Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Taste and See

 For my first ten years of cooking, I hardly ever tried a bit of what I was making, in the early stages. Instead, I would taste near serving time and then, usually, add a mad flurry of seasoning in a desperate effort to make the dish taste as I'd hoped it would.

 Of course, that only works to a degree, and it wastes a good deal of spice or other seasoning, because the flavors have to do all their work upfront instead of being able to meld and deepen through cooking. You also tend to use more salt, and who needs that?

 Now, it's not a bad idea to add a small shower, at the end of cooking, of the seasonings you used early on, to bring up and brighten those flavors-- a sort of callback. This goes for uncooked foods, too; anything you prepare can benefit from a final sprinkle. But that tactic should be done as freshening, rather than an attempt to do a major adjustment. Real adjustment comes from gradual, attentive tasting and adding, from letting time work it's magic. The adjustment in my own approach was just as gradual, but steady, once it began.

 My epiphany came while cooking for work-- taking care of young children and their parents, I found myself cooking for families with different palates than my own, who were used to using less salt in some cases, and had drawers of spices very different from my own stock of favorites. My crazed dump-in-a-half-jar system was not appropriate, I knew, for tender young taste buds. Neither did I wish to stress my employers' budgets that way, in the name of caring for them.

 So, I began to taste for seasoning, and to get a sense of the ingredients I was cooking with, during the chopping stage of prep. It is difficult to cook decently with food you didn't pick out personally, without tasting first. The tomatoes can look ripe and rosy, and still taste flat, bland and watery. the carrots may be sweet or bitter and soapy. Tasting as you chop informs your understanding of the textures of the food as well-- and that can be critical to the success of a dish. Knowing how hard, how ripe, how juicy an ingredient is, will help you know how much heat to apply, or how much of a tenderizing element, such as vinegar, that you might need to add.

 This must seem pretty obvious by now, yet so few cooks of my acquaintance do this, that I'm  surprised.  Many talented home cooks I know, never taste. They still turn out good food, but imagine how mind-blowing their dishes could be, then, if they took these extra steps during meal prep.

 The final burst of clarity came after I began working as personal chef to a fantastic boss with a sophisticated, well-traveled sense of taste. Her palate, and her husband's, had been honed by living in some of the finest food cities on the planet, and I wanted very much to please and delight, as well as nourish them. I found myself using fewer seasonings, in lesser amount, to greater effect than ever. I often asked my boss to taste along with me, thereby getting a sense of what she enjoyed. We talked about the food, and I got to experiment freely, in a truly well-equipped kitchen. My cooking, after a long evolution, had solidified into a recognizable style that was generally pleasing and always well accepted. My food had gotten better, my use of ingredients had reached new heights--  a more judicious and informed way of seasoning had truly transformed my cooking. I went on to serve other clients, with their own unique senses of taste, and today, sampling the raw material before cooking is second nature to me.

 What about you?


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