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Tasting is always in good taste



I have a terrible memory. Other people may bemoan forgetting a word now and then, or a person's name, but they have nothing on me. No, I've reached the point where I almost never call anyone by name, because I so fear it will be wrong, even if I know exactly who they are. Tell me a horrible or exciting story, and I will react with appropriate shock or joy. If you're still dealing with the event a year later but no one wants to hear any more about it, tell me again, and I will certainly react as if I'd never heard that one before.

As a food writer, this is a pretty awful trait to have. How do I sharpen my taste buds if my head can't recall the words to go with the flavor of the moment? I'm often envious of writers who say they remember every meal they ever had; these days, if I could just remember what I ate last week I'd be pleased. It's also why I dislike ordering anything with a foreign name; although I work hard on refreshing my memory for the French word for, say, eggplant, get me to a menu and I just can't recall if courgette is eggplant, zucchini or, maybe, sweet potato.

It didn't used to be this bad; at least part of the diagnosis here is acute mommy-brain. And I know at least part of the cure. I learned one of the best ways to sharpen my palate in cooking school, with our weekly tastings. Done first thing in the morning, these were either highly pleasurable (chocolate and caviar), or a necessary evil (10 kinds of vinegar at 9 a.m., anyone?).

We also tasted butters (fun,, although even for a cream-hound like me, this was a bit much), olive oil, mustards and chicken stock. This comes as such an intense experience to the tongue that I still haven't forgotten my first pure taste of Plugra butter, ultra-rich but almost like plastic. And once you taste homemade, long-simmered chicken stock right after a can of broth, you understand why some recipes require it.

On top of those tastings, we had wine tastings every Friday afternoon, ideal timing after a long week (unless the wine was awful, we rarely spat!). But we found that it took a while to get in the groove our teachers demanded: The first time we tasted a wine and were asked what we tasted, well, we said, it tastes like wine. Oh, we should get more specific? It tastes like red wine! Eventually we learned to spot notes of grapefruit, leather, lemon, and one time, old shoes. Corked, or spoiled, wines may not ordinarily excite you, but our teacher was just thrilled when he opened one during class so we'd understand what they're like. Once you've smelled and tasted that, you'll never again wonder whether that bottle the waiter just opened is corked, or just not the right wine for you.

With my slide down memory lane, I'm ready to do a few tastings of my own again. I still do vinegar tastings fairly frequently when I'm ready to make a vinaigrette. I pull out the bottles I've not used in a while and taste a few, side by side, to see which will go best with all that I'm piling onto our nightly salad. If I don't do this, I get in a balsamic rut and lose sight of all my other choices. Likewise with oils; I can easily forget when I'm making that salad, with a baby in the backpack and a ready-to-help boy at my side, that I have bottles beyond olive. I love nut oils and pumpkin-seed oil, an intense flavor that gets me out of that rut.

My son and I also like to do apple tastings; with all the varieties available now, I'm often hard-pressed to know which I like best, and to remember which worked for eating, which for pie, and which for applesauce, something I make in vast quantities these days. We've found, though, that the results aren't necessarily permanent; one of my favorite apples one week was, two weeks later, mealy and tasteless.

For items you just can't imagine tasting straight, consideer using them in recipes where that flavor shines alone. For example, get to know herbs beyond basil by using them in pestos. Use parsley as a base (to give your pesto enough bulk), tasting it first; try rosemary, sage, savory, oregano, tarragon, mint or thyme.

What's the best way to do a tasting? Line up your choices in small bowls, without labels, and taste in small bites. Roll the food on your tongue long enough to get the full flavor; with chocolate, both break some in your hands and bite it to check its snap, then let some melt without chewing. Drink only water between bites; plain bread is also good for clearing your palate for the next bite.

I think this would even be fun for a party, especially if you choose something a bit more exciting than chicken stock; caviar and chocolate would be obvious choices (maybe even multiple chocolate fondues). Or pick an appetizer that should be dipped in a little mustard, and offer a variety. Just be sure, if your memory gets as overloaded as mine, to keep those labels and take copious notes!

Cook's Notes: I don't bother to tie up the herbs in my stock; if you prefer, tie them in a cheesecloth bag before using. I do line a strainer with cheesecloth for straining my finished stock. If you don't have all the ingredients on hand for a classic mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion) for the stock, you can make a decent, basic stock without them. I also like to add a few peppercorns to my stock. If I'm around, I check after the stock has heated for a while to see if it has foam on top to skim off. In making the pesto, decide ahead of time whether to freeze it. If you do, it'll taste better if the nuts and cheese are left out (stir them in when you're ready to use the pesto, grinding the nuts first). Both the stock and pestos can be frozen in ice-cube trays, then stored in zipper-top bags, for those times when you need just a dash. EndBlock

Easiest chicken stock

This doesn't require a formal recipe, but you will need a slow cooker (Crock-Pot). Place the bones of a roasted chicken (or turkey) in the cooker (or use raw chicken parts). Add a peeled and quartered onion; a peeled carrot cut into 1-inch pieces; a stalk of celery cut into 1-inch pieces; and a handful of thyme and parsley sprigs. Add water just to cover. Cook on low overnight or longer; I let this cook as long as possible, until golden and rich--overnight and all the next day is just fine. Strain and chill quickly; store in the refrigerator for up to three days, or freeze (bring to a boil before using if stock wasn't frozen).

Herb pesto

Makes about 1 cup

2 large garlic cloves
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh herb leaves, such as rosemary or sage
1 1/2 cups fresh parsley leaves, preferably Italian parsley
1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

With a food processor running, drop in garlic through feed tube and whiz until chopped. Add herb and parsley leaves and nuts. Whiz to mix. With processor running, slowly pour in olive oil until smooth (or a bit chunky, as you prefer). Stir in cheese; serve immediately or chill, covered, up to 3 weeks (cover pesto with a thin layer of olive oil before chilling).

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