It's funny, looking back at all those years as an apprentice and commis chef, there was always someone there tell you how its done. Here are the rules for making pasta, cooking the perfect steak, filleting fish, shucking scallops. However, no one ever teaches you how to be creative, there is no simple guidelines for a young chef to keep his creativity focused. As a young chef it was sometimes like a creative bomb went off on the inside of your head and as you try to reproduce your epiphany you end up with a dish that tastes and looks like a train wreck. You learn it in time and you either got it or you don't... well so I thought. So what I am sharing with you are simple factors always ticking over in the back of my mind as I experiment with a new dish or am trying an exotic and unfamiliar ingredient for the first time. I hope you can make use of it also. The system is simple.
Okay, before we start lets get your head around the basics of seasoning. This in the end is the foundation of cooking well. As mentioned there are four simple ingredients to cooking, or perhaps elements may be a better description (not including your staple or main ingredient) They pop up in all cuisines, cultures and cooking styles.
Now wait, before you decide this wasn't what you signed up for, believe me when I say it all traces back to these four elements. (Truth be told there is a fifth seasoning called Umami, but we shall get in to that some other time).
What I am referring to is as simple as these four S's and a Staple.
Staple (being your main ingredient)
It is as simple as a staple ingredient like pasta with a little sweet, a dash of sour, an accent of spice and a pinch of salt. It can be no more than just pasta, salt, pepper, wine and a pinch of herbs drizzled in olive oil or as complex as you are game. Being aware of which of these four elements are represented in your ingredients can improve a dish and elevate it.
Okay so I am being a little vague, please allow me to explain. All four seasonings or elements in their own right are found in all ingredients, fresh or pantry. Getting a balanced combination is what will bring out or enhance the flavor of foods. From a sprinkling of salt to a finishing squeeze of lemon or a unique spice.
It is when you play with a combination of these four in any fashion, that is when cooking becomes experimental and fun. Once you have your confidence to experiment that is when you will find your creative freedom to cook like a chef, by taste and feel, not with a recipe.
(with spice I also mean leading flavors not just heat for example herbs, garlic, pepper, all spice...)
This is easiest to see in Asian cooking, but look for these building blocks and you will see them in every jar in your cupboard, on every shelf in your refrigerator. Seriously, open your pantry and decide which category every thing falls into sweet, sour, salt or spice. Or if it is balanced.
Don't just look at it, TASTE IT! then decide.
Is your mustard smooth and spicy or that toxic yellow sour stuff?
Where does your mayonnaise fall, sharp sour or creamy and balanced?
Orange juice is it really sweet or much more sweet and sour? How is it different from fresh squeezed.
How about butter, ketchup, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, canned tomatoes, some are sweet, others sharper. Some creamier others like a smooth gelatin moose. In the beginning it is not about which are better quality, it is only about recognizing the differences as just that....differences only. Adjust to suit your ingredients and in time you will adjust your ingredients to suit you and your new found cooking style.
Now lets look at the ingredients of those items in your pantry and refrigerator and see these same four building blocks or elements within them. (Don’t stress if the whole four seasonings are not present in each. Its just a learning exercise)
Now consider these 4 elements every time you make anything from a marinade, salad, sauce, dressing, roast, soup or sandwich and you will see the creative possibilities open up every time you explore your refrigerator or pantry. It makes experimenting easy and fun, allowing you to begin the throwing away of the culinary rule book.
Keep in mind your staple or main ingredient, whether it be lamb, beef, tofu, quinoa, fresh tomatoes, pasta, etc. Some staples love sour ingredients such as lamb for instance, while others are very versatile like chicken....but we will get into pairing some other time.
Allow me to simplify this sweet, sour, salt, spice and staple thing;
That’s why everyone loves ketchup (tomato sauce) on hot chips
(yes fries...old habits die hard)
Ketchup is full of:
rich concentrated tomato (spice)
and you pour it all over salty chips! (yes yes fries)
Take Japanese Sushi rice has:
sweet rice wine and vinegar to season it (sweet & sour)
dipped in soy (salt)
mixed with wasabi (spice)
Pickled ginger the same. Vinegar, sugar, salt and the ginger is spicy on its own.
How about Italian Carbonara sauce for instance:
Parmesan (salty and sour)
Lashings of cracked pepper for spice!
Sour cream (sweet/sour)
Fresh Salsa (sour/sweet)
Corn tortilla/chips (sweet)
Lets break down the salsa
Salt to taste
salt and pepper to taste.(salt & spice)
You can balance these or let one shine through. You might like a balanced mashed potato with steak, but something a little sour with fish or lamb.
Find something sour for goodness sake, whatever that may be. A squeeze of lemon, sour cream, chopped sun dried tomato, sumac spice, yellow mustard!!! Go through what is in you cupboard and experiment. There is no wrong answer here. Find that sour element and play!!
Coconut milk (sweet)
lime juice or tamarind (sour)
fish sauce & soy sauce (salt)
chili, garlic, ginger and fresh herbs (spice).
What if you have no limes... what may substitute, can vinegar? Maybe OJ, lemon for sure!
Indian Curries get interesting, sweet, salty and sour spices building on each other like layers.
Finished with yogurt (sour)
or coconut milk (sweet)
Served with sides
Mango chutney (sweet)
Cucumber Rita (sour)
Lime Pickle (sour/spice) and on and on and on.
Vinegar or Lemon juice (sour)
Dijon mustard (spice)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (sweet)
and salt. (salty)
That is why you are always being told to buy good olive oil. Not because its good to buy the best. Because the good stuff is sweet, grassy and with depth to balance the sour and spice.
Butter/Olive oil (sweet/sour)
Cracked pepper& basil (spice)
Salt to taste
Find your balance between these elements.
If some thing is too sour, add sweet. (honey, maple, fruit)
Too salty, add sweet and sour. (lemon, sugar or more fresh ingredients)
Bland, add salt or a little of the four.
Now keep in mind each ingredient falls in to it's element at a different point of the scale. Take sour for instance from strongest to more of a tart sweet & sour may go like this;
cider vinegar - lemon juice - sumac spice - balsamic vinegar - green apple
Of course this varies depending on quality, variety or season, it is just a note worth mentioning.
In time we will explore the differences found in fresh produce, at what time of year are certain ingredients sweet or sour. Whats the difference between red peppers and green? Sometimes sweet fruit isn't what will help your dish, salad or salsa but something a little sharper. All this we intend to cover in time.... but for now, have a taste of what you've got.... if every thing you own is sweet, then some shopping might be on the cards.
The Dali Lama said "dance like no ones watching, sing like no ones listening and cook with blind abandon" so go to it, relax. You get this and then you're on your way, you will only get better and more experimental.
This will be our platform, our base of where to grow from and come back to. I am sharing this with you, because recipes are guidelines at best, you're using different ingredients to writers of recipes, maybe your lemons are sourer than theirs or your lemons have less juice, so you’ll need to adjust for that.
its all up to you.
There's no rules, just get in there and play!