If I had to sum up my personal philosophy on life I think I could reduce it to one word and that’s ‘balance’. While it sounds simple, achieving perfect equilibrium on the scales of life requires quite a degree of focus and discipline. I’m not perfect and many times fall short of my set balance point, but just aiming for it generally seems to keep me in check
Just like life, preparing excellent food also requires balance. Successful cooking relies on getting the flavour and texture balance just right. I began to think about this recently when I ordered a lunchtime bowl of butternut squash, coconut and chili soup in an Avoca restaurant. The flavour balance was outstanding with all the ingredients working together in a harmonious blend on the tongue, without any one ingredient singing louder or harsher than the others. It was the best bowl of soup I’ve had in ages. And so the art of flavour balancing began to dance around in my mind and I came to realise that it is one of the key differences between mediocrity and greatness.
Acquiring the ability to flavour match and balance will also give us more confidence, particularly when following recipes. You know how it is sometimes if you follow a particular recipe to the letter and yet the final dish fails to elicit the pornographic sighs and groans of satisfaction that it did on the tongue of the TV chef. The problem is that we often fail to take into account that ingredients, particularly fresh ingredients, differ. Not every onion, carrot or tomato will always taste exactly the same. This goes for any fresh ingredient. Spices can vary slightly and even different brands of beef or chicken stock for example can change an overall flavour, even if it is a subtle change. For this reason the job of the cook is to continually taste and if following a recipe, have the knowledge and confidence to tweak a few things here and there to balance it up if necessary. In Asian cooking particularly the first thing you learn is that there should be balance in the dish but also balance among the dishes you are serving; hot spicy curry served with a dollop of cool yoghurt for example. Indeed whether it is a French inspired casserole or a fruity Asian curry, balance is the key to success every time.
Think of the individual flavours for a moment; sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy aromatic and spicy hot are general flavour categories. Let’s start with salty. Salt is one of the culinary stars and while there is a great degree of debate about too much salt in processed food, for those of us to who tend to generally cook from fresh, this is not a worry. The right amount of salt can really wake up the flavours in many foods. I always believe in adding a little at a time, tasting and then waiting for the flavours to come alive. There are other ways of adding saltiness without actually adding salt directly. You could try adding a salty food such as ham or bacon, a fish or soy sauce or salted butter. And don’t neglect to try some of the many seasoned or garlic salts on available as these can transform some dishes.
You might have noticed television chefs’ penchant for fresh lemon. This burst of acid can perk up many otherwise bland dishes and falls into the ‘sour’ category. If you are adding acid such as vinegars, lime, lemon or pickles try and do it near the end of the cooking time to retain the flavours. Don’t forget tomatoes can be quite acidic as can berries like raspberry and cranberry. This is why we often let tomato based stews simmer for a while in order to allow the acid to mellow out.
When we think of Sweet, we tend to think of sweet foods but don’t neglect to put a little sugar into savoury dishes. An old pal of mine shared this secret a long time ago. A spoon of honey, maple syrup or a teaspoon of sugar in a stew, a curry or a bolognaise sauce can make all the difference. You will also commonly find this approach in Chinese recipes. You won’t make the dish sweet you will just counter the acidity of the other ingredients. Less is definitely more in this instance, so don’t be tempted to be heavy handed. About a teaspoon of sugar in a dish for 4 to 6 people is about the right ratio.
I always distinguish between aromatic and hot spice. To me the aromatics are the onions (the entire family), garlic, gingers, herbs, celery, and sweet peppers. Hot spices include the obvious such as pepper, mustard, turmeric, cumin and chili; just a few of the favourites. From these two categories many cultures create base trinities for much of their cuisine. Garlic, ginger and chili are a common Asian dish base. You’ll find a great deal of French dishes that have a basic trio of onion, celery and carrot. In the Caribbean it is onions, garlic and peppers together. I also like to include citrus zest in the aromatic category but would usually only add it towards the end of cooking, like I would with fresh herbs such as parsley or oregano.
Black pepper is probably the most common spice in the world. It seems to be added to everything. And the dish needn’t be a necessarily hot dish to benefit from a little perky pepper. Another chefy tip is that if you come to the end of cooking a dish and you think it needs a pepper kick adding it from the pepper pot might not be the best idea. Chefs tend to use a hot peppery sauce such as Tabasco or a hot paste like harrisa rather than sprinkling in the powder at the end. I have seen far too any dishes, particularly Italian, overpowered by too much of this small ingredient which should be a background note on the taste buds and certainly not the main event. Generally with dried spices I think they need time to develop. Quick cook dishes rarely benefit. Dried spices can be quite harsh and so they need that cooking time to mellow out. Put them in at the start and remember oil works best with dried spices. There is a rule of thumb when using hot chili peppers. First of all there are no rules, in that it is a personal taste issue as to how hot you like your food. If you want the chili to blend into the dish then de-seed, chop finely and put them in early allowing time for the heat to cook off. If you want a fresher, hotter effect, put them in towards the end of the cooking time and always remember that not all fresh chilies will taste exactly the same. Of course don’t forget that if you do find that spice going over the top, that too can be balanced with a little creamy coconut milk to take it back down a notch.
Remember to keep tasting your food throughout cooking; it really is the only way to be sure. If it’s too spicy add a little creaminess or maybe sweetness. Too sweet? Then add some sourness or try a little heat. If it’s too sour, do the obvious, sweeten it up. Blandness is counteracted with a salt hit and if it’s too salty add some sourness. The main thing is to get used to adding and subtracting and know when to leave a dish alone. Happy experimenting.
This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie