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How do u balance flavors when cooking fr scratch? No recipe

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I don't often cook from recipes because I'm usually missing lots of ingredients, or at least key ones

I am originally from San Diego but am in Paris right now. It is very easy in SD to reach every kind of market and get food at good prices, but not so much in Paris.

My question is I try to cook meals with protein, veggie and carbohydrate but other than salt, pepper, maybe soy sauce or lemon, I'm at a loss for flavorings and everything tastes the same.

My technique is pretty good, I can cut things uniformly, I don't undercook or overcook things. But as in piano playing I can read any sheet music, but I can't create my own pieces.

I have herb de Provence, garlic, chili powder, cinnamon, vanilla, balsamic vinegar, citrus, ketchup, cream, creme fraiche, white wine, soy and fish sauce.

The vegetables I buy weekly are usually broccoli, zucchini, courge muscade (pumpkin?), eggplant, haricot verts, potatoes, carrots, button mushrooms, bell peppers, and onion.

Either everything I make is totally salty, totally citrus, or vinegar taste. Is there a general rule of marrying flavors to get some more interesting, complex tasting food? Other than throwing it all in and having to adjust... Then it all ends up tasting like one thing again =)

Any ideas as to a couple flavor staples I should buy? Will be going to Chinatown this weekend and hopefully get some sesame oil. Ginger would be nice.. Thanks for reading

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  1. Oh I have mustard, butter, peanut butter and Nutella too, although I don't imagine using the latter in savory dishes...

    1 Reply
    1. re: youareabunny

      You are very lucky! French bistro cooking is really simple cooking where technique and quality of the ingredients really shine, as in a steak au poivre or vichyssoise. I love infusing cream with a bay leaf, thyme, garlic and peppercorns and then straining and using in bechamel, mashed potatoes and Potato dauphinoise. Another great recipe to master would be savory tarts, smitten kitchen has a great recipe for French onion tart.

    2. where are you shopping that you're having a hard time finding things? It takes a while to figure out where they stock things, as they're typically shelved differently than in the US, but the array and quality of available ingredients here is head and shoulders above anything in the US.

      what "key ingredients" are you missing?

      What are you trying to make -- particular dishes, or just make-it-up-as-you-go-along?

      I can't imagine cooking in France without thyme and bay leaves (both available fresh in the markets) -- and cloves and nutmeg (muscade) are nice addtions.

      Can you read enough French to try recipes? I like marmiton.org and 750g.com in particular, or pick up a copy of Papilles or any of the other cooking magazines at the checkout of any supermarket.

      if your dishes are too salty, too lemony, or too vinegary, that's a sure sign to back off the salt/lemon/vinegar next time.

      11 Replies
      1. re: sunshine842

        Sorry for clarity, it's not that my dishes are too salt/citrus but that they are really ONLY one of those flavors.

        I shop at marchprix or Carrefour mainly. There's a handful of Mexican, Asian ingredients there but not much.

        I guess what I'm asking is if there is a nice goto set of flavoring that I can adjust accordingly. Like you make fried rice with whatever you've got on hand, I'd like to learn the same with spices and flavorings. So yes, make it up as I go along cooking.

        Take hot and sour soup for instance, I understand the combination of the salt flavor (broth, soy) and tangy vinegar.

        My French is decent so I will have a look at those sites. I have been to several restaurants here and have had some meals that my bf describes as "typical French" (he's French) and while they are nice they seem more protein centered. Maybe it's just what I'm ordering, I'm ok cooking with protein because they usually have flavor on their own but it's my vegetables that are very boring.

        Like lately I've just been putting teriyaki on my vegetables. Sometimes I do olive oil and lemon, or soy and lemon. Other than that they are very plain and occur like that too often!

        Clove, nutmeg, thyme and bay all sound great but I've hardly cooked with them and am not sure of how to, in what quantities and combinations.

        1. re: youareabunny

          sounds like you need a good primer on French cooking, as much as anything. Ask your BF about traditional meals, then search for recipes for those dishes -- you'll pretty quickly get a feel for the flavors and techniques.

          Pick up the magazines- surf the websites. head over to FNAC and pick up a cookbook (you might even find one in English - it will be pricey, but a good investment)

          And get out to the markets! That's where the good vegetables are.

          As far as cooking vegetables -- one word: ratatouille. It's easy to make, inexpensive, and anything BUT boring.

          France is very, very protein-heavy. You'll find meat and carbs in everything. The good news is we're heading into spring, so peas and asparagus are on their way, but meat-and-starch is the rule here, particularly for winter dishes.

