spring awakening: thoughts on cooking

Sous chef Veronica, though she is 12 years younger than me and almost sorta could be my daughter, is also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met when it comes to cooking—I guess that’s what homeschooling gets you. She also has one of the largest cookbook collections I’ve ever seen—that’s what living in a family of wonton thrifters gets you. So when truffleista Maresa (another ridiculous smartie I’m lucky to work with) and I started talking about the idea of chocolate + maple cream (maple cream is super duper concentrated maple syrup. It’s like those little maple sugar candies, but….creamier. Basically, it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever tasted, and it’s a local product for us in upstate NY.), and when I then got obsessed with said combo (maple syrup + chocolate is weird to me because maple syrup has that slightly bitter edge to it and so does chocolate, but maple cream is an altogether different, and sweeter, matter) and I got obsessed with making a maple chocolate, Veronica loaned me an awesome book to get my creative juices flowing (like, erm, maple sap!): The Flavor Bible. It’s a weird and awesome book, full of small ideas for making your cooking better. As the authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, put it, it is “the essential guide to culinary creativity, based on the wisdom of America’s most imaginative chefs.”

Before I started reading the book I had the chocolate pretty much planned out in my head, but the book is so crammed with other ideas that I thought I’d post a few here. (The choco, in case you’re wondering, is right now going to be a Bourbon Bonbon, with local whiskey syrup and local maple cream encased in a delicate little chocolate shell…ooh yeah.)

Thus, to get our springy minds salivating in anticipation of produce and feasts to come, here are some completely random bullet points courtesy of The Flavor Bible that I will keep typing until Jacob yells at me to come help him with the kitchen floor, which we just started redoing, at midnight, 2 days before we have friends coming to visit for a few days:

  • Maple pairings that they recommend: almonds, anise, apples, apricots, bananas, blueberries, caramel, carrots, chestnuts, chocolate!, cinnamon, coffee, cream (coco that is), dates, figs, ginger, hazelnuts, lemon, lime, macadamia nuts, nutmeg, nuts, oats, onions, orange, peaches, pears, pecans, permissions, pineapple, plums, prunes, pumpkin, quince, raisins, rum, star anise, sweet potatoes, sugar, tea, vanilla, walnuts, whiskey (yeah!). (Basically the book is a compilation of flavor pairings like this, along with lots of interesting tidbits and dishes some of the chefs they consulted make with the ingredients mentioned.)
  • They also mention a stellar-sounding dish, from Wild Sweets in Vancouver: Maple and Anise French Toast with Lavender Custard. Hmmm…interesting!
  • And also this maple syrup, BLiS, which is aged in bourbon barrels and sounds perfect perfect perfect.
  • Here’s a nice idea: Rick Bayless’s Vegetarian Texas Chili (god, I love that dude): “Ancho Chile Braise of Grilled Woodland Mushrooms, White Runner Beans, Green beans, Calabacitas, Cumin, and Beer, topped with Mexican Queso Anejo and Red Onion.” Have you ever made calabacitas? It’s a super tasty summery dish, and is really nice as a taco filling, and/or with black beans—my quickie recipe for it is to sauté in some olive oil, a diced onion, a diced poblano chile pepper, some diced zucchini and summer squash, then season it well with sea salt, cilantro, toasted and ground cumin seeds, and maybe some chile powder.
  • Dornenberg and Page break food down into: what is perceived by the mouth: taste buds (sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, umami), mouthfeel (temperature, texture, piquancy and astringency), what is perceived by the nose (aroma), and ephemeral other factors like visual presentation. Good things to think of when building flavor.
  • They also discuss how different chefs bring different approaches to food, which they divide into the physical realm, for chefs like Dan Barber and Alice Waters, who focus on seasonality and local sourcing; the emotional realm, for chefs whose “cuisines are closely tied to a specific culture, its people, and their traditions,” like Rick Bayless has done with Mexican cuisine; the mental realm for chefs who “reconceptualize how food can be manipulated and presented,” like our pal Grant Achatz of Alinea; and finally those sort of insane perfectionist dudes like Daniel Boulud and (I’d say) Charlie Trotter, who “elevate…not only their cuisines but the creation and orchestration of ambiance and service as well,” which they sorta weirdly call the spiritual realm.
  • I’ve been making double stocks once in a while for years (where you make a stock, then infuse it with other ingredients to flavor it more deeply), but Dan Barber (ooh, who my intern right now used to work with him!) calls that technique a remoulage. Who knew?
  • “In modern architecture and design, form is said to follow function. In the cutting-edge world of avant-garde cuisine, which turns classic dishes inside out for the sake of argument or even simple amusement, form follows flavor.” Hmm. I’d argue that molecular gastronomy/avant-garde cuisine doesn’t usually do weird things for the sake of “argument,” it’s a discipline that seeks to break out of traditional flavor pairings and create truly new tastes, while, at its best, staying true to the fundamentals of good technique. But, you know, whatevs.
  • There are a lot of fascinating ideas from Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago (on my list for my next trip to the Windy City). He describes making intensely-flavored pancakes by pureeing cooked pancakes then making pancake batter from this puree, as well as making concentrated cookies by dehydrating cookies then using them as the “flour” when making the same cookie recipe again. Interesting stuff!
  • Whenever I’m reading about avant-garde cooking, I can’t help but think, as a snobby vegan, how so many restaurants still fail on the basics. It’s so depressing to think about making avant-garde food for people who have forgotten (or never knew) even what a good basic sandwich should be like. As well, avant-garde cooking and molecular gastronomy sometimes make a lot of (often deconstructionist) puns on their plates, and it depresses me to think that our food culture is so reduced that so many people don’t get the sly reference that a plate of, for example, kidney beans with a whole simmered tomato, one roasted garlic clove, an onion pancake, all garnished with chile powder is making (I just made that example up–a terrible example of “deconstructed chili”!). But then again, I shouldn’t be so down on people’s palates—there is always an audience for good food, no matter how strange or smarty-pantsy it may be.

Alas, there is so much more to say. But Jacob just poked his head in to see if I could start scraping up the underfloor floor thingie, so farewell for now, darling 1s and 0s!


4 Responses to “spring awakening: thoughts on cooking”

  1. Carrie

    Yay for calabacitas! Love this post and all those combinations and possibilities.

    I hate to be this way, but I know you care, so:


    unless they really were thrifting for crunchy fried treats.

    • lagusta

      Oooh no, please correct me! Nothing worse than a typo. Thank you!!!! :)


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