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The Elements of Taste - A Review

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 
The Elements of Taste," the long-awaited effort from Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, is really two books under one cover.

The first offers more than 130 recipes from Mr. Kunz, the talented chef who earned four stars when he was at Lespinasse in Manhattan. Enticing photographs and clear instructions make his creative approach, often with Asian flavors, understandable to the home cook. This is the first book by Mr. Kunz, who has been out of the restaurant scene for three and a half years, and it's exciting to page through and imagine combinations like a gratin of sweet peas, tarragon and pistachios, or flank steak glazed with tamarind.

But the authors don't stop there. There's that second book, a treatise on taste. It's an effort to reduce every flavor the palate may encounter to 14 categories, subdivide and recombine them and come up with a language for analyzing food that feels like some of the esoteric approaches to wine.

Beyond the usual sweet, salty, bitter and sour, they have come up with floral herbal, spiced aromatic, funky and bulby, among others. And if that's not enough, they also have theories about what each taste does in a dish: saltiness and sweetness drive the flavor, while wine adds an underlying fruity fragrance and complexity. Some tastes are said to pull, others push. It's a trifle too lab coat and not enough apron.

"The Elements of Taste" (Little, Brown, $40) has an admirable objective, one that most cookbooks completely miss: it aims to teach how to achieve balance in a dish and, beyond that, in a menu. The premise is that every dish has a key flavor and texture that must be built on, using other taste and textural components, so that the end result pleases the palate and so that a progression of dishes evolves in an appetizing fashion. It's meant to make you a better cook.

The authors — Mr. Kaminsky is a food writer and critic for New York magazine — make the excellent point that for a good chef tastes are usually understood instinctively, the way composers may hear sounds mentally. It's how a chef can know what is missing from a sauce, say, and reach for some lemon, salt or butter to round it out. In a nutshell, it's what defines a good cook, professional or not.

There is a real cookbook in here desperately trying to get out. But the recipes are arranged in a way that supports their taste theories — grouped according to the flavor category and not by course or type of food. Each recipe has "tasting notes" at the end. It's a challenge for anyone who might simply want to cook dinner. Fortunately, there's a well-designed index.

As for the cooking, techniques like a quick sauté or simmer, for example, couldn't be simpler. But coming up with a finished dish can be another story. Many of the recipes require several components, starting with a basic ingredient, called a "platform food," like a piece of fish. Then a sauce, a topping, a relish make for a time-consuming series of recipes before the dish is ready to serve. A section called "The Chef's Larder" provides 43 recipes for the supporting cast.

There's an excellent sautéed striped bass served with bundles of roasted scallions and a green peppercorn-citrus sauce. The tamarind-glazed flank steak is easy, once you've prepared the glaze. Among the few one-pot exceptions is the meltingly delectable confit of veal breast with bulby vegetables, a great winter dish that's slowly braised.

The apple, brussels sprouts and turnip hash is a splendid example of balance, with the fruity sweetness of apple playing off the salty richness of bacon and the bitterness of the vegetables. As for the gratin of sweet peas or the ragout of morels, garden shoots and greens, or the fresh tomato summer rolls — I don't care what they are designed to illustrate. I can hardly wait to try them.

Pan-Seared Scallops in White Wine Broth With Butternut Squash
Adapted from "The Elements of Taste" by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky

Time: 30 minutes

3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely diced shallots
1/2 cup finely diced butternut squash
1 cup chardonnay or riesling
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or more to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 pound fresh bay scallops (Nantucket or Peconic, not calico)
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not brown. Add squash, wine, honey and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Season with salt, white pepper and cayenne, and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust lemon juice and seasonings. Keep warm over very low heat.

Pat scallops dry on paper towels. Place oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallops; sauté in single layer without moving them until golden on one side, 2 minutes.

Shake pan to roll scallops around, or use spatula to flip them over. Add remaining butter. When it starts to brown, add remaining lemon juice; season with salt and white pepper. Baste with pan juices briefly.

Divide scallops among four shallow soup plates. Bring broth to simmer, check seasonings, and ladle over scallops. Serve.

Yield: 4 first-course servings.

Apple, Brussel Sprouts and Turnip Hash
Adapted from "The Elements of Taste" by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky

Time: 40 minutes

10 slices country bacon
Kosher salt
1/2 pound brussels sprouts, quartered
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut in 1/2-inch-thick slices
1/3 cup cider vinegar, approximately
1 large white turnip (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut in 1/3-inch dice
Freshly ground white pepper
Pinch sugar.

Fry bacon until crisp. Drain on paper, crumble and set aside. Bring 2-quart pot of salted water to boil, add brussels sprouts, blanch 2 minutes, drain and plunge in bowl of ice water. Drain and set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in large, clean skillet over medium-high heat. Add brussels sprouts and cook until beginning to brown, 5 minutes. Remove sprouts from pan; set aside. Add 1 tablespoon butter to pan, add apples; cook until golden, 5 minutes. Remove; set aside.

