While many chefs and home cooks are enjoying the trend toward the simpler life—eating fresh and sourcing locally—they are at the same time preparing dishes that are more complex, especially while employing such cooking techniques as rubs, drizzles, emulsions, and infused oils that provide new possibilities for sides and mains.
This quest for taste variety has led chefs to tap into various sources of inspiration for their spices and other flavorings necessary to power these new creations.
For example, some cooks have become intrigued with “authentic” indigenous or regional possibilities. Others are looking to ethnic and exotic inspirations from farther afield. Then there is the fun of rediscovering old-fashioned or neglected spices. Finally, there is the intrigue of experiencing the alchemy of untapped flavor combinations in our kitchen laboratories.
In short, flavor-finding is in fashion.
Not long ago I was having dinner at Cecil County’s Fair Hill Inn, whose chefs, Philip Pyle and Brian Shaw, love to grow everything in their garden and to forage locally for ingredients for their menus. A salad I ordered that evening was seasoned not with vinegar but with the too-seldom-used verjus, an acidic juice pressed from unripe grapes that come from Fair Hill’s small garden vineyard. And one of my favorite desserts, crème brulèe, was further flavored with an old-fashioned, rural delicacy—sap from the sassafras tree, whose young roots were washed, chopped up, and used to make a hot tea for cold country nights in front of the fire.
“People are getting more creative and trying to get out of the culinary rut,&rdquo says Tim Smith, who recently opened Twelves Grill & Café in West Grove after stints in the kitchens at Dilworthtown Inn, The Farmhouse, and The Back Burner.
“One that I like to use is juniper berry,” he says, referring to one of the major flavor components of gin. “It’s a deep blue, pepper-like berry that is a little soft. It has a piney aroma, a little like rosemary,” he says. “I use it on lamb here at the restaurant, but it can go on game and other meats.”
Smith says that juniper berries need two to three years to cure after they are harvested from the tree, and that he likes to use them as part of a crust for the meat, similar to the preparation of an au poivre dish.
The owner of another new restaurant, Joseph Tis of Olé Tapas Lounge, which recently opened just east of Newark, Del., recommends that home cooks take another look at paprika, an herb that Olé chef Ivan Torres, most recently a chef at Harry’s Seafood Grill, uses regularly in his tapas.
“I tell people to take that little jar of paprika they bought 10 years ago to sprinkle on deviled eggs and reexamine it,” Tis says. Actually, you might want to buy some fresh spice if it’s that old, but Torres says paprika should be part of the seasoning for a lot of Spanish dishes, such as gazpacho, sofrito sauce, and paella.
As Tis points out, Spanish paprika, or pimenton, is generally a little less hot than the Hungarian variety, although the smoked Spanish paprika can be quite complex and assertive. “Ivan likes to put it on our grilled Octopus tapas,” one of the more popular dishes on the Olé tapas menu,” Tis says.
David Banks, executive chef at Harry’s Savoy Grill and Harry’s Seafood Grill, likes to rely on another seldom-used spice that sits unopened in many spice-rack collections—chervil, a standard ingredient in the teaching regimen in most classical cooking curricula. “It’s almost a predictable ingredient for old-school guys like me,” he says. “Chervil has a nice plate appearance when it’s fresh, and it goes well with so many things. I also use it in combination for fines herbes and micro-herbs.”
For those who haven’t tried it, chervil is known for its bright green appearance and grassy and lightly licorice tastes. Somewhat delicate, it is often added at the last minute to fish, poultry, and egg dishes.
Banks is also interested in exotic combinations of flavors. “Coffee, although not a spice, works really well with rosemary,” he says, and he uses the two together for meat rubs added before cooking. Another Banks combination is even more exotic. “What really goes great is sun-dried Bing cherries and tarragon,” he says. “That combination is unbelievable!”
A quick perusal of area menus shows that other chefs are trying equally interesting combinations:
The chefs at Domaine Hudson, Jason Barrowcliff and Mark Doto, have on their menu a saffron and chardonnay cream to go with red snapper filet, a plum and soy mixture for seared tuna, and an aioli sauce enhanced with sage as a topping for a vegetable soup. For his aioli, Peter Gilmore of Gilmore’s, who usually sticks to classic French sauces, adds chile and lime to go with a calamari tempura appetizer. Nick Farrell at Sovana Bistro may tart up his béchamel or white sauce with a dollop of pumpkin.
The key, of course, is to intelligently experiment with new and old flavors, whatever the delivery system—sauce, oil, rub, infusion—you are using to complement the meat, fish, or other primary ingredient in your dish.
So the next time you’re hungry, don’t just raid your refrigerator. Pillage the spice cabinet as well.
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