GOD-DESS

Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

Summer 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall

TASTING INTENTIONALLY

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are enjoying the growing season. It's an exciting time to be cooking, but more and more I realize that when people eat, they consume without actually tasting what they are consuming. This essay is meant to awaken all of us who lapse into consuming without intentionally tasting our food.

Because taste is subjective, there is no right or wrong. But there IS intentional versus "accidental" or "non" tasting. Since I'm constantly developing new recipes and techniques, I don't eat out as much as many people do. However, when I do, I am astonished by the lack of intentional tasting in restaurants, and when I do taste intentionally, I'm astonished by what I end up tasting (and often not in a good way!).

Food

So much of the food available in American restaurants is characterized by the absence of flavor. I cannot imagine why people are embracing all of this blandness. A few years ago, a friend and I were in Santa Barbara; our hotel concierge recommended a restaurant a short walk away from the hotel. We ordered the seafood pasta that came with a house salad. I suppose we should have been alarmed that this restaurant had managed to render a standard green salad flavorless (I'm known for my flavor-packed salads, so perhaps I'm a bit biased). The pasta arrived as huge portions; as we eagerly started eating, we each furtively looked at the other: there was NO FLAVOR! We tried adding salt and black pepper, without success in enhancing flavor. Even though it was a seafood pasta, we even added grated cheese in an attempt to help the dish; we were still unsuccessful. Most of the pasta went uneaten; who needs calories without flavor? We were truly embarrassed for them; I warn my travel planning clients to specifically avoid The Elephant Walk in Santa Barbara.

I was excited to order the daily special on my one and only visit to a well-known Italian trattoria on Chicago's Taylor Street: pasta with shrimp in a tomato cream sauce. I couldn't believe the humongous portion that was served; it had to be a full pound of cooked pasta! And yes, there was a tomato cream sauce on everything, and the pile o'pasta was topped by a total of six whole shrimp. The tomato cream sauce was insipid, and the shrimp had not been cooked with the sauce at all, so none of the flavors mingled. It was an insult to Italian cooking, and it saddens me that this travesty is what so many people equate with Italian cuisine (one of the world's great cuisines).

Recently I was given lunch during a client meeting; it was a ham sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and tomatoes. I added mayo, mustard, salt, pepper, and STILL couldn't pull any flavor out. How could they mess up a sandwich? I'll return to that point below, but first I want to relate how many of my fellow diners just wolfed down their tasteless sandwiches. They didn't care or notice there was no flavor; they just ate because it was noon and therefore "time to eat."

In my opinion, most of the meat that one buys in grocery stores has little or no flavor; I have been told that animals have been bred for blandness, so this is one of the reasons I see no reason to consume much meat. I had one client who asked for recipes for chicken breast. I asked him, "Why chicken breasts?" He responded, "Well, they have less fat than thighs and legs, but they don't have much flavor on their own, and they're kind of boring, so I was hoping you'd have some recipes to make them exciting." I told him to eat something else (as an aside, I just read that McDonald's has withdrawn their "spicy chicken sandwich," because they didn't sell well … corporate spokespeople suggested that people didn't want flavor, but spiciness doesn't always equate to flavor). I am astounded by the amount of space in cookbooks and culinary magazines devoted to make bland food more flavorful. Why not just start out with flavorful food?

Wine

I really enjoy wine. Despite an early introduction to wine, I didn't really learn to develop my palate until I was in my mid to late 20s. The reason for this is that until then, I had not really tasted wine intentionally. I sometimes just sipped it as an aperitif, or I'd pour a glass with dinner, or I'd order a glass in a bar or restaurant, but I never "really" paid attention to what I was drinking. I knew there were wines that I really liked, and wines that I didn't care for. I knew I preferred dryer wines, and preferred to avoid sweeter wines. I knew I enjoyed both white and red wines. I knew that a $5 cava was the sparkling wine of choice among my graduate student cohort. But I didn't spend time identifying flavors within the wine. I didn't pay attention to how a wine's flavor changed from the front palate to the mid palate to the back palate. I didn't pay attention to how a wine's flavor changed with whatever food it was consumed with. I did not taste with intention.

Just the fact that I can explain what I didn't do is an indication that I now do all of those things. What changed? Well, for one thing, I just kept tasting more and more wine (ah, education is SO tough). Secondly, in about 1986, a wine shop in Ann Arbor was having a sale on mixed cases, so I decided to splurge; I went in, gave the wine guy the simple guidance that I enjoyed both reds and whites, and that I enjoyed wine with my meals. He put together a mixed case, emphasizing Alsatian whites and California reds (including my beloved zinfandel). I paid attention to each bottle I opened, and studied how it went with the food (we'll return to that below).

After moving to Chicago, I started attending wine dinners and wine tasting events. Sometimes I sample up to 100 wines at these events, and I take notes on each one. Additionally, during the 90s I traveled a LOT, and my travels included both big cities where I could visit wine bars, often ordering flights of "tasting portions" for my intellectual and gustatory education, as well as more rural areas where I would visit wineries. I planned many events during the 1990s and 2000s, and had the opportunity to taste many wines in association with those events. Because I had shifted my wine attention to intentional tasting, my palate became far more educated.

