If someone says, “Wow, that meal really tasted great!” we know exactly what he or she means—and we’d probably be tempted to try those same dishes ourselves. The same is true when someone says that a dish “just didn’t taste right,” making it more likely that we’d not order something else off the menu.

And, in this post, Culinary Vegetable Institute Chef Jamie Simpson helps us to reverse engineer what “tasting great” really means. He’ll also share how he looks at flavor profiles and food texture development as he creates dishes that range from iconic ones to those that introduce a brand-new way to look at an ingredient. And, whether the dish being made is a classic one or one that pushes the culinary envelope, step one is always to toss out any stereotypes about the ingredients.

Flavor Profiles

“Each time that one of us picks up a carrot, for example, in the CVI kitchen,” Jamie says, “I always remind them to throw preconceived notions out the window and to look at the carrot as if it’s the very first time they’d even seen one. If we decide we’re going to make carrot juice, it doesn’t have to include ginger. If we’re thinking about how the carrot might look on the plate, we don’t have to automatically picture orange.”

This means that Jamie and his team look at every single element of each and every plant being used, which can include seed, root/tuber, stem, leaf, bloom, stamen and fruit. They look at flavor affinities and how each flavor can be experienced while putting together combinations of ingredients for a dish, deciding what applications to use, and planning what dishes to include on a menu. “Then,” he adds, imagination kicks in and we get busy in the kitchen.”

To illustrate, Jamie suggests we look at the Vegetable Showcase Series at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Each of these events spotlights one family of vegetables, where highlighted ingredients are placed on the highest pedestal. The Culinary Vegetable Institute team then considers traditional and non-traditional pairings for each of the dishes in this multi-course meal from these categories:

  • meats
  • fish
  • grains
  • herbs
  • condiments
  • alcohols
  • vegetables
  • spices
  • nuts
  • fats
  • dairy

Although we’ll be exploring food texture in much more detail later in this post, for now we’ll note how preparation affects texture, and preparation methods that the Culinary Institute team considers includes (but is definitely not limited to):

  • sauté
  • fry
  • roast
  • bake
  • grill
  • ferment
  • dehydrate
  • juice
  • freeze
  • pulverize

“So,” Jamie explains, “for the spinach Vegetable Showcase dinner, we’d look at what vegetables and other ingredients live well with spinach and the different ways that we can develop them textually to include both classic dishes—iconic ones that people can readily relate to—as well as ones that introduce diners to less familiar ways to use the ingredient.”

Paneer Saag

He uses saag, a popular Indian dish, to describe how he might introduce a less familiar dish to diners in a way that would still offer appealing flavors and textures. Traditionally, in saag, the spinach is cooked down until it’s basically mush. “This isn’t,” he says, “a delightful texture for most people in the United States.”

So, if he added stewed chicken and diced paneer cheese to his dish, he would then add fried spinach on top of the saag to add another layer of flavor and texture. “The fried spinach,” Jamie shares, “create a fun interaction and an element of surprise to the saag.”

This brings up another point—that what’s considered appealing flavor and enticing food texture is culture-specific. If someone grew up in a culture where saag was expected to be mushy, for example, they wouldn’t necessarily need the fried spinach on top (although they may still enjoy the surprise). “It’s important to push a bit with new textures,” Jamie says, “while also connecting people to what they enjoy.”

At the Vegetable Showcase event that highlighted spinach, held in January 2019, Jamie and his team ultimately combined slow-roasted lamb shoulder with saag, paneer, puffed amaranth, yogurt sauce and, of course, fried spinach. That was course five of a seven-course meal, one that:

  • opened with a spinach salad with olive, walnut, balsamic vinegar, salt pork, raw mushroom, red onion, hard-boiled egg and croutons
  • followed by a cracker and dip course, with the dip using artichoke, spinach and cheese
  • included a soup course with crème fraiche, caviar and warm spinach oil
  • had, as course four, a dish with oysters, clam and creamed spinach, plus mullet, tobacco onion, and spinach juice foam
  • included, as course six, white chocolate condensed milk
  • ended with a lemon grass and spinach dish that featured spinach cake, pink peppercorn, beet macaroon and toasted coconut

 “When creating these dishes,” Jamie adds, “we gracefully push tradition aside in some of our more unusual dishes, while still adhering to what ingredient combinations we know will work on a fundamental level. We also look for opportunities to add in elements of nostalgia to each of our menus.”

Balancing Flavor Profiles

Last year, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we shared insights into flavor using the metaphor of a dinner plate as a teeter-totter. To make a teeter-totter work as intended, riders must sit on opposite ends, right-sized to create a sense of balance. And, the same is true when it comes to balancing flavors: too much of one or too little of another can cause the dish to go off balance. So, it’s important to consider the five fundamental tastes (and, if you’d like, two additional ones):

  • sweet
  • sour
  • salty
  • spicy
  • bitter
  • fatty
  • umami

When a dish is too spicy, you can boost sweetness to bring the dish back into balance. Or, if the dish is too sweet, adding something sour can be the solution. Too bitter? Add a salty ingredient.

