What's Missing? Acid and Texture Tips
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Over the years, I've come to appreciate the importance of texture and acidity in food. More than almost anything else, save maybe basic seasoning (salt), these are the components I look for in a dish. All too often, I find myself searching for and not finding them, frequently in dishes that might be perfect if only they had a little bit of citrusy brightness, or a bit of crunch for textural contrast.
Acidity helps to bring out other flavors, lifting and highlighting them. When my food tastes flat and one-dimensional, the first thing I do is check for salt balance. Does it need a pinch to underline the flavors? After that, I turn to acid. A squeeze of lime juice after everything's plated, perhaps. A puree of citrusy ponzu and earthy sweet potato, to add an acidic kick to an underlying component.
Texture is similar in its ability to highlight, via contrast. I've made the mistake, more than a few times, of serving a braised dish with only braised elements. They might have tasted delicious (especially if there's a bit of bright, citrusy salsa verde drizzled across the plate for acidity), but they also had the texture of baby food. That's never a good thing. There's a reason mac and cheese is best served with a crunchy topping of broiled bread crumbs.
Palate fatigue can set in easily, and just as easily from too-similar textures as flavors. One of my favorite ways to avoid the texture trap is the use of bread crumbs. They're easy, economical and versatile. Changing the size and texture of bread crumbs alters their effect. Large, crouton-like crumbs, almost like toast points, can add both visual and textural appeal. Get architectural with it. Smaller bread crumbs are great for scattering, giving you the option to distribute them widely, or pile them alongside a single component for a more targeted crunch.
Bread crumbs can also be flavor carriers. Don't just toast up some Wonder Bread and toss it on the plate; think through how you can add interest along with your crunch. A quick chop of some fresh parsley, and a few swipes of lemon zest across a microplane, and you've got bread crumbs with the panache of gremolata. Try crumbing a different type of bread. I've used caraway seed-studded rye bread for crumbs to add crunch to corned beef and cabbage, recalling the flavor profile of a Reuben, but in different form.
For a recent dinner, I combined all of the above concepts to create a delicious dish, full of textural pop and acidic spark. Parisienne Gnocchi I'd had stashed in the freezer from the last time I made Pâte à Choux got pulled out, blanched in boiling water, then stashed for a quick pan fry to finish up. I combined honey, champagne vinegar, sliced shallots and kumquats in a pan and simmered them, taming the bite of the vinegar slightly and bringing all of the flavors into focus.
It's basically an agrodolce, Italian sweet and sour sauce. Reducing the sauce concentrates the flavor but also allows the sharper edges to round out, integrating into a sauce with significant depth and interest, while retaining a fair dose of acidic brightness. A big bunch of greens got chopped, blanched lightly, then turned through the agrodolce, allowing them to finish cooking and coating them with the vibrant sauce, interlacing bits of almost-candied kumquat and shallot through the mass of greens.
While the greens were finishing and the dumplings took their turn through a skillet to brown and crisp slightly, I turned my attention to the bread crumbs. In a way, the entire dish had been built around bread crumbs. I had a couple of everything bagels just beginning to stale. I had it set in my mind to make bread crumbs out of them and use them as the highlight of the dish. I shaved off about the outer third of each bagel, enough to get some inner crumb along with the outer coating of aliums and seeds, ran them quickly through a few pulses in the food processor and toasted them lightly in a dry pan. I just wanted to pull the moisture out of them, allowing them to crisp up.
The dumplings went down in a bowl, girded by a swoop of greens in agrodolce. A generous handful of everything bread crumbs went down on top. The dish was alive with texture, not only the bread part of the crumb equation, but the sesame and poppy seeds adding bursts of texture with every bite. They brought flavor, too, with alternating sharp and nutty, sweet and slightly charred notes adding interest. The dumplings were soft, yielding and rich.
The agrodolce kicked everything into high gear, sparking with intensity against the other flavors and setting everything off even more. A bite composed of each element was a complex array of flavors and textures, running from earthy to sweet to buttery to sharp and slightly biting. It was an endlessly engaging dish, and the only thing we wanted at the end of dinner was more of it.
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