Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Complex Flavors, Simplified

ON AVERAGE, the human tongue has 2,000 to 8,000 taste buds, which contain the receptors for taste. They are located around the small structures on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus and papillae—all involved in detecting the five (known) elements of taste perception: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami (savoriness)… What I am driving at is—the tongue makes eating such a cool, extremely pleasurable habit; food such a gift of life and a basic human need.I was born and grew old(er) in a culture whose people eat three full meals a day (7am, 12 noon, 8pm), excluding two or three snack sessions (or meriendas—10am, 4pm, and 12 midnight). Usually, dishes and foodstuff that are served differ per meal or snack—hence, we are talking about a frenzied diversity of flavors. Those 8,000 taste buds really get to work on a daily basis.
Needless to say, Philippine cuisine—the style of cooking and the foods associated with it—have evolved over several centuries from its Austronesian origins to a mixed cuisine with many Hispanic, Chinese, American, and other Asian influences adapted to indigenous ingredients and the local palate.
You get my drift. My tongue—or mouth, and of course, stomach—could easily welcome or reject (mostly, the former) any flavor there is. (Move over, Mr Andrew Zimern!)
Yes, indeed—I have lots of fun “interfacing” flavors and tastes that emanate from herbs, seasonings, condiments, natural juices, and other ingredients. I also gotten used to “fixing” flavors or mixes as the need warrants… uhh, throw in some parsleys or mix some mirin or maybe dab some more ground black pepper etc.
But I don’t mean to scare you… my tongue, like my ears, is “genre-flexible,” sort of.
A few hours ago, I had this little buttered mushroom side that I really enjoyed at a local Fatz. Simple dish, uncomplicated flavor… Made me recall a “sides-eating peculiarity” of my childhood. I used to boil or steam bitter gourd (“ampalaya”) and banana blossoms and just threw down on them, as is. Sometimes I dipped them on fish sauce sprinkled with calamansi (calamondin or lime) juice and chili peppers—but mostly, just the slightly-cooked gourd and blossoms on my plate.
So whether it’s multi-flavored or no-flavor—as long as they’re edible and look good, I eat `em. Pretty much like music. Unplugged and minimalist sets, when performed good—is as good as orchestral maneuvers in the dark executed ethereally. Less blurry metaphors in a few, structured lines in a verse are as endearing and pleasing—as an epic poem.
It’s all about cooking as art and craft, sensibility and sensitivity.
Here is a dish that exemplifies my point—a less complex recipe—yet it still challenges a cook’s ability and cunning to make diverse, at times contrasting flavors work.
“Sauteed Fish Fillets, with Orange Butter Sauce (or Pineapple Chunks)”
INGREDIENTS:3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar (or mild Mexican vinegar)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 (6 ounce) white fish fillets, each about 3/4 inch thick
1/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper (to taste)
1 tablespoon tequila
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

DIRECTIONS:[1] In a small saucepan, boil the orange juice and vinegar until reduced to about 1/3 cup; reserve off heat.
[2] Heat the oil in a big nonstick skillet and cook fish 3-4 minutes per side or until it is golden brown on the outside, opaque but still moist inside and just barely flakes when tested with a fork.
[3] Season with salt and pepper; remove fish to a serving platter.
[4] Add the tequila to the skillet and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits; add the reserved orange juice reduction to the same skillet and bring to a boil.
[5] Immediately decrease the heat to low and add the butter, 1 piece at a time, whisking just until melted.
[6] Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro; spoon sauce over the fish; serve immediately.

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