Lateral Cooking by Niki Segnit : Unlocking the Secrets of Flavors

Why does pork pair well with peaches? Why does jasmine uplift the aroma of green tea? And why does chocolate and coffee marry so well together? Great cooking is based on an understanding of flavors and the way in which different ingredients can pair together.  Yet, it’s a skill that can seem elusive, especially to those who are new to cooking.  While there are numerous resources with excellent recipes, few of them teach novices how to approach flavors and techniques. This is an especially unfortunate oversight since one of the easiest ways to improve one’s cooking—and to enjoy the process more–is to cook using one’s nose and palate to their fullest.

This is a subject the food writer Niki Segnit explored  in her 2010 book The Flavour Thesaurus. Covering a wide range of ingredients, from almonds to washed rind cheeses, the author deftly intertwines food science and her own experience to unlock the mystery of aromas and tastes. The book suggests hundreds of combinations and explains why, for instance, coriander and blueberry pair well together. Coriander contains up to 85% linalool, a compound with a bright, floral-citrusy fragrance. The same molecule is responsible for the aroma of blueberry, and adding a bit of ground coriander to a blueberry dessert magnifies the flavors.

Segnit’s latest venture is Lateral Cooking, a guide to cooking techniques. The author argues that once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics of making sponge cake, stock, custard, sauce, and so on, you can expand on this knowledge and go on to create recipes yourself. The idea is to describe the fundamental recipes and show how variations can be easily created around them.

For instance, in the chapter on roux, Segnit explains how this simple combination of cooked flour and fat can be the starting point for a béchamel sauce, soup, stew, or even soufflé. She provides the foundation recipe and then, as in The Flavour Thesaurus, gives numerous variations and different pairings. She encourages you to experiment and her voice is confident and reassuring, even when she walks you through the most complicated of techniques.

Segnit relishes discovering interesting tidbits about food, such as the fact that trendy tea-flavoured ice creams have much earlier antecedents. She digs into the early 19th century cookbooks for green and black tea ice cream recipes and adds that “In the Art of Cookery, from 1836, John Mollard suggests infusing a pint (about 570ml) of cream with coriander seeds, cinnamon and lemon zest for 10 minutes, before adding 150ml of strong green tea and sugar. The mixture is then strained onto 6 egg whites and returned to the hob until thickened.” Segnit recommends serving the airy pudding with bitter almond biscuits, like amaretti.

Lateral Cooking draws upon recipes from renowned chefs, but its author occasionally dips into classical literature. In the game bird section of the chapter on stocks, Segnit writes that “In Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, Felix, the penny-pinching father of the eponymous heroine, instructs the servant to make stock with wild ravens, pronouncing them ’the game that makes the best broth on earth’.” While Segnit herself doesn’t advise a raven stock to her readers, she uses it as a starting point to introduce more familiar game birds and their flavors. It’s a delight. Segnit’s curiosity and passion make Lateral Cooking a book to savor.

More about Lateral Cooking in my FT column, Unlocking the Mystery of Aromas and Tastes.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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22 Comments

  • Brigitte: I’ve been eyeing this book, The Flavor Thesaurus for a while, but I’m now even more interested in Lateral Cooking. I like the concept of learning the basic techniques and then experimenting by yourself. March 1, 2019 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you can leaf through it and see what you think. I like the concept very much. March 5, 2019 at 5:39am Reply

  • Toni: Victoria, you once again reward us with an excellent discovery.
    How well the art and science of smell enhances our lives! March 1, 2019 at 1:59pm Reply

    • Annie: Seconding this! Victoria’s is the only blog I read these days especially for such discoveries. March 1, 2019 at 2:45pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much, Annie. March 5, 2019 at 5:40am Reply

    • Victoria: They certainly do! March 5, 2019 at 5:40am Reply

  • Annie: It sounds like a book for me. 🙂 March 1, 2019 at 2:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m happy to hear it! March 5, 2019 at 5:40am Reply

  • Andy: I’m reading both The Flavour Thesaurus and Lateral Cooking at the moment. At first glance, Segnit’s way of considering flavor and cooking seemed like it might feel slightly pedantic, and in another author’s hands, perhaps this approach would have come across like that. However, once I started reading, I found both texts highly amusing and scattered with so many interesting morsels of information. I think I will have to buy a copy of The Flavor Thesaurus to add to my cookbook collection, I’m sure it’s a book I’ll dip into again and again. March 1, 2019 at 2:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Her style makes the subject matter even more interesting, and reading more engaging. I’m not giving up my cookbook collection anytime soon, though, since cookbooks aren’t simply for learning how to put ingredients together, but also to learn about history, culture, customs, etc. March 5, 2019 at 5:41am Reply

  • patuxxa: Happy owner of The Flavor Thesaurus, didn’t know the author had a second book out! This one’s going on my wish list 🙂 March 1, 2019 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: It came out last year, and if you like The Flavor Thesaurus, then do take a look at this one too. March 5, 2019 at 5:42am Reply

  • maja: I bought it last week and it’s been my evening reading so far. Such a fantastic and reassuring (you’ve nailed it) writing. March 2, 2019 at 4:50am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s fun, isn’t it! March 5, 2019 at 5:54am Reply

  • OtherWise: I have added this to my birthday-buy list for my partner. She is both a super-taster and a super-thinker, and it sounds like this will be right up her alley. March 2, 2019 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I also bought a copy for a friend who loves cooking. March 5, 2019 at 5:54am Reply

  • Aurora: These two books sound like must haves.
    She seems to have a chemist approach to cooking which is always fascinating to me. My mother taught me to make a bechamel when I was around ten 🙂 I love the way simple ingredients mixed produced somethin entirely different and delicious. March 4, 2019 at 12:57pm Reply

    • Inma: Aurora,
      This has reminded me of the other day I was telling my daughter (16) how to make mayonnaise and how awesome it was for her just having to mix an egg and oil, and some salt. It was very funny to see her face meaning that I was wrong, that it could not be that simple.

      And I love the approach to cooking of these books, so thank very much Victoria for writing about them. I feel very interested in The Flavour Thesaurus. March 5, 2019 at 5:35am Reply

      • Victoria: If you’re trying to select between the two, then the Flavor Thesaurus would be the best one. I’m convinced that it’s a perfumer lover’s book. March 5, 2019 at 6:03am Reply

      • Aurora: Yes, Inma, mayonaise is another amazing recipe from simple ingredients. How adorable your daughter’s reaction, with you as an example she will be a good cook in no time. March 9, 2019 at 5:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I love bechamel sauce! By the way, I use your tip to add some cognac/rum to the crepe batter, and it makes the flavor so vibrant. March 5, 2019 at 6:00am Reply

      • Aurora: So glad you like this tip, Victoria. That’s another one my mother taught me. It makes me nostalgic to remember her but grateful too. March 9, 2019 at 5:35am Reply

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