Henry David Thoreau said this about life in general, but I think this lesson can be applied quite usefully to food.
I’ve been working on a new food project. It does involve cooking and playing in the kitchen, but it’s not really about the cooking. It’s about the tasting. I don’t have a very good palate, and it makes me sad. Luckily, I’m blessed with friends who do have good palates—Shawn Marie and Matt are great examples. In addition to being two of my favorite people in the whole world, SM and Matt are both avid tasters. They sip, they chew, they think. They analyze. They try to capture gustation in words, which is far harder to do than one might think. It really takes practice! And that is exactly what I am doing: practicing.
Taste, taste. If Thoreau had been a foodie, perhaps this would have been his advice to us.
Quite a while ago, SM and I had an awesome, informal coffee tasting at Casteel Coffee, her favorite coffee place in the Chicago area. She’s enamored by how freshly roasted the beans are and the unpretentious, rough-hewn feel of the Casteel Coffee shop on Central Street in Evanston. One Saturday morning, we bellied up to the counter and ordered two tall cups of coffee, one a dark-roasted Mexican brew, the other a medium-roasted Central American brew. Armed with our caffeine juice, we set about tasting them, side by side, over and over. Black, with cream, with sugar, with cream and sugar, it was a marvelous experience. For the first time, I tasted what she meant when she described the Central American coffees as “bright” and “acidic.” In contrast, the dark Mexican drink was earthy and mellow, the perfect recipient of a dairy accessory to give it a little lift. Both coffees were delicious, but they really were quite different, and I loved being able to taste the difference. Tasting is believing.
Alone in the kitchen, I’ve been focusing huge amounts of concentration on finding all the flavors in my food. Because my palate is mediocre at best, I’ve been taking Thoreau’s words to heart and using the simplest of combinations on my plate. A tome of inspiration, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, accompanied me home from the library one Sunday afternoon. Longtime readers of this space may recall that one of the most important blogs that inspired me to start writing my own was Sarah Discovers How to Eat. Sarah’s blog, a record of her adventures as she cooked every single recipe(!) from How to Eat, felt like a celebration of cooking. I liked that. I wasn’t quite as wild about the recipes—they were very heavy with meat and dairy. Even the vegetarian recipes gave me pause. Nigella’s cooking is indulgent; next to her recipes, my cooking looks positively anemic! It took three long years for me to come back to the beginning and look at the primary text that inspired Sarah’s blog. Within the pages of that dense, terrific book, I found inspiration in a most unlikely place: salad. In hindsight, I feel rather silly for not finding the book sooner. But I know things now that I didn’t know then, such as the importance of developing your palate. A good palate is a good palate, no matter what you put on it. I think Nigella has a good palate and thus has something to teach me.
Matt has one of the best palates I’ve ever met. Even though he eats ludicrous amounts of meat, he makes amazing vegetarian food too. The best part is that he actually likes cooking with me; he likes being encouraged to think beyond the steak, to understand what makes for a good vegetarian meal. There’s a lovely synergy that takes form when Matt and I cook together. What we do in the kitchen is something that is unique to us, together. Separately, we are good cooks, but together, it’s like all the love and affection and romance and attraction between us is infused into the food and it becomes the best food I’ve ever tasted. When he is not around, I miss cooking with him as much as I miss holding his hand. I miss it deeply and viscerally. I miss him and his food.
When I’m alone and concentrating intensely on my food, I can feel Matt’s gentle spirit in the kitchen with me. In an e-mail to him, I mentioned my amazing salad experience, gleaned from the pages of How to Eat. Into a big bowl of coarsely torn Romaine lettuce, I poured a smidgen of olive oil and with my bare hands, tossed it over and over, until the grassy aromas of leaf and oil drifted into my nose. Then I squeezed just a few drops of fresh lemon juice into the leaves and tossed again. From there, with fresh leaves gussied up and eagerly awaiting the plate, I tossed a handful of cheddar cubes into the bowl and tipped the whole thing onto a plate. Good Lord, it was a lot of salad—about half a plate’s worth, in fact! Toasted walnuts, still warm from their sojourn into the oven, topped the whole thing and I polished off the entire salad, every last leaf and nut.
Even before I told Matt about the salad, I knew he would be pleased with my new approach to cooking, an approach where the focus gently shifts from a heavy reliance on other people’s recipes to a quiet confidence in my own palate. Eating becomes a deeply authentic experience when your personal taste is infused into the food. Cookbooks become teachers and coaches, but in the end, the meal is in your hands. I like that. I still love my cookbook collection (cookbooks are the best bedtime reading material), but I feel like I’m starting to come into my own style as a cook. With that in mind, I have nothing but gratitude for those who teach me how to taste and how to cook.
A Nigella-Inspired Salad: Romaine Lettuce with Toasted Walnuts and Vintage Cheddar or Green Apples
Inspired by How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
This salad is all about technique. You can top the Romaine with anything you like; I’ve suggested toasted walnuts with either a vintage white cheddar cheese or cubes of green apple. The idea here is to use simple but intensely flavored ingredients. If you try different combinations on your fork—for example, a bite of walnut followed by a bite of walnut with Romaine—you’ll start to discover the singular flavors of each ingredient and the synergystic flavors that emerge in the combinations. I feel like there’s a sort of alchemy that happens during tasting; it is one of my favorite things about food. Like I said before, tasting is believing.
I think this salad is a good one for any eaters who shy away from vinegar, like my friend Ian. The lemon is very, very subtle; it makes the Romaine taste even fresher and brighter without tasting sour. It’s wonderful.
2 tbsp. chopped walnuts
2-3 large and very fresh leaves of Romaine lettuce
Drizzle of olive oil (to taste)
Several drops of fresh lemon juice (to taste)
1/2 -1 oz. vintage white cheddar cheese, such as Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese or 1/4 of a green apple, such as Granny Smith, cored and chopped into irregular cubes
1) Toast the walnuts: preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the walnuts on a small cookie sheet and bake them for several minutes until they are fragrant and browned.
2) While the walnuts are toasting, wash and dry the lettuce thoroughly. Tear it into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Pour in a scant drizzle of olive oil and use your bare hands to toss the leaves with the oil. As Nigella says, “Toss it far longer than you’d believe possible.” If you think the leaves need more oil, add a smidgen more and toss again. The goal is to give each leaf just the barest sheen of oil. Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the leaves and toss again. Taste a leaf and decide if it needs more oil or lemon juice; adjust as needed.
3) Once the leaves are prepped and perky, toss them with the cheddar or the green apple. Tip the salad onto a plate (or plates, if you are willing to share your salad with someone else) and top with the toasted walnuts. Serve immediately, but eat slowly so you can taste everything fully.