Monday, March 2, 2009

On Palatability -- Seaweed and Ice Cream

from the contemplations desk

It may be obvious to say that each person’s cultural inheritance heavily influences his or her dining preferences; that is to say, culinary sensibilities. While I deeply love the tastes associated with umami, I am not necessarily in love (or even used to) some of the slimy-soft textures slurped, sucked and swallowed by the Japanese. Had I been born Japanese, however… You catch my drift? And it follows that the more foreign a texture or taste, the more difficult it may be to swallow. Of course, this is not always the case. I remember with dreamy reverence the first time I melted monkfish liver au torchon on my tongue; or the subtle caress of uni across my taste buds; or standing in a walk-in cooler dumb-struck by the taste of a chocolate truffle powdered lovingly with curry. Epiphany! Dare I liken those experiences to the first time one makes love? I digress. These eye-opening (taste bud opening?) experiences intrigue me to no end. When I dined at L’Avant Gout (July 19th, 2007) I ate a dessert of alternating layers of chocolate and roasted red bell pepper mousse—sweet and savory together in perfect harmony. Union. Two together as one. Sentence fragments. It’s like that. At least the first time.

And THEN, then one begins to play. Flavors reposition themselves. Or one repositions them. And so it was recently when I decided to inflict my demented sensibility upon witting students. They were so good, so tolerant. It was the dessert that was my weapon, my gyuto to cut across their culinary assumptions and sensibilities. Poor students. They enjoyed the chocolate truffles, these infused with cardamom, clove, star anise and cinnamon. It was the ice cream they politely tasted and left unfinished.

When I catered for my brother and sister-in-law, she took me shopping in Boston’s Chinatown. One of the ingredients I needed was furikake, a variable mixture of seaweed, toasted sesame seed, bonito and a few other ingredients. There are several varieties with slightly differing combinations. Maybe someday I’ll learn to use each appropriately (whatever that might mean). Furikake is used commonly to dress rice. And I did that. I also coated some salmon skewers, which were then seared. As I tasted the furikake, I noticed a delicate sweetness to the bonito. It pairs well with the perfume of rice. My mind began to wander, imagining some possibilities untried, untested. A month later I was making vanilla ice cream, folding furikake into the churned, but not frozen cream. Was this a flash of limited brilliance? (Is it possible to have limited brilliance?) Alas, I did make a common error, forgivable for a first offence. I tasted the churned, partially frozen sweetened cream with furikake…and liked it. But it wasn’t quite “there” with the effect. I added more not considering that the ice cream would need time to absorb the flavors of the furikake. I think two tablespoons would have sufficed for the quart plus we made, rather than the three I added. Still, the flavors were new and in concert (at least, if you ask me). I know, I know…no one else is going to try this, right? “Eew, yuck… seaweed and ice cream" (never mind the bonito!). All I can say is “give peace and chance.” Oops, sorry, wrong post. All I can say is that my mind and tongue were satisfied. It IS possible. It’s not for everyday. It’s not for everyone. However, a primary goal had been achieved, a primary thirst quenched, a fundamental need addressed: I have expanded my palate. Joy.

And now I must meditate (actually, I’ve got to go preheat an oven for homemade pizza). Thanks for reading. Stretch your ears with Ives and Schoenberg; expand your culinary palate with ice cream and seaweed.