You may want to check out Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg’s “The Flavor Bible” (Little, Brown and Company, $35), which answers all of your questions about food compatibility.
I started reading the couple’s work shortly after I started writing about food full-time, which was about 10 years ago. In a series of books that included “Culinary Artistry” and “Becoming a Chef,” Page and Dornenberg interviewed a number of chefs about their inspiration, their favorite ingredients and what they eat when not at work. Their style was genial, filled with stories and informative sidebars as well as well-chosen recipes.
They have followed a similar route in the much loftier named “Flavor Bible,” which bears an even more pretentious subtitle, “The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs.”
Thankfully, the book proves far more approachable than either name, and it’s a great way for cooks who want to experiment to free themselves from the confines of recipes. “Today’s cooks — professionals and amateurs alike — increasingly seek to create their own dishes,” they write. “In doing so, they celebrate the creative process of cooking as much as the finished product.”
In a short introduction, the authors cover what is perceived by the mouth, covering sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, “the meaty mouth-filling taste that is noticeable in such ingredients as anchovies, blue cheese, mushrooms and green tea.”
They proceed on to lists of food items and the ingredients that enhance them in cooking. Under a heading of red cabbage, for example, you find apples, sugar and vinegar to be particularly compatible while bacon, chestnuts, garlic, onions and game meat such as rabbit or venison should also be considered.
Also offered are what the authors call Flavor Affinities, ingredient equations that add up to something special. Some are no-brainers (“bacon + lettuce + tomatoes,” “pasta + basil + garlic + tomato”), yet there are many intriguing suggestions worth investigating: scallops with bay leaves and vanilla; butternut squash with anchovies, bread crumbs, onions and pasta; vanilla with chicken and cream; and watermelon with cilantro, cream and tequila.
A number of top chefs from across the country are called upon to offer the names of dishes in which they use certain ingredients. Under crab meat, we learn that Monica Pope of Houston’s T’afia serves both Spicy Crab and Peanut Soup with Okra and Crab Cake with Saffron-Sherry Aioli while Daniel Bouloud and Bertrand Chemel offer Crab Salad with White Asparagus, Ginger, Lime and Pistachio Oil at New York’s Café Boulud. No recipes, mind you; just ideas on where to go if you are hungering for crab meat.
A few chefs also discuss the evolution in their approach to various ingredients. The following is one of my favorite comments, from Gabriel Kreuther of the Modern in New York:
“I started working on my watermelon salad years ago at Jean Georges restaurant. It started out as a watermelon and goat cheese salad for summertime. The dish was a very refreshing summer dish with the rich goat cheese and the fresh sweet watermelon. you felt like you were eating in a garden! It then went on to become watermelon with fresh tomatoes, but I still wasn’t happy with it. The texture of the tomato didn’t work with the texture of the watermelon. I then turned the tomatoes into a confit, cooking them in the oven over two hours with olive oil to concentrate their flavor. The dish is now watermelon, with layer of tomato confit topped with pistachios that just get browned in the oven, then a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. The whole thing is then flashed in the oven for just a minute or two to warm it. Just before serving, it gets a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. It is not only a beautiful play of flavors, but of colors as well.”
I put the pumpkin section to use recently to create a quick soup from scratch. I started with some chicken stock and added in a freezer bag of baked pumpkin that I had put up last fall. I then stirred in the following items from the list: butter, chile paste, cream, ginger and a splash of dark rum. As a final touch, I sprinkled unsweetened coconut flakes on top. The end result was lively and fun, a preview of the autumnal flavors so many of us are anxious to arrive.
But it also showed up how limited even an exhaustive book like “The Flavor Bible” can be. Beef should also have been on the pumpkin list, because the two go together quite well, as I once discovered at an Ethiopian restaurant that served a fiery beef stew with pumpkin in it. So, I grilled a rib-eye alongside the steak for a great, if simple meal.
The bottom line is that books like “The Flavor Bible” can get you started, but don’t let them hinder you from making your own explorations outside the lists.