          1. re: sunshine842

            The ratatouille is a good idea, I'd seen it before and basically wrote it off as veggies with tomato. The thyme and such must really do something to it.

            I suppose I'm looking more for flavor technique than specifics recipes, something I can apply generally.

            I definitely need to check out the markets I just get intimidated cuz I hardly ever have euros :)

            1. re: youareabunny

              When you check out the markets, try to strike up a conversation with the vendors. You may need to be a bit thick-skinned with the vendors who have a brusque manner, but show enthusiasm for their product and learning and they'll warm up. (Even enlist their understanding by saying you'll be making small purchases because you have limited Euros.)

              Taking your list from the original post, a classic French combination would be white wine, crème fraiche, and an herb. Using tarragon will give you a totally different result than using thyme. Adding some Dijon mustard and a bit of vinegar will produce yet another flavor profile. Recipes for all of these combos will be easily available in cookbooks. The protein will most likely be chicken, pork, or veal.

              1. re: Indy 67

                Yes I understand the crime fraiche and wine sauce but the addition of an herb scares me lol. Are you talking about fresh herbs? I know fresh and dried have their time and place, although I wish I had a garden of basil, sage, thyme, parsley and a few others its just not possible yet.

                Do you mean Dijon with the creme fraiche sauce?

                Ok so I must use my charm on the French vendors... Got it! Luckily i know almost all of the food words and with decent accent too.

                1. re: youareabunny

                  I was referring to fresh herbs, but the general conversion is three times the amount of fresh as dried.

                  Does the place where you live allow you to have a small window box where you can plant live herbs? That way you can continually snip fresh herbs without having to spend money beyond the cost of the original plant.

                  Yes, I recommend adding some Dijon mustard to the basic crème fraiche sauce. Now, Dijon mustard is very strong compared to the yellow ballpark mustard you're used to. It may take some getting used to. Perhaps start by reducing the quantities specified in a recipe.

                  Here's a link to a representative recipe for Cream Sauce with Dijon:

                  http://www.marthastewart.com/318298/s...

                  1. re: Indy 67

                    Yes I've got a huge patio with lots of hangers for planters and room for pots on the floor. It's just a matter of getting to the store but the critters always decimate my garden in SD so I'm a bit wary here of repeating that.

                    Yes dried herbs are stronger so they can be subbed but they just don't have the same flavor? The market has frozen herbs which may be better.

                    The Dijon in the sauce sounds crazy to me but I'll definitely try it. I would've never thought that would go well with the wine and cf sauce. Thanks

                  2. re: youareabunny

                    you can grow all those herbs on a sunny windowsill.

                2. re: youareabunny

                  Ratatouille is basically veggies with tomato. But the various vegetables interact with one another to produce a memorable taste.

                  To get you in the mood to fix your first dish of ratatouille, I recommend you watch the movie of the same name. The scene where the restaurant critic eats a portion of ratatouille is all about the transporting power of food. (Incidentally, the movie version of ratatouille -- really Thomas Keller's French Laundry recipe -- is more upscale and technique-dependent than most normal recipes so don't stress.)

                  1. re: youareabunny

                    there isn't a one-size-fits-all flavor -- different foods like different seasonings.

                    And yes-- ratatouille is way more than veggies with tomatoes.

                    @Indy 67 -- yes -- the recipe in the movie is way more futzy than the way my friends and their families make ratatouille -- it's all sort of dumped in the pan in what looks like a hodgepodge manner, but what emerges is one of my favorite dishes anywhere.

                    (and it can be eaten warm or cold, over pasta, on a sandwich, as a side, as a main....very versatile)

                3. re: youareabunny

                  I'd cook from recipes until you get some ideas on how to create the flavor profiles you want. I used to run out of ideas on how to make vegetables more interesting, too, but I've been making a conscious effort to seek out more vegetable recipes and vary my cooking techniques and flavors. For example, roasting vegetables in high heat really does add a lot of depth of flavor, whether it's ratatouille or brussels sprouts or asparagus.

                  Also, taste! Something tasting all tangy? Add a bit of salt and maybe a pinch of sugar. Too sweet? A squeeze of lemon juice, or adding onions or garlic to a dish often increases the "savoriness" of it. I'd also recommend The Flavor Bible as a good resource.

                  But really, start with recipes. If you want a good basic French cookbook I love Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells.

