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Selecting, Blending Flavors

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Chef Hill,

Many thanks for your masterclass on cooking.

I am hoping that you can provide some guidance on how to select and balance flavors.

I am able to get salt and pepper to my taste easily enough, but sweet and sour are more difficult for me, and all the rest from wine and mushrooms, garlic, shallots, scallions, yellow globe onions, carrots, celery, green beans, bell peppers to fruits, nuts, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, other vegetables, milk, butter, cream, bottled sauces, etc. often escape me and leave me just guessing and making blind stabs. To me, in desserts, that apricot can work well with chocolate is one of the mysteries of the universe.

Of course, a good musician can look at sheet music and 'hear' what the music would sound like, and the best composers did at least much of their composing in their heads. Maybe a good cook can do something similar, but so far I'm not there yet. So, when I try something and it doesn't taste very good, I am a bit lost on what changes to make for improvements, and blind stabs at changes can take a long time!

E.g., would ratatouille -- blended into a 'sauce' -- work poorly or well as an accompanying sauce with roast beef, grilled beef steak, grilled chicken, baked chicken, seared and then baked fillets of cod, steamed lobster, roasted lobster, etc.? I wish I could say without just trying them all.

The main technique I have is to reduce the number of flavors back to something minimal, get a balance there, and then try adding back omitted flavors one or two at a time.

On how to select and balance flavors, what approaches can you suggest?

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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Interesting question with several aspects some of which I'll try to tackle.

Many of the ingredients you list are as much about texture as flavour and this is an aspect of the meal that is worth consideration in any case. Ratatouille could be blended into a sauce but maybe one with too much going on at once. Better to think in terms of reworking the ingredients so that one of the major players takes a more leading role or has its texture altered. You could deep fry all three - aubergine courgette and peppers - in a light batter and set them on a tomato and garlic sauce, you could stuff the courgettes with a fine dice of the rest, the possibilities are huge because the ingredients act well with each other, like strawberries and cream or peaches and raspberries. If you wanted the mixture to act as a sauce, then dice the vegetables very finely, then you will have the same interaction of flavours but without losing all the texture and the role of a sauce - something that coats and flavours a piece of fish or meat - still fulfilled

The whole question of what goes with what is complex with major differences in the tastebuds of people around the world and throughout history. The mediterranean diet before Columbus for instance was very different. not just in availablities but in taste preferences. Smelly and sweet combinations were the most sought after, and a fermented fish sauce similar to Nam Pla, garum, was the everyday seasoning, silphium, a now lost spice from Libya which allegedly tasted a bit like asafeotida, occupied the spot as most prized and expensive spice.

It may be good for you to spend some time tasting the ingredients you mentioned separately and plainly cooked and to approach the tasting as if you were judging wine so that you can combine them or spice them successfully. Cabbage for instance has slightly rank and smelly aspects to its flavour so it it's interesting to see that in Hungary it is caramelised with sugar successfully to flavour pasta.

On a more general note, acids like vinegar and lemon are regularly associated with fish. My view is that this is a mistaken extension of the affinity that lemon and vinegar has with fats like butter or oil - to act as balance - and that it is the buttery sauces or oiliness from deep frying that calls for that sharpness and not the delicate flesh of the fish itself.

The subject is massive though and I wouldn't pretend to have all the answers many of which can be personal to yourself and your own tastebuds. I think you are wise to work on relatively simple combinations at least to begin with. Remember that something like an apricot or a lamb cutlet is already a complex item with large numbers of flavour molecules and that highlighting aspects of these existing flavours is a large element in success with complementing and contrasting them as next step.

I'll stop now before I start to bore you

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