I didn’t learn to cook until some time after I got married. I wanted to do other things in life, and spending time in the kitchen seemed like wasting time on something that didn’t matter.
At some point, I realized that cooking DID matter to me on just about every level: my own health, my family’s health, loving others in a tangible way, being creative, simplifying life, reducing spending, growing my own food, bringing production back into the home, and advocating for justice through my food choices – I could go on and on.
All that to say, it took me a little time to actually get good at cooking. And, although I tend to be a healthy, allergen-free cook (which may get a bad rap for lacking in flavor), I’m pretty awesome at getting things to taste good…if I do say so myself. Once, a man in his seventies who ate my food at potluck every week called me a “food genius.” It stands as my favorite compliment to date.
Of course, I can chalk up most of my success simply to using high-quality ingredients that make it hard to go wrong – fresh cream or butter, homemade bone broth, coconut oil, high quality meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables just make things taste better. There’s no getting around it.
BUT, I have one more secret that may be a little less obvious. I learned this secret from my time in Thailand in 2003 – before I even really knew how to cook. I’m not even sure that what I learned is totally accurate to Thai cooking philosophy (you can read more about that here: http://www.thaitable.com/thai/food/thai-food-philosophy). But, what I remember learning is that Thai food often attempts to balance the flavors of sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. (In the post I referenced, it add in “creamy” and says that the spice should be “on top” of the other flavors. I would say that this holds true with my cooking style, as well.)
So, the idea is to try to make your dishes “pop,” in a sense, with each of these flavor elements. Of course, many dishes are not good candidates for this – desserts, breads, pastries, etc. But, a surprising number of dishes and especially sauces, soups, stir fries, and curries are perfect for this challenge.
The way to do this is to include ingredients that fall into these categories. Here are some suggestions:
Sweet: sugar, honey, sweet potato, butternut squash, maple syrup, coconut milk
Salty: fish oil, salt, soy sauce
Sour: lemon, lime, vinegar
Creamy: coconut milk, butter, cream, almond milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese
Spicy: peppers, cayenne, pepper sauce, garlic, black pepper, turmeric
If you are allergic to one of the ingredients, simply choose a different one from that category. Being a good cook is all about knowing how to substitute – being familiar with the elements involved so you can get the result you want.
Here’s an example: when you are making a peanut sauce, you can add a little honey, some pepper sauce, soy sauce, coconut milk, and lime to your mixture of peanut butter, garlic, and cilantro (or whatever you put in your peanut sauce). Then, taste it with your eyes closed and see if you can taste all the flavors – sweet, salty, spicy, creamy, and sour. Check that each one is standing out equally. If one is a bit puny, add a little of that one to even things out.
This seems so simple, but it really makes a dish pop and taste awesome. Really.
This works beautifully with bisques and cream soups – especially butternut squash, carrot, parsnip, sweet potato, roasted red pepper, or pumpkin soup.
Adding in the sweet, salty, sour, and spicy flavors to your meat – even to ground beef or chili is delicious. I often make a blended cheese sauce using boiled Anaheim peppers, soft cheese, and vinegar – this also works well with this technique of balancing the flavors. Cheese can add creamy and salty into the mix.
Of course I use this when making Thai dishes, but I’ve found it to be helpful with many different dishes. I have “fixed” many a bad, bland-tasting dish (from recipes I found online) by using this tip. It’s not for everything, but you’ll be surprised how often it comes in handy.
This post is not about healthy eating or allergen-free eating, but it gives a system in which you can be creative and add flavor to your dishes whether they are standard American foods, international dishes, or Paleo.
Try it, and let me know how it goes! I’d love to get your feedback on this one.