5 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Palate

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via Healthy Eating by Mara Betsch



A couple of weeks ago I packed up my pregnant self and headed west for a week of cooking and tasting in Napa. Tough job, I know.

I was there for a Sophisticated Palate class at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in the idyllic town of St. Helena, Calif. More specifically, I was taking a class that was unfortunately titled “Cooking for the Next Half of Your Life.” While the name may have been less than inspiring, the content didn’t disappoint.

The avuncular and quirky Chef John Ash, an innovator in fresh wine-country cuisine, led our intimate class of seven. If you came to the class blasé about food (which a few participants did), his thorough and enthusiastic presentations on spices, legumes, and juicing were enough to get you fired up.

Here’s a sample of what I’ll be incorporating into my own home-cooking. These little tricks are all simple enough to do at home—no matter your skill level.

1. Grind it: Got a coffee grinder? Then you have all the tools you need to grind your own spices. Why bother? Because the flavor you get from whole spices far exceeds the ground variety. Plus, there’s a completely practical factor: Ground spices only keep their true flavor for about six months (less if you expose them to heat), while whole spices will last for up to a year. You can use a clean (wipe it out thoroughly) coffee grinder or an old-school mortar and pestle.

2. Toast it: Once you’ve ground the spices, punch up their flavor by toasting them. Use a dry frying pan, place your spices in it (you can mix all the spices you’ll be using in a dish), and heat the pan over medium-high heat until fragrant. Keep an eye out and be careful not to burn them!

3. Juice it: When I worked in a health-food store, I loved using my juicer, but it was such a pain to clean that I got rid of it. Plus, I would use a ton of fruits and veggies to get a measly glass of juice. But Chef Ash gave me another reason to use a juicer—fresh, super low-cal, nearly instant sauces. He made one from beets, ginger, and carrots that was sweet and flavorful, with just a hint of that gingerly burn. You could use it under a plate of sautéed scallops or salmon. Or whisk some extra-virgin olive oil into it for a gorgeous vinaigrette.

4. Blend it: Once margarita season is over, your blender probably collects dust bunnies. It’s a natural for drinks and smoothies, but it’s also ideal for making creamy dressings, soups, and sauces. On the first day of class, my cooking partner Erin and I were tasked with making a Waldorf salad. I had never made one before because the classic dressing for this salad is based on mayonnaise, with a touch of lemon juice and sometimes sugar. The heavy dressing made the dish lose its fresh appeal, even with the other traditional ingredients of grapes, celery, and apples. In class we made a version that was much fresher and pretty darn brilliant.

We used a base of roasted walnut oil, which has a wonderful nutty flavor and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Next, we added blanched garlic, fresh lemon juice and zest, sherry vinegar, and a bit of sugar to the oil. I didn’t know why we had to fuss with blanching (basically boiling for about 2 minutes and then plunging into cold water), but Chef explained that it removed garlic’s pungency, while still keeping its robust flavor intact. Makes sense to me—this was a salad you could enjoy and still chat with your neighbor.

5. Sniff it: When you’re cooking, do you usually get your schnoz right in there over the pot to give it a nice deep inhalation? You should, because nearly all of our sense of taste is located in our olfactory bulb, not in our taste buds. Chef Ash told us that when he used to interview chefs for his restaurant, he’d always cook with them. If they kept sticking their noses into the pots and pans, he knew he’d found someone with an excellent palate. So take a big whiff, and if the cumin isn’t quite coming through in your roasted squash recipe, taste it, re-season, and give it another sniff in 20 minutes.

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