And, here is how Jamie likes to look at the balancing of flavors. “A single dish might have five ingredients on it,” he says. “Look at those like notes as a chord. Each ingredient is a note. Each bite is a chord. Each dish is a song. The entire dinner as a whole? That is your album.”

Spinach Cake and Ice Cream

He adds how you need to take temperature, mouthfeel and aroma into consideration, as well, and also achieve the right amount of salinity. “Know when to under-season and when to season more aggressively and make conscious decisions with texture and temperature.”

In that 2018 post, we shared some of Jamie’s favorite balanced pairings, and they bear repeating. They include:

As part of creative flavor development, Jamie loves to consider a culturally classic staple—say, potato salad—and imagine different forms this staple can exist in. Experimentation needs to come in as far as quantities of each ingredient used in proportion to what else will exist in the dish. “You may discover,” he says, “that you need to really tone down one ingredient, so it doesn’t obliterate another, being especially careful in the application.”

Food Rheology and Texture

 “Rheology” is a word that describes the consistency of a particular material and how it flows, and it’s a relevant concept when describing how a substance will behave in a dish. At one extreme, water flows easily and quickly, while ketchup needs a shake, press or push to move. And, because food rheology is so closely tied with the concept of food texture, we decided to bring you information from around the web on food rheology and texture.

FoodCrumbles.com, for example, dives into the concept of rheology and shares the definition of a related term: viscosity. This is the resistance of a material upon application of a certain stress; high viscosity materials are thicker than thin ones, for example, with honey having a higher value than water. Viscosity depends upon temperature for most materials, including sauces with a low viscosity when warm and a higher one when cooled down.

And, here’s a related concept, this one well explained in Popular Science: psychorheology. This is how we perceive a food’s rheology and, to understand this concept, the writer asks us to envision sour candy coated in a rough sugar. You’ve seen that before, right?

The reason that’s done is because people perceive rougher foods as being sourer, even though the actual taste itself isn’t different. Although in everyday language, we might use the words “flavor” and “taste” as though they mean the same thing, “taste” is how we register sweet notes, sour ones and so forth through chemical sensors located on our tongues. Flavor, though, is the “entire experience of the taste, the smell, and the textural properties. When you play with texture, you’re playing with flavor.”

 According to the Texture Analysis Professionals blog, “texture is often considered the poor relation of taste and smell (US research found that textural awareness was often subconscious).” The blog post goes on to say, though, that people typically take texture for granted until it’s wrong, such as when someone bites into “gummy mashed potatoes, leathery dried apples, and limp celery.” Then, the “way they feel on the tongue, lips, hard palate, or teeth—is offputting.”

Telegraph.com offers more insights into food texture, calling it the “most important element of our cooking,” second only to seasoning. It serves as the “delivery mechanism for flavour,” with a good meal mixing up “things that snap and things that melt or flow.” Additional examples include that:

  • “Graininess is desirable in parmesan, but a disaster in hollandaise.”
  • “Waxy potatoes are divine but waxy chocolate is horrid.”
  • Good texture includes a “joyous wobble of a good jelly and the glossy plumpness of a triple-cooked mushroom.”
  • Bad texture includes “sauces that turn from velvet to corduroy, of bitty consommé and meat stewed to a rag.”

FOODStuff South Africa, meanwhile, shares how texture is actually essential to identifying foods. They quote a study in ScienceDirect.com that revealed how only 40.7 percent of participants could accurately identify what they were eating when the foods had been pureed and strained. Removing textural cues, then, significantly changes the tasting experience.

The most sought-after notes of texture include, the post says:

  • crispy
  • creamy
  • chewy

Least appreciated textures include:

  • slimy
  • offal

And, Jamie reminds us again that, when it comes to food texture, cultural expectations matter. In the United States, he says, we might use aloe in a smoothie, bringing other textures alongside of it while, in other cultures, you might get a whole bowl of aloe. In the United States, you usually can’t go as far with bitter flavors as you might in another culture because Americans just don’t perceive this flavor profile in the same way as people might in other cultures.

At the Heart of it All: The Right Ingredients

 We invite you to register for one of the upcoming events at the Culinary Vegetable Institute as we provide unique dishes and menus that show the limitless possibilities that exist when chefs and farms work in synchronicity. Events include our Valentine’s Day event where you can cozy up next to the one you love to enjoy a romantic dinner, with our roaring fireplace, candle-lit dining room and a special menu of culinary classics.

Or, what about our March 9th Vegetable Showcase event featuring farm-fresh carrots and potatoes? That night, we will explore the possible and the seemingly possible alike! We’ve love to see you there.