A recipe has no soul.
You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.
Check out this month’s video, Building Flavor, in which Persnickety demonstrates both recipes from this month’s column. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Food is not just fuel for our bodies, but nourishment for our souls. What is the magical component that transforms food from fuel to feast? Seasoning. Yes, it really is that simple. There are many components to a great meal – quality ingredients, proper technique and good tools are all important. Their impact, however, is often diminished by lack of, or improper, seasoning. Seasoning makes good ingredients taste better, by accentuating or contrasting the best attributes of the product. Buying the best chicken in the world, then roasting it perfectly until crisp and golden brown without seasoning it properly, makes as much sense as buying a ’67 mustang for trips around the block to the local WaWa. Proper seasoning elevates even the most humble ingredient. Confident seasoning takes practice, along with some trial and error.
The most common mistake in seasoning is adding the herb or the spice at the wrong time. Dried herbs and spices generally benefit from longer cooking times. This allows the seasoning to be rehydrated and the flavor slowly extracted into the dish. Many dried spices such as coriander, cumin, paprika and curry powder benefit from being lightly toasted in oil/fat to maximize their flavor potential. All brands of spices are not equal in potency or flavor. Inexpensive spices are often less potent than their pricier counterparts, if you have to use twice as much you are not saving any money. The quality of a spice also diminishes over time. Unless you are feeding the masses, those large containers of spices are not a bargain for the home cook. Check the expiration date of your spices. If you have any Schilling brand spices, they are at least seven years old and should be discarded. Adding old spices to quality products makes as much sense as putting on a clean shirt without showering. Another way to get the best out of your spices is to buy whole spices and grind them yourself. Small electric coffee grinders work great for most spices and are available for fewer than $20 in most places. Make sure you clean and dry it between different ingredients. The only thing worse than cinnamon in your pepper is fresh ground pepper in your morning coffee.
The most intimidating phrase to the novice cook in a recipe is “adjust seasonings to taste.” When I say this phrase in class, I hear a chorus of, “But chef, how are we to season it if we don’t know what it is supposed to taste like?” Here is a little checklist of questions to ask yourself when fine tuning your dishes.
- Does it need more salt? The answer is usually yes. Salt reduces bitterness and amplifies the other flavor components of a dish. Add a little at a time, let it dissolve and work its way into the dish, then taste the dish again. If you salt lightly throughout the cooking process, you will often find that your dishes need little or no adjustment.
- Is the dish balanced? Do you taste the spices in the dish? If not add a pinch more. Spice amounts in a recipe are guidelines. The amount needed may vary depending on the freshness and quality of the spices you are using.
- Does the dish taste flat? You can taste the salt and spices, but something is still missing. Try adding a little bit of acid. Fresh lemon juice does wonders in brightening the flavor profile of food.
- Does the flavor lack depth? Try rounding out the savory flavors with a splash of soy or Worcestershire sauce. For tomato based dishes, try a little tomato paste for that extra oomph.
- Is the dish lacking richness? Few things bring the flavors of a dish together like fat. Sometimes all a dish needs is a little butter or cream to tie the disparate flavors into a cohesive dish.
Next time a dish doesn’t taste just right, ask yourself those five questions and make the necessary adjustments. After 30 years of cooking, I still do this with every dish I make.
To see the effect seasoning has on food, this month’s two recipes follow the same technique and have the same two base ingredients, chicken and mushrooms. The variables in the two dishes are the seasonings used in the recipes. Chicken Marsala and Chicken with Tarragon Mustard Cream. Both dishes will be constructed in the same matter, but take note how different spices and flavors yield two totally different results. In order to achieve results like a professional chef, you don’t need a $5,000 dollar stove or a $300 dollar knife, you just need to think about how to maximize the flavor of every ingredient in the recipe. When this is achieved, the results are priceless. Thinking about the food and the function of the ingredients will give your food a soul. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
Chicken with Tarragon Mustard Cream
- 2 6-ounce skinless chicken breasts, lightly pounded
- Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 tbsp mustard
- 2 tbsp fresh tarragon, roughly chopped
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- ½ cup chicken stock
- Splash white wine
- ¼ cup cream
- Juice of half lemon
Heat sauté pan over medium heat. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly flour chicken breast, shaking off excess flour. Brown chicken on both sides, approximately 3-5 minutes per side. Place on shallow baking pan. Cook 5 -8 minutes in oven until done. In same sauté pan add shallots. Lightly sweat. Add mushrooms. Cook until softened. Deglaze with white wine. Add mustard. Reduce until almost dry (sec). Add stock. Reduce by half. Add cream. Reduce until thickened. Add tarragon and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add chicken into sauce. Serve with noodles or rice pilaf and sautéed green beans.
- 2 6-ounce chicken breasts
- Seasoned flour
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 cup Marsala wine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1 tsp rosemary
- 1 tsp parsley
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat sauté pan over medium high heat. Add olive oil. Flour chicken, shaking off excess flour. Brown chicken 3-5 minutes on each side. Remove to shallow baking pan. Finish in oven 5-8 minutes. In same sauté pan, add garlic and shallots. Sweat lightly. Add mushrooms. Brown. Add thyme and rosemary. Deglaze with Marsala. Reduce by half. Add stock. Reduce by two-thirds. Taste and adjust seasonings. Swirl in butter, a little at a time. Reduce until thickened. Add chicken back in. Coat with sauce. Serve with pasta and roasted asparagus.
Jon Davies is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University of Culinary Arts. His work as a chef has taken him to Aspen, Colorado; Cape May, NJ; and the odd private jet for culinary gigs for the rich and famous.