Food with Wine

My parents were quite European in their taste (though Middle American in origin), so they thought nothing of letting me have the occasional sip of wine as a child. When I was a teenager, my mother started making wine, so we always had wine with dinner. I remember having my first wine and food epiphany during my sophomore year of college. I had cooked a steak from one of our steers (grass-raised), made a baked potato, and opened a bottle of my mother's red wine. I took a bite of the steak, then a sip of wine, and WOW! That is the first time I experienced how food and wine could enhance each other.

People often look at me strangely when I describe a wine as, "not very pleasant on its own, but it would be great with food." Although this sometimes happens at a "tasting," it more often happens at a restaurant dinner when I'm visiting with friends, or at a Casa Beall "guinea pig" dinner when I've invited people over to sample new recipes I've created. It is so enjoyable to see people begin to taste food and wine intentionally, and to see their eyes light up with understanding.

Food and wine pairings can be hit or miss, even with intentional tasting. I have participated in hundreds of food and wine events, where food has purportedly been prepared to pair with the wine. Theoretically, others have done the intentional tasting required for a successful pairing. I remember one such event at Napa Valley Grille's outlet here in Chicago. I had enjoyed a reception there when they first opened, and had been hopeful. I invited some friends from out of town to join me there for dinner; I partook of their "perfect pairings" concept, ordering three such pairs for dinner. I also ordered a glass of wine to hold me over until the food arrived. Well, when the pairings arrived, I almost gagged at their incompatibility. I called over our waiter, and explained that my solo glass of wine paired better with the foods than did their purportedly "perfect pairs." He replied, "Well, the kitchen hasn't had a chance to taste the pairings yet." I was livid, and eventually contacted both the manager and corporate headquarters. They repaid me with a gift certificate that I used for a special wine dinner there; that was when I learned that this restaurant had absolutely no grasp of how to pair food and wines. This restaurant is now closed.

I was similarly disappointed at a celebratory dinner a friend and I tried to have at a famous restaurant in Milwaukee. Since we did not know how the food would be prepared, we explained to the waitress that we would appreciate a pairing of a red wine and a white wine with each of the six courses we ordered ( before you think we drank too much, we actually ordered half glasses). The waitress sent over a woman we thought was the sommelier; it turns out she was the chef's wife, and she assured us she would take care of us. I won't bother with details, but not a single one of her recommendations worked; however, we rearranged some of the wines, and made it work. Still, even the food of this acclaimed chef was mediocre, and we left vowing never to return.

Perhaps I'm just spoiled. I've had the opportunity to dine at some of the best North American restaurants, but without any hesitation, I can say that the very best food and wine pairing team in the country are Susan and Drew Goss, first of Zinfandel, and now of West Town Tavern, both in Chicago. Susan is a chef who simply understands food and flavor. Drew describes himself as "husband of the chef," but he's the sommelier with a wine palate (and memory) that puts mine to shame. And when they combine their super powers to pair wine with food at their regular wine dinners, the result is explosively delicious. [Disclaimer: we don't always agree, but I really enjoy speaking with them about "why" we don't agree, and it doesn't diminish my respect for them.]

I've previously written about the mind-blowingly delicious meal and paired wines that my traveling companion and I enjoyed at Peerless Restaurant in Ashland, Oregon (http://www.god-dess.com/services_lifestyleSept04.html); I've only dined there once, but I try to think of that experience as my "first" of many meals at Peerless. And if you go to that link, you find that, just as I like to praise those restaurants that "get it," I also like to warn people - and if I haven't mentioned a bad restaurant by name in the column, I WILL share their names with any of my travel planning clients and friends.

More Intentional Tasting

As I've said, I don't buy or eat much meat; when I do, I try to make sure it is organic, free range, grass-fed, and if possible, I buy heritage meats and poultry (older breeds that always have far greater flavor). I do eat quite a bit of fish and seafood, and I try to make sure that it is wild-caught or wild-gathered. There are exceptions, of course; I find that farmed mussels, clams and sometimes oysters are quite good (but the species of oyster makes a BIG difference). And before leaving the topic of fish, what's this infatuation with tilapia? Unless it is super-seasoned, it has virtually no flavor whatsoever.

This is how sandwiches and other dishes get created without flavor. Assuming the sandwich makers aren't totally without skill, they use inferior, insipid ingredients! Chefs and home cooks must use quality ingredients. Every component of the dish should offer maximum flavor so that the completed whole has maximum flavor.

My final point is about the speed of eating. This is perhaps the greatest value of intentional tasting: if you take the time to taste, you will slow down your consumption. If you slow down, you will enjoy your meal more, and your tongue's taste buds will activate, messages will go the brain, and the brain will realize that satiation has occurred. However, this process takes about 20 minutes, so if one snarfs down a plateful of food in five minutes, the brain doesn't register that food in time to tell you to stop eating, and you end up with unnecessary calories.

You'll note that this month I'm not offering any recipes with this essay. But, if you are a subscriber to my free e-newsletter, you'd get three free recipes or food ideas in the current issue. If you are reading this website but not receiving the newsletter, you're missing out on lots of free stuff. Send an email, and you'll get what I call a "lagniappe recipe" with each issue of the newsletter. Additionally, you'll get lots of food, travel, décor and lifestyle information that never appears on www.god-dess.com. It's free. Go for it!

Are you already tasting intentionally? Let me know. Are you just starting to taste intentionally? Let me know. Are you unsure how to taste intentionally? Let me know. I can help. I can always be found at 773.508.9208 or email. May the rest of your lives be filled with intentional tastings (and tasteful intentions)!

 

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