Have you ever noticed how rare it is to cook without any embellishment?
Even when an ingredient is so superb that needs little-to-nothing to make it its best, it's our habit to add something to it. I thought of this recently when I roasted some chicken I had bought from Quattro, a game and poultry producer from upstate New York's Dutchess County that sells at the Union Square Greenmarket. All I added was salt, pepper, and 45 minutes in a 350° F oven. I didn't bake the chicken with sprigs of rosemary, nor did I do a citrus marinade first, nor did I add a coating of Dijon mustard and a blast from the broiler. I might have if I didn't know from past experience that Quattro's chicken tastes like, well, chicken and nothing else was needed.
Except mango chutney. Or so thought my husband as I brought the roasted chicken to the table and he headed to the refrigerator for his jar of Major Grey's. It's a flavor combination he loves and for me it means I can make one of his favorite suppers by simply roasting a chicken breast on the bone and keeping chutney on hand.
Much of the pleasure of cooking -- both in the making and in the eating -- comes from blending flavors. In Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, he devotes 65 pages to sauces, including a long history that attests to how peasant farmers 2,000 years ago were pounding herbs and vinegar together to add taste to their ordinary flatbread -- not really much different, in principle, than adding chutney to a piece of chicken.
So I decided to make a list of my favorite go-with flavors. Many of these are classic and familiar, and probably your favorites, too. Others are personal to my palate.
- Chicken and mustard (on a roasted chicken, in chicken salads, on sandwiches)
- Pears and blue cheese
- Lemon and seafood
- Beef and horseradish
- Tomato and basil
- Tomato and chives
- Lamb and feta cheese (feta is a sheep's milk cheese)
- Lamb and garlic
- Apricots and almond
- Duck or goose with fruit (cherries or apricots are favorites)
- Apples and cinnamon
- Apples and cheddar cheese
- Peanut butter and chocolate
- Pineapple and coconut
- Strawberries and balsamic vinegar
- White beans and rosemary
- Mushrooms and tarragon
- Mushrooms and thyme
- Honey and yogurt
- Pork and sage
- Onions and anchovies
- Hot and sour (as in many Asian dishes, combining spicy-hot chile oil with sour citrus as with lime or lemon)
- Beef and carrots (as in the classic Boeuf Braisé aux Carottes)
- Beef and rosemary
- Beef and red wine
- Butternut squash and brown sugar
- Butternut squash and curry
- Gruyere cheese and potato (as in gratins, raclette)
- Nutmeg and spinach (as in classic creamed spinach)
- Maple and walnut (ice cream, cakes, cookies)
- Certain foods in season at the same time (tomato, eggplant, and zucchini combine to make ratatouille)
- Pumpkin pie and port (a standard on my Thanksgiving table)
- Celery and Roquefort cheese
- Bacon with anything
Besides being fun to make this list -- and you no doubt have your own -- there is a practical point I'm trying to make here: If you have several flavor matches that consistently work for you, by keeping those ingredients on hand you can easily add versatility to your cooking. You don't want all of your dishes to taste the same so diversity helps.
But if I were to be asked which flavoring ingredients do I always have on hand -- besides a jar of mango chutney -- I would list:
- Fresh lemons
- Soy sauce
- Parmesan cheese
- Red wine vinegar
- Dijon mustard
- Ground aromatic spices: cinnamon, ginger, and my own curry mix
- Bacon or pancetta
- Red wine
Of course there's more in my pantry than these ten items, but these are my core flavors and with them I can make the most ordinary ingredient into something complex and special.
- Example: Smear mustard on a piece of bluefish or half a chicken and then roast it to make a plain food into one with more personality.
- Example: add minced cornichons to a pan sauce for piquant flavor for poultry, meat or seafood; or to mayonnaise for a sauce remoulade.
- Example: red wine, red wine vinegar, and garlic make a quick marinade for beef.
I can also use these flavors to adjust a recipe that gives me a good cooking technique but might have seasonings that aren't my favorite.
Partnering Peaches To Make a Summer Crisp
A few weeks ago I had bought the first New Jersey peaches available from my neighborhood Greenmarket and I remembered that in my freezer I had a container of extra topping leftover from making an apple crisp a few months ago. I used it to make a peach crisp, and while there's nothing terrible about sweet peaches baked with a buttery crumb topping, its cinnamon flavor -- while perfect for apples -- was a disappointing mis-match with the peaches.
Last week, with a basket of peaches quickly ripening past their prime, I tried again. But this time, remembering a friend's recent rave about peach and ginger sorbet, I made the topping with ground ginger instead of cinnamon. This worked, matching the peaches' musky sweetness with the ginger's subtle kick. See our recipe.
So I encourage you to be self-conscious about your favorite flavor matches. Becoming aware of what you like best might make much of your cooking tastier, easier, and much more personal.