I’m a firm believer that first and foremost, food needs to be delicious. There is simply nothing very inspiring about a bland bowl of flavorless quinoa. Yeah, perhaps it might be “healthy,” but who really wants to eat it? Where is the joy? Where is the pleasure? As a professional chef, I’ve watched from a distance as the Internet has exploded with endless recipes for healthy food. And while there are a lot of great ideas and great dishes circulating, I find that the little tricks of the trade that we chefs learn growing up in kitchens are often overlooked. Armed with a little bit of savvy and a well-tuned palate, you can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
1. Season, season, season
One of the most common mistakes home cooks make is not being assertive enough when it comes to seasoning. Often, a little extra salt and pepper or even some lightly chopped herbs will go a long way to bringing out the natural flavors of a dish. Just imagine a roast chicken without salt and pepper. Blech! Now add some coarse sea salt, cracked pepper, crushed thyme and rosemary, lemon zest, maybe even some coriander seeds and sesame seeds. Suddenly, that pedestrian bird has become a flavorful masterpiece.
2. But season as you go, too
You want to add salt in stages to build flavor. Taste your salt to see how salty it is and adjust the amounts you add to your dish accordingly. Keep in mind that teaspoon for teaspoon, finer salts tend to add more saltiness.
3. Start with good salt
I prefer sea salt for its complex and concentrated saltiness and its abundance of minerals. My friends at Jacobsen Salt Co., in Portland, Oregon, harvest all their salt from the pristine waters of the northwestern coastline. I often finish dishes with Jacobsen’s flake finishing sea salt and really like Jacobsen’s specialty salts, particularly the one infused with ghost chile.
4. Think of the four points of the compass of our palate: salty, sweet, sour, spicy.
Playing spicy off sweet (think: mango and chiles) or sour off salty (think: salt and vinegar chips) can make a dish really feel balanced and craveable. I don’t always have these elements in equal parts. Sometimes you want one flavor profile to dominate the others, but having a balance makes for a successful and exciting dish.
5. Food tastes better when it looks good
I’m not saying you should pull out tweezers to compose fussy plates of food, but you shouldn’t dump the food on a plate. There’s a difference between rustic and sloppy.
Playing spicy off sweet (think: mango and chiles) or sour off salty (think: salt and vinegar chips) can make a dish really feel balanced and craveable.
6. Finish dishes with soft herbs
They’re really healthy, add a bright pop and change the character of a dish to make it tastier and more exciting. I add them at the end so they stay bright. Feel free to use whatever you like or have on hand. To chop them, I run a knife through them just enough to discipline them, or I simply tear them up by hand.
Ready to put these tips into practice in your own kitchen? Build flavor with quality ingredients, herbs and spices with this delicious curry recipe.
Coconut Seafood Curry
Talk about a one-pot powerhouse. You’ve got proteins, vegetables, and good fats all in one warming and delicious dish. Even though there isn’t curry powder in the dish, it tastes like a curry, with its blend of coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger, and fish sauce. Keeping out the spice highlights the delicate sea-sweetness of the fish, scallops, and mussels.
2 tablespoons coconut oil
8 ounces monkfish, cut into 1-inch-thick medallions
8 very large sea scallops, tough muscles removed and discarded
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 kabocha squash, seeded and cut into 1-inch wedges
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 trumpet royale mushroom, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lemongrass stalk, lightly smashed with the back of a knife
1 1⁄2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
1⁄2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 shallot, sliced
1 baby bok choy, halved lengthwise
1 serrano chile, seeded, if desired, and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin slivers
12 ounces mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 avocado, pitted, peeled, and diced
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro and mint leaves, torn
In a large Dutch oven or heavy saucepot, heat 1 tablespoon of the coconut oil over high heat. Season the monkfish and scallops with salt and pepper and place them in the hot pan, working in batches if needed to prevent overcrowding. Cook, turning once, until nicely seared, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to a plate.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, then the squash and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the mushroom and lemongrass and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are starting to soften, about 5 minutes.Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated. Add the coconut milk and fish sauce. Season with salt and pepper, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
Remove and discard the lemongrass. Add the shallot and seared monkfish and scallops and gently poach for a minute or two. Add the bok choy, chile, garlic, ginger, and mussels. Cover and steam until the mussels have opened, 3 to 5 minutes.
Uncover and season with salt and pepper. Divide among four serving dishes and top with the avocado, scallions, cilantro, and mint. Serve immediately, with lime wedges for squeezing.
Reprinted from Real Food Heals by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Seamus Mullen