How do you make a dish delicious and healthful at the same time? This is a nagging question facing chefs in every onsite segment, and it was a topic that chef/author John Ash (Cooking One on One, From Earth to Table, etc.) discussed during a presentation at the Tastes of the World Chef's Culinary Conference at the University of Massachusetts this past summer.
"How do we deliver flavor in food without killing ourselves in the process?" he asked in his introduction. Part of the answer lies in the globalization of flavors that have—Ash believes—changed American cuisine forever.
"Things that were exotic 10 years ago are now taken for granted," he said, citing the portabello mushroom.
"My theory is that when America universally embraced chili and hot sauces, it opened the door to a spice world that we are not coming back from. We are now in the 'coriander-and-cumin' phase, but there are other ingredients that will soon be as just common in five years."
Ash then proceeded to outline his theory on how to put great flavor into foods without increasing the "unhealthy" components, using this greatly expanded palate of flavorings now available to American chefs. His theory revolves around six basic flavors (not four, as most food theorists would have it). The six are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, peppery (hot or spicy) and 'umami' (a Japanese term generally translated as 'savory' or 'delicious').
Ash focused on 'umami' because of his experience working with Japanese chefs. He said that the key component of 'umami' is glutamic acid, so the way to put the taste of 'umami' in food is to add ingredients
that contain this compound. He cited MSG (Mono-Sodium Glutamate), which is derived from glutamic acid, and suggested that this is not always the culinary "bad boy" it's sometimes characterized as. Other high-glutamate ingredients include mushrooms and fermented foods like cheeses. Indeed, aging cheese generally increases the amount of glutamates in the product substantially, perhaps explaining why aged cheeses seem more 'savory' (umami).
"In general, a dish must have at least three of the six basic flavors to be delicious, though it can have more," Ash declared. He cited his grandmother's apple pie, which she made with an unsweetened crust dough enhanced with apple cider vinegar (sour) and with a filling (sweet) spiced with a hint of ground black pepper (peppery). He noted that some traditions in the Upper Midwest add sharp cheddar cheese (salt and umami) to warm apple pie (already sweet) to increase flavor.
Another tip: water, fat and alcohol in the presence of heat can help release flavors in foods that otherwise are not as noticeable. He cited steaming broccoli (i.e., adding heated water) to bring out its flavor.
"Or try this experiment," he suggested. "Take an Italian red sauce and add a little vodka and heat it. You will experience flavors that you would not otherwise have tasted because the alcohol released them."
The presentation ended with Ash conducting a taste testing of a variety of sauces he developed using his "at least three flavors" theory that can be substituted for less healthy but flavor-enhancing ingredients like dairy fats. A key ingredient in several of them? His no-cream cream substitute.