a slice of orange or fresh cucumber salsa can act as a palate cleanser as well. The goal is to have your guests walking away feeling totally satisfied & maybe a little impressed with the little extra things you were able to do that they never would have thought of.   

Hearing. Finally, hearing. This is used constantly by the chef, sounds give you all kinds of clues as to how the cooking is going & when things are ready for the next step, it is a skill you develop from experience- so start paying attention & you too will master this very useful skill. For the diner, it is also an important part of the meal & in my experience where home cooks do the most damage to the dining experience. NEVER talk down about your food. If it tastes bad, they’ll know when they taste it, you don’t need to forewarn them. If you’re nervous about what you’re serving, say something about how it was fun to try something new or how you learned a new way to do something. A simple, “I hope you enjoy this too” is perfectly fine. DO NOT degrade your food, you’re always going to be your worst critic. It literally does not matter if you like the food or not, it is all about their experience. Let them decide for themselves if they like it. When you talk down, or warn them it might not be very good, you’re telling them to expect bad things so they are looking for that thing you’re afraid of & it affects the entire experience.

   I hope this helps you see things from a different perspective. As the cook you’re providing an experience. This is the same if you’re a chef in a restaurant, catering a wedding or cooking dinner for your family. This information is meant to provide you with a better understanding of why chefs do the things they do & how as a home cook you can steal some chef secrets to create a whole new experience for your family. This doesn't have to mean more elaborate meals, just more attention to detail. Now go have fun in that kitchen of yours!  

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