A chef’s underlying purpose is toenhance the natural flavors of foods. Yet many chefs and cooks do not seem to comprehend this important fact. Instead, they mask or overpower the items’ natural flavors, making it impossible to know what you’re actually eating. Did you ever hear the adage, ‘Tastes like chicken’? Well, no, you palate-less simpleton … it really doesn’t!
To be fair, many of you were probably raised on potluck dinners and canned food. Or, worse, you were served meals by cooks who took great pride in never using salt. Yeah, I can tell. Yuck!
Many restaurants, especially corporate chains, err in the opposite direction by over-seasoning foods. Often, professional cooks and unaccomplished “chefs” don’t taste their own creations nearly enough; if they did, they might be able to fix the insipid final products. I can’t even count the times I’ve tasted a student’s dish that was so spicy-hot I wanted to spit it out. “Well, I like spicy,” the shoemaker replies.
Heed this: No one wants only hot sauce for dinner. You can add a little heat to complement or enhance a certain aspect of food, but not so much it dominates it.
A perfect example of complementing or enhancing flavors begins with the humble tomato. Most grocery store tomatoes tend to be under-ripe or have been off the vine for a while, which means that its natural sugars are beginning to transform into starch, therefore dulling the flavor profiles.
Here’s how to Chef Up tomatoes: First, think about how a fresh-picked tomato tastes. Now consider what flavors might magnify, compliment or play off this particular profile. Think about how we usually eat tomatoes and what preparation tastes best.
Tomatoes are at their seasonal peak now, so we’ll focus on raw tomatoes. The basic flavor profile of a tomato is sweet, sour, citrus and herbal. First enhancement: acid from vinegars and citrus. Second: sweetness from sugar, syrups or honey. Third: herbs, especially basil, tarragon, oregano or cilantro.
Bulbous vegetables are useful; onions and garlic top the list. Olive oil is a great final complement, with its fruitiness and richness. One final note: Don’t forget a little salt and pepper (I like coarse sea salt) to round it all out.
You’re actually making a marinade by adding these bright flavors. This improves your tomato’s flavor a million times, and you can use leftover marinade as a dressing. And it doesn’t taste like chicken.
Here’s a basic marinade. No need to follow it too closely.
CHEF BILL’S Tomato Marinade
- 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, cored and halved
- 1 tsp. aged sherry vinegar
- 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp. honey
- 1 tbsp. fresh herbs, your choice
- 1 small garlic clove, sliced paper-thin
- 3 tbsp. high-quality extra virgin olive oil
- Coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- Mix the vinegar, juice, herbs and honey.
- Add the tomatoes, toss, add the olive oil, toss again.
- Season with salt and pepper, taste and adjust as necessary
Until We Cook Again,
Contact Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Amelia Island Culinary Academy in Historic Fernandina Beach, with your recipes or questions at [email protected], for inspiration to get you Cheffed Up!