Building Flavor and Texture

As the former managing partner of a gourmet kitchen store and a cooking class instructor for over a decade, I know a thing or two about flavor.  In fact, I know so much about some things that it is hard for me to have casual conversations about food.  It’s a passion, especially on two fronts:  where the food comes from and how it’s grown or raised, which is another blog post; and how to combine flavors and textures to achieve a truly superior culinary experience, my topic herein.

I should insert a disclaimer, lest you think I’m some school-trained chef or authority on food, which I am not.  I am simply an adventurous home cook and eater who has the audacity to teach other people to cook without a pedigree.  My strengths lie in my attention to detail and my curiosity, the former enabling me to master certain techniques and the latter leading me to research and experiment.  Experience is indeed the best teacher in the kitchen, but a little knowledge of chemistry and history helps a cook embrace the methods that will allow them to truly enjoy cooking and eating at home.  If you are interested in learning more about food and cooking, you can create restaurant-worthy meals at home.

This morning I wanted something fun and delicious and creative for breakfast, so I tapped the mini-encyclopedia of food that is my brain and surveyed the kitchen.  I didn’t want eggs, though I do love them and eat them several times per week.  I didn’t want cold cereal, nor hot oatmeal or rice porridge.  I wanted something interesting.  My palate was bored.  I know that you night owls are probably rolling your eyes at my pre-dawn escapades, but us morning people wake up ready to go, so this level of thinking starts at about 5:00 am for me most days.

After taking inventory, I settled on a rather eclectic combination.  Sometimes I toast raw nuts and seeds and use them for granola, along with fresh or dried fruit and some almond milk.  That wasn’t interesting enough for me today.  Sometimes I roast or pan fry chunks of potato or sweet potato with exotic spices and put eggs on top, and sometimes I even lightly dress some salad greens and add them to the potatoes and eggs.  Since I had already decided against the eggs, I thought why not combine some sweet potatoes with some greens and my nut granola, maybe with a dollop of almond milk yogurt instead of milk?  I can even sprinkle it all with some Dukkah* for crunch and another layer of flavor and add a few of the Genovese basil microgreens growing on my counter to the mix. And a star is born!

The thing about a dish like this is it does not conform to our established rules about breakfast.  Hell, it doesn’t fit the lunch or dinner mold, either.  Decisions like seasoning the sweet potatoes with Garam Masala (more Western construct than Indian staple), dressing the greens with lemon and oil, and sprinkling the finished dish with Dukkah come easily because of my past experimentation.  Knowing how much spice to use is another acquired skill; it cannot be taught, it must be learned by trying repeatedly.  Following recipes gives you a false sense of security.  The truth is that learning to balance these flavors is something that only experience can teach you.  I am providing a general guideline here, what I did to make one bowl of this masterpiece for breakfast.  I did not measure, so my amounts are approximate.  If you are going to do a little rule-breaking in your own kitchen, you are going to have to set aside your preconceived notions and do a little experimenting.

Taste as you go.  That’s your lesson for today.  Taste the spices right out of the jar so you know what you are using and how pungent it is.  This will guide you regarding appropriate quantities.  Be conservative with your seasoning – you can always add more.  Before adding that next layer of ingredients, taste again to avoid over-seasoning.  You can add, but you can’t take away.  If you follow this simple rule, you will never be surprised by what is on the plate, but you may drool a little in anticipation.

The Preparation

(Please note that the ingredients are listed in bold print within the following paragraphs.)

First, assemble all your ingredients before beginning to cook.  This is important, lest you IMG_0849be running around looking for something while the nuts or sweet potatoes burn.

Next, you will want to peel the Small Sweet Potato, dice it small, and toss it with a neutral-tasting oil to coat them lightly.  Trying to get the potato pieces all the same size when chopping helps them cook evenly.  I used a tablespoon or so of Pecan Oil as it has the highest natural smoke point, without processing, of all the nut oils and is completely bland.  When frying or sautéing sweet potatoes, they tend to burn because of the sugars they contain, so using a high smoke point oil helps to minimize scorching, as does a lower temp under the pan.  Then I added a heaping tablespoon of IMG_0858 (Edited)Garam Masala**and about a teaspoon of Sea Salt and tossed again.  If you use a gently sloping bowl like this one, you can toss the contents together, as you would when sautéing, to evenly coat for the best cooking result.  If you are afraid to toss, you can stir.  But the tossing won’t get easier without practice, so give it a try while you have the opportunity, and have you four-legged vacuum cleaner standing by (my dogs are always in the kitchen waiting for me to drop something).  Set the bowl aside.

