by Donna Marie Zotter
As a taste platform, there is something (almost) indescribably different about food that is harvested from the sea. In the mouth it is cool and clean; the delicate iodine in the mouth-aroma gives seafood the structural foundation on which to build an array of flavors. A well-chosen food platform is something that is central to the gastronomic experience. And still, very little is written on understanding the taste of food and how those taste components are orchestrated into a symphony of flavor, texture and aroma.
My understanding — and perhaps my central learning on developing pure gastronomic pleasures — began with the seminal work on taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, The Elements of Taste. The elemental purpose of food — both as a platform and taste component — finally began to make sense. Perhaps seafood is the most pure expression of what is meant by “food platform.”
Because it is harvested from the sea, the meat of any ocean fish or shellfish has a subtle underlying mineral component — iodine. That is not to imply salt. In fact, it is a curious and rather important distinction. The oceanic platform is never salty. However, coming from the mineral rich salt water, it does possess and transports the important elemental structure that the iodine provides. It is the baseline. If you examine any well-crafted recipe that uses seafood, each flavor and taste element builds off, complements and then punctuates that initial baseline component.
It is no surprise, then, that every gastronomic pleasure associated with the sea pulls and pushes that pure mineral component. The only question that need be asked is: “What combination of ingredients (and then what preparation of those ingredients) complements the stage?” While it is true that you can combine any ingredients in any combination and slap them together with a piece of fish, or shellfish, in the end the real pleasure will come from well-balanced, well-thought-out recipes that elevate the cool, clean and delicate oceanic components in a way that delivers the other ingredients to the mouth in a symphony of texture and taste.
The Sea Bass en Papillote is a textbook illustration. Chilean sea bass is a rare find, mostly because it is a slow-growing fish, and its harvest is carefully regulated. Its stunning, pure-white meat retains its color even after exposure to high heat, which makes it visually appealing. This mildly oily fish also gives a small amount of leeway in preparation, be it baking, broiling, grilling, sautéing or frying. Nevertheless, a high heat treatment for sea bass is the norm, and care must be taken during the cooking process. Typically, it isn’t the organic process of cooking the meat that poses a challenge to the chef. Instead, it is the wide variety of sauces, spices and herbs that help to enhance the flavor of this fish. Balance is often traded for high-impact, overpowering elements, and the full complement of flavor is lost.
Here, we’ve traded out full, flavor-forward components for a delicate balance of earthiness (hoisin sauce, vegetable broth and wilted vegetables), complexity (aged sherry vinegar), and a sweet piquant element (sweet chile sauce). The salt (soy, fish sauce) element pulls the flavor of the sea bass forward through the entire tasting experience, and the addition of butter and herbs delivers the flavor through the mouth with a fullness that creates the mouth-aroma.
Recipe: Sea Bass en Papillote with Sweet Chile Hoisin Broth
When you begin to taste full flavor that is rightly balanced, your thinking becomes transformed. You no longer think in terms of “fish for supper” — instead, it is the flavors or textures you begin to desire. Your meals and menus become a creation of taste elements.
The same principles apply to meatier and oilier fish, tuna and salmon among the most common. The common refrain from those who don’t like tuna, salmon or any other ‘robust’ flavored fish is that the flavor is too strong. What most are intimating is that their encounter was one that was focused on masking the robust flavor of the meat, rather than pulling it through and creating harmony in the mouth. For the oceanic platform, each dish works best when the flavor components are used to pull the meaty flavor of the fish forward, then balance it with a combination of spice, sweetness and an earthy taste element.
To experience this concept, prepare the Porcini Dusted Scallops with Enriched Mushroom Broth. Scallops are used as the flavor platform here. For a relatively light and mild white flesh, they carry a certain earthy undertone in contrast to most other shellfish, which carry a subtle sweet butter flavor line. The dusting of dried porcini mushrooms pulls this flavor element forward, and serves to round out the mouth experience with the sweetness of the honey, the tartness of the lime and the complexity of the sherry and soy combination. By pan-searing the scallops, the textural component is created offering a lightly caramelized and crisped outer edge counterpoint to the soft, fleshy interior of the muscle.
As with any crescendo of flavor, there must be a final flavor element to finish or complete the taste experience. Here, the watercress and its slightly peppery edge provides the grounding punctuation of earthy herbiness.
There are volumes that remain to be written on the elements of taste and studying those elements as a means to heightening gastronomic pleasure. The cornerstone is to understand the flavor elements of each ingredient, especially the food platform against which you choose to play the elements.
In my personal and continuous learning around food, it is the selection of flavors that has become paramount — not simply because of their tastes, but because of what those flavors can do to and in a particular combination of ingredients. Flavors that build, flavors that bridge. Flavors that elevate and punctuate; flavors that complete. It is an extraordinary study and certainly one worthy of any serious gastronome. The conversation is one that is in its infancy, and one we will continue to develop here at Gastronomic Meditations™.
Photo: Kelly Cline
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.