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Balancing Flavors

Imagine a dinner plate filled with nothing but white food: slices of chicken or turkey, steamed cauliflower, mashed potatoes.  Boring, at best.  The same can be said for a plate full of all sweet flavors, boring and cloying; or all sour flavors, boring and mouth-puckering.  Successful cooking is not only about creating layers of flavor, the subject of last week’s column, but also about incorporating and balancing a variety of flavors.  Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that we won’t be satisfied by a meal unless it includes all 5 flavors: bitter, sour, salty, sweet and pungent, or spicy.

Asian cuisine is famous for its flavor combinations like hot and sour soup, sweet and sour pork, and salty-hot-sweet dipping sauces for sushi.  Interesting food skillfully incorporates and balances many flavors in palate-pleasing combinations.

Bitter flavors include many of the dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, romaine, as well as arugula and watercress, both of which are also mildly spicy.  Other examples are wild rice, citrus peel, quinoa, alfalfa, and the skin of walnuts, plus much of the cabbage family.

Sour flavors are acidic, like lemon, lime and grapefruit, but also raspberries, blueberries and pomegranate, all the vinegars, and yogurt, sour cream, and sauerkraut.  Sorrel is a mildly sour, leafy herb used effectively in salads when it’s balanced by sweet bibb lettuce.  Combining bitter romaine, spicy watercress, and sour sorrel with sweet beets makes a satisfying salad, especially topped with toasted pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese, perhaps a drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar.

Salty flavors are provided by sea salt and seaweeds, plus fermented soy and fish sauces.

Sweet flavors include sugar and honey, of course, but sweet flavors don’t stop with dessert.  When we are getting frequent sugar in our diet, we can’t taste the natural sweetness in carrots, peas, butternut squash, sweet potato, and ripe fruits.  Rice and noodles are also counted as sweets because of their high starch content.  Sweetening a breakfast smoothie with a ripe banana is enough unless we are eating more sugar than is good for us.

Pungent or spicy flavors come from all the chile peppers and black pepper, but also horseradish, mustard, ginger, raw onion and garlic, fresh radish and turnip, cloves and cinnamon.

Hot and Sour Chicken Soup
8 oz. chicken, diced fine
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms
3-4 thin slices of ginger
1 stalk lemon grass, lower portion, cut into 1 inch pieces, crushed
1-2 tbsp.  each chopped cilantro and spring onions
1 Serrano chile, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. fish sauce
2 cups water or chicken stock
1 tsp. sugar

Boil water or stock in a large pot.  Add the ginger, chile, lemon grass and cook two minutes.  Add chicken, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes, lemon juice, fish sauce, and sugar.  Bring back to a boil, and when chicken is cooked, pour into serving bowl and garnish with cilantro and green onions.

Optional: add green chile paste or coconut milk while still in the pot.

Bon appétit!

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