Cook with All Your Senses

Surely, you’ve heard the adage, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ yes? Truer words were never spoken. And there’s more to it than that, of course – We also eat with our noses, skin, imagination, and memory, and you certainly should cook with all your senses. All that stuff is every bit as important as taste, frankly, and a savvy home cook never forgets it. It’s kinda like Obi-Wan’s epic line – You gotta use the force and let go of rigid, recipe thinking.

Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!
Put fresh food out where it will inspire you!

First, sight, naturellement. Many assume that the feast with your eyes concept speaks to plating and presentation. Certainly those aspects have a bearing on things, but frankly, there’s much more to it then that. Often enough, we come home from a long day at work, only to realize we gotta make dinner. Here’s where sight should first be employed – What you see around you should be your inspiration. As such, whenever and wherever possible in your kitchen, leave the good stuff out where you can see it and be inspired. Bowls of fruit and veggies, glass jars of pasta, beans, and rice, home canned goodies in mason jars – If all this bounty is packed away neatly in pantry or shelf, it’s not revealing itself to you – Put the goods out center stage, and be inspired. Make part of this scheme a rotating canvas of sorts. Go through your pantry and spice cabinet and pick out half a dozen things you’ve not used since you can’t remember when, then pull those out and display them where they’ll make you think. Take a look at the stuff you’ve got on display and do some paring – Chances are good that when you come home tired and hungry, these little vignettes will not only spark inspiration, but lift your spirits a bit as well – There’s a reason art makes us feel good.

pair things you've not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.
pair things you’ve not used in a while, (or ever), for inspiration.

In our piece on Banh Mi, I wrote, “Vietnamese cooks strive to include fiver  essential nutrients in each meal – Powder (spice), water, minerals, protein, and fat. The visual element of cooking is also carefully considered; white, green, yellow, red, and black are presented in a well balanced Vietnamese dish.” Therein lies another clue to visual cooking – Use it when you compose a dish on the fly. If you’re here at all, you know we revere soups and stews, so here’s another tip – consider the over all pallet when you compose one. A great part of the joy of fresh veggies is the vibrant colors they add to what we eat – Balance those in a way that appeals to your eye and it’s guaranteed to make your belly happy as well.

Naturally, plating and presentation matters. Yeah, I know I’ve told y’all numerous times to not sweat it, and you shouldn’t – It should be a labor of love, not a chore. A little thing like a nice bottle of red opened, cork set on the foil round from the bottle, with a sparkling clean glass and maybe a flower in a bud vase. Set that out for your mate’s arrival home, and it can and will mean the world to a loved one. Presentation can be as simple as choosing the perfect bowl for that soup or stew – or offer some topping options in small ramekins – sour cream, freshly grated cheese. You’re offering not only dinner, but a delight for the eye, and of course, for the nose.

M's Heavenly Split Pea Soup
M’s Heavenly Split Pea Soup

Everyone has had a head cold, and when we do, what do you notice? For most of us, it’s the fact that almost nothing tastes that good, even our favorite comfort foods. That’s very likely the root of the old wive’s tale, ‘starve a cold and feed a flu,’ with the latter, you feel like shit, but at least you can taste. Smell is a huge part of taste – Without it, us human are limited to the most basic flavors – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and those not all that well. Doubt it? Pinch your nose shut and eat something you know well, say, a strawberry – With your olfactory blocked, you’ll get some flavor, maybe hints of sweet and sour – unblock your nose half way through and suddenly, there it is, all the subtleties that make a strawberry what it is. Those nuances are critical in fact; lose your sense of smell, and the world of food turns black and white – A horrible affliction, to say the least. As a home cook, I live to hear M say from the other room, “That smells amazing!” That means I’m on the right track with whatever I’m doing, and it guides me more than anything else while composing a dish. Let your heart and your nose be your guides, and never forget that the real subtlety of a dish comes from scent, far more than any other sense.

Finger food needn't be fancy to be pretty
Finger food needn’t be fancy to be pretty

So, we eat with our skin? Sure we do – If you’re like me, having tactile interaction with my food is important. We spent millennia eating before cutlery came around. Literally in every part of the globe, there are myriad dishes meant to be eaten by hand, and that’s a critical consideration for a cook. There are tacos, sandwiches, sausages, tajines, samosas, and many, many more. Such dishes exist on every continent, and may the food gods bless ’em all. The ubiquity of vehicles such as unleavened flat breads, tortillas, and the like exist largely to act as a shovel for wonderful things. Great fried chicken is a delight, at least in part, because we can feel the crunch, salty, hot outside layer as we bite into it – If that’s not proof of concept, I don’t know what is. Consider a finger food for your next menu – That could be as simple as fresh bread to mop everything else up with, or maybe small dishes of olives, cornichons, or pearl onions. One of our favorite low pressure meals is a picnic of whatever is at hand – meat, cheese, veggies, fruit, nuts, and bread, cut up to bite sized pieces, with Dijon mustard and house made giardiniera, and a nice glass of wine.

Don’t forget imagination and memory. Any of all of your senses can and will trigger things – The smell of the Asian take out at the grocery, potatoes frying on a flat top, the scent of freshly baked bread – These might spawn fried rice, pommes Anna, or banh mi for dinner. If it’s a fleeting glimpses e of something, grab pen and paper, write it down and stuff it in your pocket as a reminder – If not tonight, then down the line, but don’t lose the inspiration. By the same token, food memories are some of the most vivid internal imagery we conjure for ourselves. When we were kids, making mac and cheese or pizza may have involved a box, (Kraft, and Apian Way, I freely admit), but the memories are of cooking comfort food in a warm, steamy kitchen, and that’s all you need to be inspired. When one of those memories hits, use the power of 21st century technology to unlock something new – Google whatever it is, find a take on it that’s outside your usual mold, and go from there – As every chef from Jacque Pepin to me tells y’all, a recipe is just a guide – Use it to springboard something of your own.

When you feed your senses, imagination, and memory that way, it’s a solid guarantee you’ll never leave the table unsatisfied.