Dear Readers: I'm excited that my talk for The Field in New York—"Why America Needs Artists (It's Not What You Think)"—will be live-streamed online at 7 pm EDT on Monday, 27 September, 2010. Please click on this link to log on. If you miss it live, it will be archived for later viewing.
Taste is a complex process. Tasting entails integrating information from our eyes, noses, and mouths (which includes information from the pharynx, epiglottis, tongue, and soft palate)—not to mention our expectations. Read on to discover a couple of recipes that are delightful because they confound expectations. Your guests' mouths will be surprised by the difference between what they think they are going to taste and what actually shows up on their palates.
These recipes offer a delicious (as opposed to a nasty) surprise, but I imagine you've experienced the alternative. Have you ever put salt instead of sugar in your coffee? The taste is unpleasant, of course, but the essence of the experience is the shock it delivers: expecting sweet, but encountering salty and bitter. Have you ever watched a child resist tasting a new food? By definition, since the food's actual taste is unknown to the eater, the resistance is all about expectation: This looks like something I won't like.
Where certain foods are taboo, intense disgust may be evoked at the mere thought of eating them, completely separate from whether the person having the thought has ever tasted the food. (Imagine offering an Orthodox Jew or Muslim a plate of pork chops.) Disgust's evolutionary origin is thought to be about avoiding contamination: rotten or poisoned foods are likely to give off smells or offer visual cues that evoke revulsion, and this is for our own protection. Encountering these cues triggers physiological reactions, wrinkling the nose, raising the upper lip, and pulling down the corners of the mouth.
Of course, a little of transgression adds interest to life. The sophisticated palate toys with disgust, seeking and enjoying foods that are slightly rotten (aged meat and cheeses, fermented beverages, and pickles). Some go further. This week's INew York TimesI food section featured an article on eating insects that gave my facial disgust-muscles a full workout, even though the eaters I was reading about seemed to find it absolutely delightful (and well worth the $85 apiece they spent to eat live worms, among other delicacies).
Don't worry, friends. This essay is about surprising your mouth with delight, not disgust. There are three main ways to accomplish that. One is the basis for the advanced gastronomy of the early twenty-first century. The Catalan chef Ferran Adrià i Acosta (among others) pioneered what has come to be called "molecular gastronomy" (although not by the chefs who practice it), in which foods are reduced to foams, vapors, liquids held in suspension, geometric shapes threaded on metal skewers, and other intensely flavored and unusually shaped and textured forms that disguise their true nature. Chemicals such as sodium alginate and calcium lactate are used, for instance, to create spheres of liquid held within a thin gelatinous membrane, so that they appear to be solid objects. Among the well-financed foodie avant-garde, this has sparked a run on industrial chemicals and equipment such as "spherification kits" and vacuum pumps for sous vide cooking.
One classic of the genre (along with fois gras cotton candy and edible menus printed with food-based inks on potato paper) is the liquid olive , in which olive juice mixed with sodium gluconate is squirted into a solution of water and sodium alginate, where it forms thin-skinned balls that resemble actual olives. They are eaten more for the tactile experience than the taste: the liquid olive is tilted from a ceramic spoon into the mouth, and bounced around until it bursts on the tongue.
I have not tasted this food myself, dear readers, lacking a trust fund to finance the experience (although if you invite me, I will come). But down here on planet Earth, both of the other routes to surprising your mouth are available to any home cook. First is the peekaboo approach, concealing surprising flavors inside or beneath very different ingredients. The second approach involves disguise, but without industrial chemicals or equipment: creating a dish that appears to be one thing and tastes like another.
Below, I offer two recipes suitable for hors d'oeuvres with drinks or a first course at dinner. The first is for open-faced goat cheese crostini, concealing a surprising center of honey and mint. The second is for "peanut butter and jelly sandwiches" that are savory, rather than sweet. I hope you enjoy them both!
Peekaboo Goat Cheese Crostini
Mild goat cheese
baguette slices (white or whole grain, sweet or sourdough, but no seeds)
honey, preferably herb-based, such as sage
Note: the amounts are flexible here, depending on how many crostini you want to make. One baguette should make about 20 slices, which should require about two small logs of goat cheese, three tablespoons of honey, and a half-dozen sprigs of mint. But tastes vary, so experiment a little, adding more or less honey or mint, more or less cheese, until you achieve the combination you like best.
Slice the baguette on the bias a half-inch thick. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet and toast them in a 375-degree oven until lightly browned, then remove and cool.
While the bread is cooking, pull off enough of the tiniest mint leaves to decorate each finished crostino with two or three. Mince the remaining leaves and stir a spoonful into two tablespoons of honey in a small bowl. Taste it. If the mint it too intense, add more honey. If the honey overwhelms the mint, add more mint.
If the goat cheese comes in a log, slice it on the bias a quarter-inch thick and place one slice on each piece of baguette toast, flattening slightly to cover the bread. Otherwise, spoon enough cheese onto each piece of toast to cover it with a layer approximately a quarter-inch thick.
For a taste-test, complete one crostino before you make the others. With the back of a small spoon, make a shallow indentation in the goat cheese, then fill it with the honey mixture. Be sure to leave a narrow border of goat cheese around the honey—don't spread the honey all the way to the edges of the toast.
Then, gingerly, add another layer of goat cheese to completely cover the honey. Don't press down on the honey, but do press lightly all around the edges, to seal the honey in. Taste the completed crostino. If you like it as is, finish the rest; otherwise adjust the honey and mint balance, then proceed.
Decorate the tops of the crostini with mint leaves, and serve. Be sure to supply napkins; the honey won't squirt, but it may drip a little, especially since surprised eaters have a tendency to exclaim.
"Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches"
Whole grain baguette, in quarter-inch slices
3/4 cup chunky peanut butter
2 garlic cloves, pressed or very finely minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or hot sauce to taste
juice of half a lemon
salt to taste
Stir all ingredients together in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave, uncovered, on high for one minute. Stir. If the mixture seems too thin or watery, keep microwaving in increments of one minute until it's as thick as unadulterated peanut butter. Taste: you may need to add lemon, salt, or hot pepper to balance the flavors to your satisfaction. (If you don't want to use a microwave, simmer in a small saucepan on top of the stove.)
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (or one 15-ounce can tomatoes in puree, chopped)
Cayenne pepper to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
large pinch of sugar
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and add the chopped bell pepper. Saute over medium-high heat, stirring, until the moisture has evaporated and the pepper begins to brown. Remove the peppers with a slotted spoon to a small bowl.
Add the remaining olive oil to the skillet and heat to medium-high. Add the tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. When they bubble vigorously, lower heat and simmer without a lid until they are very thick. Be careful not to burn them.
Return the peppers to the pan, add the garlic, 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, and a healthy pinch of sugar. Taste and add cayenne, salt, or sugar if needed. Simmer until as thick as jam, then cool.
Spread "peanut butter" on half the baguette slices, then add a spoonful of "jelly" to each. Top each with another slice of baguette. Serve as is, or cut each little sandwich in half as you would a full-sized sandwich. (For a first course, complete the illusion by serving them on a little plate with a few small potato chips and a little pile of carrot matchsticks, to keep it in scale.)
Are you hungry? Next week in the "Something Delicious" series, something completely different: a taste of the sublime.