Place 1/3 cup vinegar in saucepan used for brussels sprouts. On low heat, add turnips, season with salt and cook gently until turnips are tender and vinegar is reduced to a couple of tablespoons, 3 to 4 minutes. Add a little water if liquid evaporates. Add brussels sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes. Fold in apples, pepper and sugar, heat through, then add remaining butter and fold in bacon. Check seasonings by tasting turnip; add more vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper if needed to get a flavor that's tangy, salty and barely sweet. Serve.

Yield: 4 side-dish servings.

The New York Times
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
post #2 of 5

Re: The Elements of Taste - A Review

Do they talk about "umami"?
post #3 of 5
Thread Starter 
Nothing about umami. They discuss fourteen elements of taste divided in fourth categories. They are:

Tastes that Push

Tastes That Pull
Spiced Aromatic
Floral Herbal

Tastes That Punctuate

Taste Platform
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
post #4 of 5
I thought it was strange that Bread Baker's Apprentice actually talked about umami. One of the few, if not only book, I have that discusses that specific sense of taste.
post #5 of 5
Thread Starter 

The Elements of Taste - A Review With Recipe

It's All a Matter of Taste -- A Chef's Taste

BOOK AND AUTHORS: "The Elements of Taste" by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky (Little, Brown and Co., $40). Kunz is the former chef of New York's Lespinasse restaurant and was named Best American Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 1995. Kaminsky is a freelance food writer.

FORMAT: The mission statement could easily read: "We wanted to instill in people a deeper understanding of the component flavors of food." Translation? A restaurant chef has been given free rein to string words together not unlike "winespeak" in a stream of brilliant "chefspeak."

Any writer capable of conveying the whirlwind within the mind of a chef without alienating the reader should be congratulated. Congratulations, Kaminsky.

Think of the introductory chapter as Cliff Notes. It is a worthwhile, even requisite, precede to the book. Ensuing chapters are grouped into two sections.

The first section, "Fourteen Elements of Taste," makes up the majority of the book. Its text, via explanation and recipes, classifies taste into various categories. The authors wend their way from the staid "salty" to the rather vague "starchy," with forays into "picante," "floral herbal," "spiced aromatic" and "oceanic."

Thought you knew what tangy means? Think again. The authors describe it as a taste that "pulls." More specifically, "Where the 'push' tastes have a tendency to put their shoulder into it and push all taste forward, the 'pull' tastes seek out underlying flavors and highlight them." Got it?

The accompanying recipes are clearly written, straightforward and accompanied by detailed tasting notes. There are certain hits -- like brats braised in beer with caramelized onions -- and surprise successes -- such as the Brussels sprouts, apple and turnip hash. There are also flavors as jolting as a douse with a bucket of cold water, like the orange spice mix of star anise, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and orange zest.

Just when your head is aching or spinning or both comes a respite. The second section, "Elements of Cuisine," is blissfully short on text, long on recipes. As the name implies, these are not finished dishes but versatile gems -- such as breadings, glazes, spice mixes, sauces and brines -- geared toward free-thinking cooks.

WHO WOULD READ IT: This is not a book for most home cooks. This is a book for those who find themselves restless and unchallenged after reading most other cookbooks. -- Renee Schettler

Barbecued Sea Trout With Grapefruit-Ginger-Shallot Sauce
(4 servings)

Grapefruit is an interesting ingredient because it is one of the few that combines both bitter and sweet (milk chocolate is another). Bitter closes down the palate, which helps to confine the taste of highly flavored foods so that you can begin each bite with a clean slate, so to speak. Everything else in this recipe pushes and pulls flavor. There is hardly a taste that this combination doesn't push forward or pull up. It works beautifully to pull out the flavor in more subtly flavored and delicate ingredients such as fresh white-fleshed fish, baby shrimp or bay scallops.

Our Taste Notes: The tang, bitterness and sweetness of the grapefruit are pulled further by the tang of the lemon. Then comes the floral herbal of the ginger joined by the bulbiness of the shallot. The sugar pushes the sweet fruit, while the lemon and grapefruit tang pulls out flavor. The texture of the sea trout punctuates and its ocean flavor diffuses the attack of the sauce. In this mix of powerful and concentrated flavors, the fish is the final note, with trailing echoes of bitter, sweet, and, finally, cayenne heat.

-- From the "Tangy: Tastes That Pull" chapter

1 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon finely diced shallots
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger root
2 tablespoons sugar
Kosher salt
Cayenne pepper to taste
Pinch of paprika
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 grapefruit, peeled, pith removed, segmented, then cut into wedges
2 tablespoons julienned grapefruit zest

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the grapefruit juice, shallots, ginger, sugar and salt, cayenne pepper and paprika to taste. Bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the mixture is reduced by half. Remove from the heat; taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, lemon juice, sugar and cayenne pepper. (May make up to an hour in advance up to this point).

Just before serving, add the grapefruit sections to the warm sauce. (Reserve the zest for garnish.)

Four 6-ounce sea trout fillets, skin on (may substitute any firm white-fleshed fish)
2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Brush the fish lightly with oil, season with salt and pepper, then grill or broil until cooked through, 2 to 5 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the fillet.


Spoon the sauce onto 4 warm plates. Place a fillet in the center of each plate, then garnish with grapefruit zest and serve.

Per serving: 280 calories, 29 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 246 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

The Washington Post
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.

- Desiderius Erasmus
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