Saturday, 18 May 2013

Seasoning - A Matter Of Balance

Due to the simple flavours of Italian cooking, seasoning is of great importance to both balance and enhance the natural flavours of its ingredients. In Italian cooking you must remember seasoning is not just salt and pepper, it can be anchovies, capers, chilli, fennel seeds and so on, all of which add new dimensions of flavour to your dishes. I think of seasoning as an essential element of good food, if you under- season, you are taking away a dimension of flavour, if you over-season you are completely obliterating a flavour dimension from your food. By adding a few good pinches of salt to your boiling water before cooking pasta, you can give your pasta more flavour, however you must consider what your sauce is made of. Ingredients such as anchovies, capers, olives, Pecorino, Parmesan, pancetta, prosciutto or any cured products, all give dishes a salt flavour and by adding these to seasoned pasta will alter the balance of your dish some primes making them too salty. Other ingredients such as vegetables and tomatoes benefit from the addition of a little salt to enhance their flavours, especially in the case of tomatoes which I think often benefit from a twist of pepper. 

One of the easiest ways to get your seasoning correct is so simple . . . taste while your cooking.This may seem obvious to many of you but it is often forgotten by most people, who simply taste their food just before serving, when alas seasoning can rarely, truly be corrected. Whilst preparing your ingredients taste them, for example different brands of anchovies and capers can have vastly different salt flavours or when preparing ingredients for ravioli fillings, stuffings, meatballs and so on, just take a minute to cook just a little of your mixture in a pan and taste the end flavour, this will allow you to check and correct your seasoning before preparing the dish. Simple steps really but so often forgotten, but remember when cooking for many people, flavour is very subjective, and essentially comes down to personal taste. It must also be remembered that as well as adding flavour to a dish, to much salt will also extract moisture and dry out your food. When cooking meat and fish, season it before cooking it as this will allow the flavours to penetrate the ingredient. Cooked ingredients will not absorb and naturally disperse seasoning as well as raw ingredients, the seasoning will simply sit on the outside and concentrate in flavour. 

Different ingredients must be seasoned in different ways, mainly due to the chemical changes that salt and pepper have on the ingredient. For example Liver if seasoned to far ahead of cooking will form small pits in its surface due to its reaction with the salt, similarly dried peans and pulses, unlike other vegetables, must only be seasoned after they are cooked as the presence of salt will cause their skins to dr out and become unpleasantly tough.

We all know about the risks of salt to our health, especially that of our children, but it must be remembered that most of these problems come from mass manufactured foods. A shop bought, jarred tomato sauce will often contain a large quantity of salt, but by simply cooking a handful of fresh tomatoes, with chilli, garlic and olive oil your sauce will only contain the natural salts of its ingredients or any salt you add yourself and and probably lots less fats and far more flavour. When buying salt remember that natural sea salt or rock salt is very different from commercially produced table salt which is often chemically enhanced and bleached. Similarly, freshly ground black pepper will have more aroma, warmth and a far cleaner flavour than its commercially produced white alternative. 

In today's world of supermarket shelves full of perfect looking products where everything is the same it must be remembered that this bland, characterless uniformity extends into the flavour. A naturally reared, free-range, well- hung piece of beef will need far less seasoning than its chemically enhanced, mass produced alternative. The same can be said of vegetables, by eating vegetables in their natural season, from a good trusted grower will need very little seasoning to enhance their natural goodness and flavours.

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