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Cooking With Secret Ingredients

March 19, 1997|MICHAEL ROBERTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberts is the corporate chef of the Twin Peaks restaurants in Southern California

We use two basic senses to appreciate flavors: taste and smell. Our sense of smell excites our sense of taste, and when both senses are excited, the food we eat tastes better.

When we use more than one flavor ingredient in preparing a dish, they play primary and secondary roles. Primary flavors are the obvious ones that give a dish its principal taste, like the tarragon in a chicken tarragon.

But tarragon needs secondary ingredients--a hint of celery seed and anise, for example--to make it interesting and complex, ironically, to make it taste more like tarragon.

Secondary flavors are secret ingredients. Using only one herb or spice to achieve a certain taste usually results in a lackluster dish. When I prepare broccoli soup, I always finish it with a little walnut oil and a dash of Pernod. The secondary flavors are not meant to overpower the broccoli but to keep it lively.

Whether they function in a primary or secondary way, flavors combine in different ways: They marry, oppose or juxtapose.

When flavors marry, they combine to form one flavor--either something new or something superior to the original. Curry powder is an example of many herbs and spices combining to produce a new flavor. The combinations that fall into this category are sometimes overly complicated and have such a confusing effect on the palate that what we end up with is something completely different from any of the original ingredients. Another obvious melange is chili powder.

When primary and secondary flavors marry, the resulting flavor is greater than the sum of its parts. It may sound like an eccentric combination, but vanilla marries with lobster, enhancing its flavor.

Some secondary flavors act as catalysts. Their function is to marry with, and change, a principal flavor. Garlic, when used as a background flavor, is my favorite catalyst. It makes other flavors brighter.

Ingredients that are acidic, like vinegar, citrus juices and wine, give backbone to the flavors of a dish, keeping the primary flavors from disappearing. Red or white wine, for example, will embolden the other flavors in a sauce. A stew benefits from the addition of an acidic ingredient because the flavors of the dish remain intact throughout the long cooking. Vinegar can be used as a catalyst to lift certain flavors out of the background and make them seem more prominent. Potato soup needs a hint of vinegar to make it more interesting.

The cliche "opposites attract" is particularly apt when working with flavors. Opposite flavors can cut, cancel or balance each other or they can highlight each other.

Astringent flavors oppose other flavors by cutting through them. Examples of astringent flavors are mint, cucumbers, apples and grapes. Apples and grapes are popular with cheese because they cut its strong taste. Cucumbers will cut the taste of mustard in a sauce. Mint cuts the fatty sensation of lamb.

Sometimes opposite flavors have surprising effects on each other. When you squeeze lemon on smoked fish, you combine the flavor contrasts of salty and sour so that each has a stronger presence. Ice cream tastes sweeter and pecans taste saltier when they are combined in butter pecan ice cream; in this instance, sweet and salty ingredients highlight each other.

When the flavors of a dish are balanced, opposing flavors diminish or even cancel each other, so that no one flavor stands out. Tart and sour flavors can balance salty ones. A 1/2 teaspoon of salt that might be perfect in a Sherry-butter sauce would go undetected in a lemon-butter sauce. More salt is required to balance a tart or sour ingredient than a sweet ingredient.

Vinegar can diminish the taste of salt if we have been too liberal in its use. Sweet relish cancels the salty flavor of hot dogs. Sugar cancels the bitter flavor of cocoa powder so that chocolate is palatable. Spicy flavors are balanced by fruity and sweet ones. You may not have tried it, but watermelon with Tabasco sauce is a very pleasing combination. Sweet wine and black pepper make a delicious sauce. Other examples of combinations that react together in this way are ginger and sesame, lime and capers, apples and tarragon, and vinegar and sugar.

Because flavors are sensed on different parts of the tongue and palate and because they are tasted at different times, we can juxtapose them. Flavors and aromas that are juxtaposed neither marry nor fight. Although a first bite may not immediately reveal all the flavors of a dish, we eventually taste them all when they are juxtaposed. The layering of flavors makes the food we taste more interesting because each mouthful is different.

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