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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The importance of a palate

About an hour ago, Hank Shaw (author of Hunt, Gather Cook) reminded me of something.  He Tweeted something about cooking with venison fat.  I not only grew up being told, but everything I've read up to his point, told me that venison fat had an undesirable flavor.  I'm an adventurous eater, but I never gave it a try - and, it seemed like a waste.  Hank said that some deer fat is really good (he didn't give many details, but did say pre-rut, fat and young).  This was a major head slapping moment for me.  I know how to render fat from other animals and I'm just slightly more of an animal fat fan than Bill Cosby. ("Praise the lard!")  So now, I have new fat with a familiar flavor....

Suddenly, hundreds of recipes came to mind.  I could use deer fat in recipes that include the foods a deer eats.  I could use deer fat to flavor other foods.  I could infuse deer flavor in whiskies.  Everything from  mushrooms and ramps to deep fried nuts to infused bourbon... even popcorn ... even fish deep fried in deer fat (for a hint of surf and turf) come to mind.

This reminded me of the importance of a palate.  The most important factor in becoming a good cook is a palate.  Some people are born with one, some people develop it.  A palate, loosely speaking, is the learned talent of remembering each flavor to the extent of being able to "almost taste" it when you think of it.  This allows you to combine flavors in your mind and come up with recipes.  This is why most good cooks do not use written recipes.

Reading all of the cookbooks ever written will not make you a good cook.  Most good cooks can completely ruin a dish trying to follow a recipe... we all make mistakes.  You become a good cook when you can imagine the finished dish before it is cooked an know what goes in it and how it is cooked only with your imagination.  This sounds complicated, but is is no different than learning words and composing sentences.  The beauty of it is that once you have learned the words, if your talent permits, you may be able to compose the culinary version f the works of William Shakespeare.  After the basic learning, it will be your talent that comes through.  Your dishes will be your own expressions. They may be simple and plain, as most speech is in the average day, or they may be your own "Hamlet".  But, it all begins with learning the words and how they are used... or, learning the flavors of each food and how they combine with others.

I was almost unbelievably fortunate - blessed - to have had a mother who was an amazing cook, from a family with a long history of good food.  I was fed rich and unique foods before I could even digest them.  My family was determined to introduce me to the flavors.  That is why I have never understood kids who are picky eaters.  I ate what I was given, and actually did love it.  Before the age of 5, I loved bitter chocolate, pickled mushroom caps, hot mustard and summer sausage.

Anyone can develop a palate, at any age.  You need only eat every food you can find, in its most simple state and learn the flavor.  Then, just think... "what would go good with this...".  Start simple - one ingredient at a time.  Perhaps, start with butter and/or toast.  What would butter go well on?  What would be good on toast?  Then, expand.  Then learn how different cooking techniques affect the flavor and texture of the food.  Then think, how would this (ear of corn, steak or fish fillet) be baked, broiled, roasted, fried.. or raw, pickled, etc.?...

Even if you do not cook, developing a palate will make you a cook.  If your arms and legs were paralyzed, you could imagine the flavors, instruct the actual cook and satisfy your taste buds.  If you love food and aspire to cook, go no further until you have developed a plate.

2 comments:

  1. Hank Shaw takes me on a journey with his unique food muses. He makes my "palete" come alive with every read.

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  2. I'm a fan as well! We have very different cooking styles and backgrounds, but share a love for hunting, fishing, foraging and cooking. Be sure to keep an eye on my blog. I'm in the process of moving right now, so I'm a bit hamstrung in regard to getting out into the woods right now. I should be settled by fall and the processing and cooking of wild foods will be a big part of what present here.

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