              2. First there are millions of recipes on line. Just about anything you can imagine.

                Secondly, there are umpteen monthly cooking magazines available in France. Any 'Press' will stock many. Obviously since these are for a French audience they will use ingredients that can easily be found in France.

                So, just decide what you want to cook and then find a recipe, then shop for the ingredients. The actual cooking part should be easy.

                32 Replies
                1. re: Yank

                  That's kind of the point, I'm trying to cook without recipes. Getting an idea of flavor combinations and techniques so I can come up with spur of the moment stuff.

                  I suppose really flavorful food with lots of spices and such are written for a reason. Not just anyone can come up with the combinations.

                  I watch lots of cooking French cooking shows but maybe what I'm looking for are veggie techniques, and they focus largely on protein and dessert.

                  1. re: youareabunny

                    I think that starting with recipes is really helpful for learning and then to use those ideas when you're cooking stuff spur of the moment.

                    If you find a very flavorful/herby ratatouille recipe that you like - you can take those herb/spice techniques and apply that to more spur of the moment dishes. If you focus on the cuisines you like and find flavorful - sometimes just reading the recipes and how the dishes are flavored can be enough. Use the recipe to figure out when to add oils, vinegars, citrus, dry spices, dry herbs, fresh herbs, ginger, alcohol, etc. and at what ratios. No need to make the whole recipe, but just get inspiration on what to combine with what.

                    1. re: cresyd

                      I agree.. recipes teach you what you like together.

                      Also, look at Mark Bittman recipes on line as he often gives many different flavor profiles for any dish.

                      1. re: magiesmom

                        I think for what the OP is describing the Mark Bittman approach is ideal. He has some many variations of a theme that are all about playing with flavors.

                        I started cooking by using recipes, never following to a "tee" but as my ingredient list perhaps or for proportions. Once you know the flavors you like and what flavors go well together ( many basic books tell what pairs well with what) you can completely improvise or invent. I think you are trying to skip that step of learning. If you have something specific you want to do I am sure the CH world can give suggestions.

                      2. re: cresyd

                        Yes ratios tends to be my problem so if I get a better understanding of how other recipes use them I can apply it more broadly. I have a few things I can cook just fine, so I eyeball everything. But for more complex things I should measure, or at least get an idea of proportions. Like I can easily go overboard with garlic, soy... And things like rosemary and thyme I am completely unaccustomed to.

                        Mark bittman sounds great. I'll definitely check him out.

                        1. re: youareabunny

                          I agree with the Mark Bittman recommendation too. He's great for providing some basic ideas with the idea that cooks will want to improvise on their own.

                          For me, recipes really helped a lot with figuring out when to add "flavors" to recipes. Personally, I've been experimenting with mujadarra recipes - but most of the written recipes don't have a lot of interesting spices/flavors added. So I've been looking for other recipes about how/when/what quantity to add various spices to different lentil dishes to try and umpf the flavor. It helps me out a lot, especially when I realize I've been relying too much on the same flavor combination all the time.

                          Another idea for something easy to add for flavor are anchovies. One or two can be sauted into oil early in a dish and add a really great taste.

                          1. re: cresyd

                            It's amazing what some small salty fish can do. I do similar with shrimp paste, but I can probably get my hands on anchovies easier.

                            Yes, I use the same flavor combinations too, that's the problem. I've been researching indian cuisine myself and am finally starting to appreciate technique. The spices with the right combination, proportions, added in different stages. I guess I've just been accustomed to throwing whatever I want into the pan. I have to study more I guess lol. I stalked CH for months btw! I have so much to learn...

                            Mujadarra sounds interesting, I did buy a can of lentils...

                            1. re: youareabunny

                              Mujadarra has definitely been my new "I will figure this out!" challenge for the past month. I've decided that I prefer it made with bulgar wheat as opposed to rice, but I'm still trying to tinker with my spices.

                              1. re: cresyd

                                Please post when you do figure it out :)

                            2. re: cresyd

                              Even anchovy paste works well. Used it last night in my puttanesca sauce instead of the whole ones.

                            3. re: youareabunny

                              Add a little seasoning, spices, herbs little at a time, never pour straight from the container, use a measuring spoon and try to rememe ho muh or write it down on index cards.
                              You can always add more if needed.

                              1. re: PHREDDY

                                Yes the measuring spoons and writing things down generally are methods too exact and complex for me but I should take the time so can figure out what I like.