Next, chop your nuts.  I just grabbed a handful each of raw walnuts and almonds*** because that’s what I had, but you can use pecans, macadamias, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, or even peanuts.  Likewise, you can use seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower, though these are small enough that they don’t need to be chopped.  I like to chop the nuts separately because they all have a different density, and I don’t want to pulverize my walnuts while I try to wrangle the almonds.  Please use raw nuts and seeds for this.  Not only do they keep longer and have more nutritional value than commercially roasted nuts, but youIMG_0851 (Edited) can’t toast a nut that’s already been toasted, and the warmth, texture, and fragrance of the freshly roasted nuts is essential to this dish.  Cold, already-been-roasted nuts and seeds would not be tasty here.

The Cooking

To make this a one pan meal, select a small nonstick skillet, such as your egg pan.  Heat the pan dry over medium heat, then add the chopped nuts.  Toss them occasionally.  They will seem not to be cooking, then all of the sudden you will smell them and in a literal minute, with one or two more tosses, they will be ready.  They should be golden brown on some, but probably not all, sides.  If you leave them too long, they will burn.  When the smell is heady, they are ready (see what I did there?).  Shake the nuts into a small bowl.

Now toss the sweet potatoes once more and slide them into the pan (do not rinse the bowl, you need that flavor).  Give them a toss in the pan and continue to toss them every minute or two until they develop some color and are soft (you can pluck one out with a IMG_0857fork for taste-testing).  You may need to reduce the temperature to medium-low to prevent burning.  They will probably take about 6-8 minutes if diced small, longer if larger.

Meanwhile, use the bowl from the sweet potatoes that has the oil and spices in it and squeeze about a tablespoon of Fresh Lemon Juice in the bowl.  Add about a tablespoon of Oil of your choice and a generous pinch of Sea Salt.  You are making a modified vinaigrette, so you can add another layer of flavor with olive oil or raw sesame oil, or you can use the neutral-tasting oil again.  Whatever sounds good to you.  It’s a small amount, so it’s not a huge deal, but avoid infused or toasted oils here – keep it simple.  Whisk that all together with a tiny whisk or the tines of a fork.  Set aside.

Rinse and spin/pat dry about a cup of Mixed Salad Greens, or just whatever variety you have.  You could even use raw collards for this if you would like.  Chops the greens into bite-sized pieces and add them to the bowl with the vinaigrette.  Toss well to coat.  They IMG_0852will be a bit heavily dressed, but that excess dressing will be delightful mixed with the warm sweet potatoes.

The Plating

Now assemble your dish.  You can toss it all in a bowl and call it good enough, but even when I am feeding myself, I like to feast with my eyes first.  So, “a little precision, please, Baby,” (name that movie).  Slide the sweet potatoes into your bowl.  Add the greens and nuts, and a few Dried Cranberries or Fresh Blueberries or any kind of Berry you have. Sprinkle with about a tablespoon of Dukkah* or some additional Garam Masala if you don’t have Dukkah (but you should really get some).  Finish with IMG_0862about ¼ cup of almond milk yogurt**** and, if you have them, some microgreens or sprouts, which you can chop a bit or leave whole.

This combination of flavors, temperatures, and textures is sure to delight your palate. Stir together and enjoy!

Cook’s Notes: 

* The Dukkah I am using is a blend of hazelnuts, sesame, coriander, cumin, black pepper, sumac, sea salt, nigella seeds, Aleppo, and spearmint.

** The Garam Masala blend I am using contains cumin, ground coriander, cardamom powder, black pepper, Ceylon cinnamon, ground clove, ground nutmeg and saffron.  Some contain garlic or onion powder, which would yield a different flavor profile here.  If desired, you could create your own masala (which means ‘cooking spice powder or paste’) from the ingredients listed above.  If you are missing one or two, just leave them out.

*** To create a nut-free version of this dish, substitute all seeds for the nuts and use more Garam Masala instead of the Dukkah for a finish sprinkle.

**** Yes, of course, you can use plain dairy yogurt if desired.

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