Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lessons in taste

One of the most rewarding things about investing time in thinking and reading about food is that the learning process does bear fruit.

Alongside actual cooking, it really helps to change a recipe book-cook into one who can cook with passion, as Nigel Slater might put it.

Last night was a case in point.

Having bought pigeon breasts at the weekend with a view to serving a mid-week warm salad, I’d very lightly browsed the web for some specific ideas.

Nothing shot out of the blue, demanding to be made.

But ideas can be taken and used once you start to understand what they’re on about.

So later, it was no difficulty to rustle up something that was tasty, quick and not difficult.

So for two, take a large shallot, chop finely and soften in some rapeseed oil. Add some lardons and leave them to start caramelising before moving around.

Make sure your pigeon breasts are nice and dry.

Share out some leaves on serving plates: I used endive, watercress and lamb’s lettuce.

Heat oil or lard and fry a slice of bread that you’ve diced into croutons.

Cook the pigeon breasts quickly in a hot pan. They need to be pink inside.

Decant your shallot and lardon mixture onto the plates. Then add the pigeon breasts and drizzle raspberry vinegar over.

Top with the croutons and serve with crusty bread. Voila!

The shallots and two meats here are sweet, so the raspberry vinegar is tart enough to cut through that and strong enough not to be overwhelmed by the pigeon.

The leaves add a bitter contrast and the croutons add texture.

We all use words to understand what we’re experiencing, and we have to do that by comparing things to something we already know. So when you’re trying to use words to describe a wine you’re tasting, for instance, you can end up with ‘like fresh-mown grass’ and ‘like petrol’ and things that can seem crazy.

I tried a big red wine from South Africa last year after it was suggested by a member of staff in the wine section of a shop. He pointed out that everyone tastes differently – and since everyone’s taste experiences will differ at least a bit, then their ways of describing tastes and smells will be subjective too.

But I admit to being chuffed to pieces when he almost applauded as I said that the first thing that struck me about the wine in my glass was burnt toast. Subjective possibly, but it felt like the ‘right’ answer.

When I ate ostrich for the first time, it was different from anything I’d tasted before. So how to describe that? I eventually came up with saying that it was like a gamey beef. But how would you understand that if you didn’t know what ‘gamey’ meant?

Raymond Blanc’s A Taste of My Life made me start trying to think more about flavours and, as I hope I’ve shown above, it really can help when it comes to putting together even a simple, midweek supper.

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