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Book Bites: The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg

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“Food is my passion,” I remember informing my partner when we first encountered each other. The statement was – and remains – true enough. I’m lucky in that I enjoy consuming food as much as I love preparing it (albeit on some weeknights I delight in the fact that a delicious dinner can be whipped up in 15 minutes). But what I soon realised was that my partner was – and remains – in a whole other league where passion for food is concerned.

Generally, I simply enjoy the process of preparing and consuming food. If the result is tasty and nourishing, I’m happy. I love trying new recipes and delight in combining unusual flavours. The presentation of my dishes is tasteful (or at least I like to think so) yet plain. I’m a simple cook. Perhaps more adventurous than some, but not in any way exceptional.

My partner, on the other hand, has hosted elaborate dinners for 20 people (preparing and serving all the dishes himself), has skinned and boned various animals, owns 5 different kinds of wine glasses, has visited a number of Michelin starred eateries, and likes to discuss such things as texture and balance of various dishes. Also, his plating is sexy. Even the simplest of omelettes, prepared by this artful genius, gets you down on your knees and elicits utterings of adulation.

All this is to say that, when I met my partner, I thought I was pretty hot stuff in the kitchen. (I made my own bread, for crying out loud. And never used any canned products except for coconut milk.) And, while I still call myself a foodie, I discovered that there’s an entirely different level of understanding and appreciating food.

A few months ago, he snuck a copy of The Flavor Bible into my Kindle, and that, once again, uncovered another dimension of ways of grasping food. Essentially, The Flavor Bible is a list of ingredient pairings. If you want to know what goes with, say, fennel, you look up “fennel” in the index and, on the respective page, discover that it will pair well with, for example, Gorgonzola cheese. (The list is by no means complete and is directed towards classical pairings. But it’s a handy guide when you’re looking for inspiration.) There are a couple of short introductory chapters dedicated to things such as flavour and seasonality, but what makes the book a true gem, in my opinion, are the snippets from the authors’ conversations with various top chefs about all the listed ingredients.

These contributions made me realise just how differently chefs think about food.* While my most common concern regarding food might be “what to cook” (or, more precisely, “what to eat”), chefs are, first and foremost, OBSESSED with flavour. All of them, it seems, are on a neverending quest to deliver the perfect flavour experience.

To give you just a few (of the most memorable) examples, Jerry Traunfeld of The Herbfarm has devised a method of making “pumpkin taste even more pumpkin-like” (I mean, does that even make sense?!) – by cooking it with bay leaf. Andrew Carmellini of A Voce adds carrot juice to his carrot soup, because “if you cook a carrot, you lose the “carrotiness” of it.” (Well, I’ll be damned. By the way, this same man is into juicing nuts. Juicing nuts!) Michael Lakonis of Le Bernardin makes a dessert where, so as not to make the rose flavour overbearing, he uses three forms of rose flavour – rosebuds infused in milk, rose syrup, and rosewater. I his own words “I take a lot of care using three layers to make it one flavor”. (Almost like a tulle skirt, actually.) Brad Thompson of Mary Elaine’s at the Phoenician would “intensify the flavor of beets by serving them prepared in different ways on the same dish, such as accenting roasted beets with crunchy beet chips and a spiced beet coulis”.

I find these ideas fascinating. And hugely inspiring! Reading this “list” was like a breath of fresh air, and I can’t wait to experiment by adding carrot juice to my carrot soup and pairing my grilled beets with crunchy beet chips and a spicy beet sauce. And while I’m at it, I might just squirt some sauce over the plate in an artful way and regale my partner with something other than a homely meal. (Although he’s never complained so far. Quite the contrary.)

*A couple of years ago, I read Anthony Bourdain’s scandalous Kitchen Confidential. Thinking about it now, it makes me wonder whether Mr. Bourdain likes to cook (and eat) at all. (He sure used to like to have sex and to take drugs a whole lot.) While his book provides exciting insights into the restaurant business, there’s very little in it of the naked, obsessive passion for food that the contributors to The Flavor Bible are so obviously radiating.

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