                                In college I used to eat Easy Mac tombstone pizza flavor. Don't judge me but I thought it was delicious. Anyway they discontinued it long ago and I replicated it once, didn't write anything down, and had two very much failed attempts later.

                                I'm going to need more magnets on the refrigerator...

                                1. re: youareabunny

                                  Get a little notebook and jot things down as you go. No need for fridge magnets. Also if you hate to measure just use your hand as a measurement estimator. You fist is approximately a cup, thumb is a tbsp and so on. There are sites online that explain it well.

                                  1. re: melpy

                                    I've got a 1 bedroom flat and tiny French kitchen so counter space is minimal. But a little notebook with magnets may work. And you've never seen MY fists, I could probably knock out a small t-Rex.

                                    But yes at least an eyeball measuring of ingredients would be helpful. Or proportions/parts.

                                    1. re: youareabunny

                                      so fiddle around for an hour or so -- pour a tablespoon of something in the palm of your hand -- get a feel for the weight and volume. Same with a teaspoon.

                                      At some point you have to train yourself -- we didn't learn any of this stuff by osmosis, and neither will you. Read -- cook from recipes for a while -- keep asking questions here.

                                      Nobody ever walked into a kitchen and produced gourmet meals right off the bat -- even Julia Child admits in her books that she screwed up a lot of food as she was learning to cook (and she didn't start to cook until after she was married!)

                                      1. re: youareabunny

                                        I've stopped writing down recipes because I inevitably lose them. I usually email them to myself. (Or capture them in my blog!)

                                        1. re: Savour

                                          I use Pinterest as basically a virtual recipe box. Recipes I find or inspiration I collect from blogs - it's been a pretty easy way for me to organization and collect recipes I find interesting.

                                          I know that Pinterest is supposed to be designed as a kind of social network - but I just use mine to save recipes.

                                          1. re: cresyd

                                            OT but if at least one person sees what you have pinned or you repaint from others then Pinterest has fulfilled it's social obligations.

                                2. re: youareabunny

                                  Michael Ruhlman's book 'Ratios" would be a great foundation cookbook for you to own. It explains exactly what you are wanting to know.

                                  He has a later book called '20" which also uses the concept of foundation ingredients/techniques and various ways to expand from basic to complex with those.

                                  Perhaps you can order online to be sent to you in Paris?

                                  You might also check out David Leibovitz cooking blog, who is an American Chef (pastry), who lives in Paris. He has lots of insider tips on where to get ingredients, interesting places to eat - from pastry to chocolate to bistro's. Tips on markets, plus recipe posts. I really like his writing style.

                                  1. re: gingershelley

                                    Ruhlman sounds perfect. I will definitely check that out. And Lebovitz is wonderful although I tend to focus more in his baking blogs... I get too easily side tracked by pastry.

                                    1. re: youareabunny

                                      look at www.bookdepository.com -- best prices on books I've found in Europe (even beats Amazon and FNAC about half the time)

                                    2. re: gingershelley

                                      I highly recommend "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee. It's very scientific and technical with few if any recipes but as a science geek and cooking freak I can't put it down. It's quite thick but offers a wealth of information and even if you didn't want to read the whole thing is a great reference book if there's an ingredient that you are interested in.

                                      Ratio is also great a book which I found helpful.

                                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                                        Jeff Potter's "Cooking for Geeks" (O'Reilly, 2010) is a nice read; sort of a mash-up, conceptually, of McGee and Bittman, with a bit of geek hacker mentality thrown in. Back cover copy reads, in part: "Are you an innovative cook, accustomed to expressing your creativity instead of just following recipes? Are you interested in learning the science behind what happens to food while it's cooking? Do you want to learn what makes a recipe work so you can improvise and create your own dish?"

                                        Potter includes a section on Taste, and does a nice job of giving some ins and outs of flavor balancing on an approachable level, including a couple of charts that suggest ingredients that provide the flavors for a number of cuisines in the categories of sweet/sour/salty/bitter/umami.

                                        Might be useful for the OP.

                                        1. re: cayjohan

                                          Great book as well!

                                3. re: youareabunny

                                  I think of flavor profiles in terms of land of origin and then sort of mix and match those flavors and seasonings to whatever veg is in season, on hand, and +/- desired preparation method.
                                  Take your cue from the seasonings from any type of recipe, not just veg recipes specifically. Most of what you'd do to meat can be adapted to use as a veg seasoning. For example, any dish that you'd make spice paste or dry seasoning blend for can be adapted to season simple roasted veg--toss with a little oil and the spices before roasting or blend into a dressing to toss with fresh or steamed veg.

