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Spices jazz up cooking

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There is always a new sauce on the market, a new flavor that is supposed to enhance your cooking or cut your time in the galley.

But to simply buy a pre-made sauce is dismissing your creative abilities as a chef and cheating your boss out of a great meal. Yes, it might save time, but pre-made sauces and prepackaged spice rubs don’t offer the flavors that will really develop a meal.

When creating a new dish onboard, we must use our understanding of flavors and how they fit together. Just as we might use tarragon with eggs, we wouldn’t use it with pork. Well, you could but it likely wouldn’t give the meal the impact you desire. It comes down to the flavor profile.

Flavor profiling is balancing the flavors we taste: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. There is a fifth, less well-known flavor, umami (a savory taste).

So how do you create a flavor profile? Take the primary flavor of what you are cooking and then layer it with other, complementary flavors. The primary flavor should have attributes or character notes, appearances, aftertaste and amplitude (how well it blends).

Take grits, for example. You can make a corn soup base to flavor the grits while they cook. You can top the grits with buttered corn. And you can dust the grits with freeze-dried corn powder.
This is layering flavor.

Another example would be rosemary lamb. While you would certainly add other seasonings as you go, it can be layered with the same flavors, such as a lamb stock made from roasted lamb bones. It could be two ingredients or 10.

When we speak about food and how it tastes, we describe the scents we taste, but there remains one flavor profile that is the primary one, and it should unravel as you taste the dish.

Think of it like an onion. It has one flavor on the outside but as you get closer to the center, the flavor changes slightly, often giving you a sweeter core. The same applies to dishes where you create a flavor profile. The flavors should be intense and should each be distinguishable.

If the simple route is more your style, then a great way to experiment with flavor is to start with one basic flavor and keep it as close to a natural approach as possible. You have to coax all the different kinds of flavor out of one item.

For example, take pears. They are naturally sweet. So to coax more tastes out of them, try poaching them in a syrup of pureed pear, sugar and water. After poaching, roast them. You’ll be left with a soft pear with two complex flavors, and the sweetness will be amplified.

A simple yet intense flavor profile with shrimp, for example, might be to to cook them in a shrimp stock, or better yet, dry out the shells (or simply use dried shrimp), turn them into a powder and then coat your shrimp in it before cooking.

If you are unfamiliar with flavor profiles, experiment with cuisines that have already developed profiles, then add something to create your own.

Most cuisines are characterized by the flavor fundamentals and principles they employ. Italian and Greek cuisines share olive oil, olives, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Mexican and Spanish cuisines share tomatoes and oil, but by adding saffron, the cuisine is now more Spanish. Adding lime now differentiates it as Mexican.

Here are some basic flavor profiles of classic cuisines. Use them as they are, or add to them to create a flavor profile for your food.

Chinese: soy sauce and ginger
Indonesian: soy sauce, garlic and peanuts
Asian/Indian: curry (garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric coriander, cardamon and hot pepper). This is one of the oldest flavor pairings, dating back to the 14th century B.C.
Chinese (western) and European (eastern): sweet and sour (sugar and vinegar)
Chinese (northern): hot and sour
Middle East/Near East: lemon and parsley
Turkish, Greek, Iranian, Indian: yogurt, dill and mint
Middle East/Greek: olive oil, tomato, and cinnamon or lemon
Greek: lemon and oregano
Mediterranean: olive oil and tomato
Italian (southern): olive oil, tomato and garlic
Italian (northern): wine, vinegar and garlic
French: wine and herbs
French (southern): olive oil, tomato and mixed herbs
French/Italian (northern): butter, cream and wine
Russian, Scandinavian and Hungarian: sour cream and dill
German, Ukranian, Russian: sour cream and caraway
Hungarian: sour cream and paprika
Scandinavian: sour cream and allspice
Mexican: tomato, cumin and chili as well as lime and chili

Knowing what herbs and spices go well with food items — in other words, how to build a flavor profile — is central to a successful meal. Start with one underlying flavor and add in spices or other ingredients to accent other attributes. When done well, all those ingredients combine to make the meal complex and wonderful.

There is a great spice shop on Las Olas Boulevard in Ft. Lauderdale called The Spice Quarter (www.thespicequarter.com). If you want true flavors to build a flavor profile, check it out. If there’s a spice you want and the store doesn’t stock it, Paul, the owner, will get it for you. They also ship to yachts and have a yacht following already. Be sure to also check out their line of unique vinegars and specialty oils that you can sample and some truly wild spices that can’t be found anywhere else.I recently spent some time in that shop and was very impressed. Let them help you build a true flavor profile.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 20 years. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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