Culinary Secret: Balance
With all of the spices, herbs and other sundry ingredients at our disposal these days it is easy to get wrapped up in the pomp while forgetting about the circumstance. It is so tempting to add an entire day of Food Network into one meal. But it should not take longer to say a dish than it takes to make it.
These ingredients and techniques are not something you want to use in every single meal. The pursuit of a truly great meal, or life for that matter, is balance. This philosophy is practiced with great skill by chefs in Asia and France.
Just because you have a few tricks in your bag doesn’t mean you should perform them all. Some things simply do not need embellishment. I’ll try to give a few examples.
At my last chef post there was one recipe, chicken salad, on the menu that I was told I could not tinker with. If you are doing a sweet application to a savory dish it is important not to lose the savory aspect of it. This chicken salad was sweeter than most of our desserts. It was putrid. A cup of sugar to every pound of chicken. The other ingredients were mayo, cinnamon, red delicious apples, celery and pecans. All sweet or neutral flavors. To make matters worse the chicken was not seasoned so there wasn’t even salt and pepper to counter all of the sweetness. There was no balance. To this day it is the worst dish I have ever served on a menu.
When doing a sweet/savory dish you need to add heat or acidity to remind the palate this is a savory dish. Cayenne pepper or a touch of Tabasco would have made that chicken salad better. Asian and Caribbean chefs do sweet/savory well because of their judicious use of chilies and/or acids (whether from citrus or vinegar): sweet and sour, sweet and hot.
Balance is important in textures as well. A well balanced recipe will have two or more contrasting textures – crispy and tender, crunchy and soft. Just a touch of resistance that gives way to something gooey is charming.
Another place to strive for balance is in the menu as a whole. Do you have an entrée that is technically challenging? Then make sure your other courses are simple to execute. Not only will it make things better for the cook but also for the diner.
At my last post I made hummus from scratch. My recipe was quite complex containing I believe 17 ingredients and none of them the traditional Tahini. Everyone said it was the best hummus in the city. I didn’t use that many ingredients because I was trying to impress anyone. I did it because every hummus I have ever tasted was lacking something. They seemed to always feature one of three flavors – garlic, cilantro or cumin. Well I want all three of them and in abundance.
Conversely my scratch made salsa was very simple; six ingredients. Again our customers thought it was the best in town. The main thing to remember is that if you start with quality ingredients then you do not need a lot of flashy stuff; a little bit will do.
If there is one thing I can give someone new to cooking it is the lesson of balance.