Essays on Flavor and Fragrance: 26 posts

Articles on flavor, fragrance and gourmand explorations

Cooking by the Nose

This article appeared as Cooks, Follow Your Nose in Zester Daily in 2011. The great Marcella Hazan complimented me on it, noting that she also cooked using her nose. Unfortunately, the magazine has since been revamped and the article no longer appears online. In tribute to all of the cooks who follow their nose, I’m reprinting it here.

The best way to find a perfectly ripe tomato has little to do with its shape, color or size. It is the unmistakable scent of salty caramel that demonstrates a tomato is at its peak. While green tomatoes can be reddened with ethylene gas, furaneol, the compound that gives tomatoes their distinctive aroma, accumulates only when a fruit is allowed to fully mature on the vine. Strawberries and mangoes share the same compound and other fruits contain analogous aromatic molecules when fully ripe. But how often do cooking shows and magazines describe how produce should smell? Though we learn how to make colorful compositions on the dinner plate, when do we learn how to use our nose to explore food combinations? Understanding the role of aroma and the power of our nose is essential for eating well.

Our sense of smell comprises a comparatively large fraction of our genetic makeup. We use more than 1000 different sensory receptors to analyze a smell, each receptor with its own genetic code. The ability to distinguish subtleties among smells is enormous and was of great importance when our prehistoric ancestors relied on hunting and gathering to survive.

Though supermarkets have obviated the need for daily foraging, scent, closely linked to our sense of taste, is a cornerstone of our food enjoyment. The process of chewing food releases aromatic compounds that are detected by the olfactory receptors in the nasal passages. While we are likely to comment on how food tastes, we are making the judgment based on how it smells. Yet, our supermarkets are deodorized to the point of sterility, our produce is often hermetically sealed in plastic wrap, and our cookbooks read like IKEA design guides. Moving past visual appeal to explore other sensations associated with food opens up new horizons and leads to a richer culinary experience.

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Roses and Honey

Poltava, in central Ukraine, is famous for its honey. Every year the city and its environs host fairs celebrating honey in all its forms, and whenever I visit my grandmother, who is a Poltava native, I enjoy this sweet treat in gingerbreads, cakes, drinks and even savory dishes. One of the most beloved local pairings is first-of-the-season honey drizzled over cucumbers.

On a recent visit, I discovered yet another way to eat honey – infused with roses. It was heaven. So, for my recent FT column, The Fragrance of Honey and Roses, I’ve decided to recreate this combination and to find fragrances that are build around the rose-honey accord.

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Persian Flower Delights

In time for Nowruz, which falls on March 20 or 21 in 2019, depending on where in the world you are, I wanted to share with you my favorite Persian floral delights. Flowers don’t only bloom in Persian gardens and adorn Qajar art and textiles, they’re also used in cuisine. Rosewater adds a bright note to savory and sweet dishes. Willow flowers flavor sugar and candy. Orange blossom accents tea blends. As good as flowers smell, their flavors are equally beautiful.

So I took a walk through my local Iranian store and came home with a whole treasure trove of floral delicacies.

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Sweet Like a Persian Lemon

A sweet lemon is not an oxymoron. Neither is it a new fancy hybrid. Persian limu shirin, citrus limetta, is one of the oldest cultivated varieties of lemons and it tastes sweet like honey, with no hint of acidity. The first time I bit into a slice was a shock, because I was prepared for tartness and instead my mouth was filled with sweetness.  Even more beautiful was the scent of the peel that lingered on my fingers. It also smelled like no lemon I had tried before.

Persian lemons have a delicate flavor, but their perfume is anything but.  It is strong, bright and sharp. “It smells like flowers,” said one Iranian friend. “Lemon peel mixed with orange blossom,” said another. “And then tossed with jasmine,” she added. Trying to pin down the fragrance of Persian sweet lemon, I kept scratching the peel and rubbing it onto my skin, paper, and fabric.  The scent made me think of citronella and palmarosa, plants that are related to a rose (at least in a perfumer’s palette). Green petals, crushed stems and tightly closed rose buds. The winter fruit smelled of spring at its most vital and rejuvenating.

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Menu for a Georgian Feast, with Three Cookbook Reviews

My trip to Georgia was a culinary epiphany.  This small country in the Caucasus has one of the world’s most interesting cuisines, full of vibrant combinations of herbs, nuts, pomegranate and spices. It’s also one of the healthiest, offering a wide repertoire of vegetable dishes and herb rich stews (such as chakhokhbili, the chicken tomato stew I shared recently). Among my other favorites are pkhali, vegetable salads in walnut sauce, khachapuri, flatbreads stuffed with cheese, lobio, beans cooked with coriander leaves and walnuts, mtsvadi, grilled meat, and khinkali, juicy, peppery meat dumplings. It is a kaleidoscope of flavors. And just like the Georgian language is related to no other tongue, Georgia’s cuisine is uniquely distinctive.

Three Cookbooks

This fall gives me and other Georgian food lovers a reason to be happy, because there are three new Georgian cookbooks on the market, and all three are excellent. The first one I bought was Supra: A Feast of Georgian Cooking by Tiko Tuskadze. As an introduction to Georgian cuisine, it’s the ideal book. It contains recipes for most of the classics, including five types of khachapuri, the cheese stuffed flatbread, six types of pkhali, a vegetable dish that’s between a salad and a paté, and a wide array of meat, fish and poultry dishes.  I also liked discovering several recipes for adjika (also spelled as ajika), herb and chili pastes that function both as condiments and seasoning sauces. Tuskadze’s red adjika (p.30) is a symphony of chili, parsley, basil, coriander and celery leaves, with a basso profondo note of fenugreek.

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