Where's the brass? It's my constant refrain every year when the new symphony schedule comes out, and I was thinking it again last week at our latest concert. The pianist's fingers flew faster than mine on deadline; I was impressed, but still, there just wasn't enough brass. It's always violins and piano. Violins are, well... nice. Inoffensive. But more than one "quiet, contemplative piece," and I'm contemplating sleep. That's why I love Easter at my sister's church in Charleston: With the organ, choir and congregation at a crescendo, the kettle drums pound, cymbals clash, and the brass leads the charge into the empty tomb. My father fears a heaven filled with harps; I pray for a heaven filled with horn quintets.
These days, I feel similarly deaf to subtlety in my food. Intellectually, I can appreciate refined, navel-gazing cuisines, but emotionally, they leave me cold. I'm no chile head, but I understand the desire for that one flavor overpowering all other sensations. When I cook, I want bold, hard-charging flavors.
I've always felt a tad embarrassed by that simplicity, but by now, I've hit the "can't teach an old dog" stage of life, and I'm willing to be loud (flavor-wise, anyway) and proud.
That doesn't necessarily mean simple food, although often a focus on a bold flavor can simplify my cooking. The trick is not to overdo.
Always, I'm tempted to toss in another dash of cinnamon, a few more teaspoons of oregano or sage. And nearly always, I regret it.
When I first began testing sweet recipes with herbs, I found myself underdoing the herb time and again, fearing going overboard and being unable to tell if the recipe itself worked, aside from the herb. Over time, that led me to a too-free hand.
Now I know better, even if I still give in to temptation sometimes. The hardest time for judging when to quit comes when using a flavoring that works best added early. At least if you can add it toward the end, you can start with a pinch and go up as needed.
For many home cooks, that judgment call can be hardest with the most common spice in their cabinet: salt. After years of being told to cut back, too many cooks now use far too little salt. I like recipes that aren't rigid, but even I find frustrating recipes that say "salt to taste" at a point in a recipe where home cooks, unlike restaurant chefs, are unlikely to dip in a finger (say, when salting meat before it's cooked). If you're making something like sausage, this isn't too tough; just break off a small bit of the sausage and fry it, then adjust the seasonings as needed. That gets tricky with T-bones.
There's really no way around this; it just takes experience. But when you're starting out, try using a little more salt than you think you need, and pay attention when you eat to whether you were right. If your food tastes a bit flat or boring, it may not be a bad recipe; you simply need to punch up the salt a bit.
Once you get past that, look to herbs and spices for easy ways to embolden your food. If you're cooking with herbs, go for fresh; except for oregano, and to a lesser extent sage, herbs just don't improve with drying. Spices, in contrast, are usually dried; freshness is the key here. Buy spices in bulk, so you can buy just what you'll use in a few months. And pass up the dried spices in those huge containers you see at such places as Sam's. You'll never be able to use them up before they get old and musty, making them not such a good deal after all, and the quality simply isn't as good as you'll find in bulk containers at a place like Whole Foods (Wellspring, for those of us who still prefer that more lyrical name). I've tried cinnamon from BJ's, since there was a good chance I actually would go through that huge container before it got old and lost its punch. I didn't expect it to be as good as the cinnamon I usually used, but the difference startled me--just the scent, much less the flavor, was nowhere near as full and complex.
For bold flavors, here's one trick I especially like: Build a flavor upon itself, in baking and cooking (such as onions and scallions, and maybe leeks, in the same dish). Triple-lemon madeleines, for example, combine lemon verbena, lemon thyme, and lemon balm or zest, to create a powerful but nuanced punch in a delicate cookie. Likewise with cocoa cookies accented with chocolate chips, or triple-chocolate brownies, with milk chocolate, semisweet chocolate, and bittersweet chocolate. But don't think that adding some white chocolate would improve on fabulousness; that only muddies the flavor.
The same principle can be seen in four-cheese pizzas. If the cheeses aren't chosen carefully and combined just right, instead of getting a cheese punch, it seems instead that the flavors cancel one another out--something my beloved brass never does.
Cook's notes: The madeleines are from my book "Desserts From an Herb Garden." If you keep a Southern flour on hand, such as White Lily, you can use 1/2 cup of it in place of the other flours. These cookies freeze very well.
1 dozen madeleines
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cake flour
Pinch of coarse salt
1 teaspoon minced lemon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon minced lemon verbena leaves
1 teaspoon minced lemon balm leaves or grated lemon zest
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Baker's Coating (below)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Thoroughly coat a madeleine mold that makes 12 3-inch-long cookies with baker's coating (see below), brushing the rims as well.
Whisk together both flours, salt, and all herb leaves (and lemon zest, if using). In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks, egg, sugar and vanilla for about 10 minutes on high speed, until a ribbon falls when you lift the beaters. Gently fold in flour mixture, then melted butter.
Divide the batter among the molds (depending on how fluffy you got the eggs, you may have just a bit of batter left over; fill molds three-quarters full) and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the tops are golden and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly. Immediately remove from oven and hold the pan over a dry towel. Tap one long side of the pan against the counter to release the madeleines onto towel. Let cool on towel and store in an airtight container.
Baker's Coating: In a medium bowl with an electric mixer, beat 1 cup vegetable shortening, 1 cup vegetable oil (I use canola), and 1 cup all-purpose flour until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container to store; does not need refrigeration, but store in a cool spot in the kitchen. To use, brush on a thin coating with a pastry brush. (Use this any time a recipe calls for greasing and flouring a pan; this is faster, more thorough, and ends worries about food sticking.)