September 16, 2004

Taste Matters

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My friend asked me, “Why do you always put fruit into your dishes? It’s weird.” He also added that most of the people he knows are not at all partial to mixing sweet and savory. If I were, to say, throw some strawberries into a simple stir fry dish, or add banana to a cheeseburger, I don’t think people would applaud my culinary skills. Sometimes, meals that don’t sound too appealing on paper, like pretty much anything French, turn out to be masterpieces. While I’ve never tried bananas on a burger, I’m pretty sure it tastes as strange as it sounds. But if you think carefully and evaluate different tastes of different foods, and how they could nicely come together in a single dish, you’ll have an entire food group at your disposal.

Chefs have always included fruit in their cooking regimens because they realized that evolution gave humans an inherent propensity for eating sweets. If you’ve taken Psych 101, try to remember Dr. Maas’ explanation of an experiment in which scientists found that young babies naturally preferred sweet tastes to any other. I’d say that saltiness is a close second, but the human palate likes its sugar. Scientists also found that the sweet taste receptors on the tongue actually have more sensitive fibers that detect taste than any other region. This information is somewhat helpful: it does explain why the only thing most little kids want to eat is candy in some shape or form covered in even more candy. It also clears up why chocolate and ice cream can become the crutch when your girlfriend tells you she wants to become strictly exclusive. Sweets make us feel good — so maybe we’re not a country of excess and obesity, but actually the happiest one in the world.

Fruit is full of sugar. Sugar makes us happy. So logically, fruit makes us happy. I know, it’s a whole different situation when you start mixing apples with goat cheese and beets. But no matter where you put it, sweet can always be a good thing. Like it or not, you eat sweet flavors all of the time with foods that you think should never be exposed to that range of flavors. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a soft spot for ketchup — I will put it on anything. Try me. Well, maybe not on most desserts, but on anything that I feel lacks that certain kick. Ketchup is a flavor powerhouse –its salty, sweet, and slightly tart. This is why a cheeseburger without ketchup is not only a cultural no no, but it also lacks the contrasting flavors that ketchup supplies. This is also why we dump it on our French fries — it adds depth to the savory pieces of fried potato. Why does trail mix almost always combine raisins and salty nuts? I noticed that Pita Pit recently added pineapple to its ingredient choices. Another example is Hoison, or Chinese plum sauce, used in those delicious little pancakes you stuff with Peking duck. My point is that pairing sweet flavors with savory foods is commonplace and not as strange as you think. In fact, cuisines from more tropical climates frequently incorporate various fruits into their dinner menu.

While our fruit supply is not always that abundant, nor is it that exotic, we still have enough to work with around Ithaca. Now that summer is reaching its end, most of the more colorful, flavorful fruit, like berries, are no longer in season. But that’s okay — we’re in upstate New York — we’ve got apples. Lots of them. You can also continue to buy bananas, mangos, some peaches, pears, plums, and dried fruits which are available all year. If you’re afraid to really go crazy and throw random fruit into every dish you make, try more simple approaches, like mixing diced apples or peaches with tuna salad for sweetness, tartness, and a nice crunch. Take carrots, onions, and figs or dates and put them in a baking dish. Drizzle with salt, pepper and some balsamic vinegar, and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until they brown. The sugars in the carrots and onions become more distinct when they mix with the fruit and balsamic. Take a piece of chicken breast and make horizontal slices down the length of it. Cut up orange or pineapple slices and stuff them into the slits, top with onions and some Swiss cheese, then bake at about 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until done.

The important thing to remember when cooking with fruit, or any other food, is to anticipate how they will taste. Don’t just add sweetness, or a specific kind of fruit to a dish simply to try something new; add or use fruit that has the certain attributes that complement other flavors in the dish. If you can compare flavors and foods familiar to you with those you haven’t tried, creating new and interesting meals should not be that difficult. Experiment — great chefs are all creative and eccentric, and not afraid to make mistakes when they concoct unusual foods. So don’t worry if your friends think you’re crazy (I won’t, I promise) if you put sliced apples on your turkey sandwich, or grill tuna steaks coated with mango and chili powder. Just remember that everyone has a natural sweet tooth.

Archived article by Jon Rich
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer