If you throw turmeric in your eye, place a few flakes of dried red pepper on your tongue and inhale the hay and citrus notes of coriander, then you will have a moment commensurate with mine from my first day of fall semester. I did take Intro to Baking in Spring, and an online Safety & Sanitation class during summer; but it is fall and finally, here comes the cooking. Culinary school has resumed.
I am taking a class called Purchasing and Product [ingredient] Identification, which much to my delight, involves tasting.
There was a time when I was pouring over wine books and trying to commit the nuances of terroir and varietals to my brain. Not with the greatest luck, mind you. And a friend looked at me with penetrating frankness---amid my frustration that the information wasn't sinking deeper and more rapidly than I am accustomed---and told me: start drinking. Tasting wine is the key to knowing wine, learning about wine and beginning to appreciate, recognize and finally pair wine.
For the record: THAT is my kind of homework. Tasting wine, tasting food.
In another recent article I read, or perhaps it was an excerpt of MFK Fisher, it stated that no palate less than age 30 really has had a chance to 'come into its own.' Now I am sure the age can be debated, and we are breeding and encouraging younger and younger connoisseurs (two very opinionated ones live under my roof). But the point is: it takes years to taste and taste and taste. And then to re taste and compare, and visit the tables of different chefs, numerous households and countless restaurants far and abroad.
It is culinary school after all; I shouldn't be surprised to land in a class that involves 'palate development.' How perfect to line up the herbs, cheese or fruit, to inculcate our taste buds with flavors, to inhale aromas and concentrate on mouth-feel. Would you use a lot of this spice or little? How might you use it? What does it remind you of? And so forth.
Sure I am paying the big bucks, but that doesn't mean you cannot enjoy this culinary adventure and scholastic foray on your own. Go to your spice cabinet. First, throw out anything that has lived on your shelf beyond 6 months. It is flat and increasingly flavorless. Your antiquated bottles (those drawer-aged dried herbs) are best used to stuff pillows or line your compost. (Consider buying bulk dried herbs and spices, it is WAY less expensive and you can buy smaller portions as needed).
Take 10 spices, place them each in their own individual, small container (teacups work and are very shabby chic). Line them up, label them if desired. Grab a piece of paper [per taster]; make 5 columns and top them with:
Some of the spices we tried included: black pepper, nutmeg, allspice berries, coriander, crushed red chili, ground caraway, raw sesame seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, clover, brown mustard, fresh tarragon, fresh chervil, etc. The most astounding moment of my own tasting was the contrast between the brilliantly sweet smell of fresh thyme, and the actual taste... it tasted like eh, grass. I adore thyme and its flavors are bold and pervasive when melded with food. But eat it alone? A bit grassy. [Hey, Danna] "I am just saying."
And the other shocker? Fresh tarragon and dried whole cloves literally, truly numbed my tongue. So if I were to say 'they were tongue-numbing good' it would be for literal effect. Do they numb your tongue too?