                                  Start with the question of whether you want your vegetables:
                                  Fresh/raw/salad
                                  sauteed
                                  steamed
                                  braised/long cooked
                                  roasted
                                  grilled

                                  and then, what flavor profile? My go-to palate selections lean heavily on:
                                  Indian
                                  Hispanic/Latin
                                  Asian
                                  French/California
                                  Italian
                                  Nordic

                                  If you've got fresh herbs, you can make miracles in any genre. My other go-to staples are fresh garlic, lemons and limes (for juice AND zest), ginger, and shallots. For pantry stash, ground cumin, ground coriander, curry powder, hot pepper flakes and/or chili powder, smoked paprika, sesame seeds and oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, peanuts, sunflower seeds, evoo, mustard, mayo or aioli and vinegars (if you are not familiar, a good sherry vinegar will completely alter your view of vinegar as a seasoning).

                                  The seasonings for dummies version of all of this is to start trying pre-made, jarred spice blends. If you have access, Penzey's is a good go-to source because they have such a variety.
                                  One of my dirty little pantry secrets is "Slap ya Mama", which I actually learned about from a CIA trained chef friend.

                                  1. re: splatgirl

                                    Slap ya mama huh. Now that is very interesting! But I'm afraid to ask lest there be a knock on my door.

                                    Country of origin is a good tip. I have an ok understanding of Asian foods but not much of anything else.

                                    Thanks for all of the tips. Now I can look at recipes differently now. Try to dissect what can b applied to other things...

                                  2. re: youareabunny

                                    Since you are not familiar enough with the seasoning options to be able to create a variety of flavor profiles WITHOUT recipes, you need recipes until you are.

                                    It is a simple thing to use various wines or juices to braise poultry and meats. E.g.: brown chicken pieces skin side down. Flip them, add onion and garlic to deglaze the brown bits, then add liquid halfway up the sides of the meat, not enough to submerge the skin. If available, add bits of complimentary fresh or dried fruit, a bay leaf or two, and a tsp of dried savory or thyme (assuming 4 to 6 servings). Cover and braise over low heat. Reduce sauce when meat is done. Optionally, add a little cream to the reduced sauce before serving.

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      Indeed.

                                      To continue the music analogy....you don't walk up to a piano and start playing beautiful music without having learned how to play the piano (chords, pedals, etc), how to read music, and at least a little musical theory.

                                      It's the same thing with cooking...you need the recipes (sheet music) and the knowledge (theory) before you can start writing your own compositions (cooking by the seat of your pants).

                                      You also have to have all the ingredients (the black keys AND the white keys, as well as the pedals....) or there's no way your music is ever going to turn out right. ;)

                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                        Exactly, and as I mentioned earlier, ones begins to recognize patterns. One learns some "licks" and "riffs" incorporates them into their improvisations.
                                        But ya gotta start somewhere, and recipes are a way to start, learn the licks, then begin to improvise.

                                      2. re: greygarious

                                        Absolutely 100% agree with this. I rarely use a recipe now but will read about a dish and peruse various recipes and then go off the cuff when it comes time to cook which I think is the fun of it. However, until you have more experience with flavor combinations it's hard to know what will taste good together so you have to depend somewhat on what others have done and have been successful with. Once you get more comfortable, you can start to explore and it's fantastic and very enjoyable. I now often just go to the store on the weekend mornings with a cup of coffee in hand and browse and ideas for combinations and ingredients start to click and combine and it usually turns out quite well, but I definitely didn't start off being able to do that and if I tried it would have been disastrous. In the beginning, it was helpful for me to try to recreate dishes that I know I enjoyed. So, if SO loves a pasta dish at a particular restaurant, I would attempt to recreate it at home and through that process you not only learn to make food that you already know that you like but also learn about ingredients in the process. For example, I made my first Marsala dish this past weekend and a recipe that I spotted mentioned tomato paste. I had never used tomato paste but with a quick Google search it was evident that the world loves tomato paste. I included the amount specified in that recipe as an addition to what I had already planned to do and it was fantastic and so now with a little bit more research into tomato paste I have tons of more ideas of how to incorporate it which will lead me down the path to many more delicious dishes.

                                        1. re: fldhkybnva

                                          Never thought of tomato paste in Marsala. What a novel idea.

                                          1. re: melpy

                                            It was delicious although I've never had it but added a nice savoriness and a wonderful smell as it was browning.

                                  3. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/854711

                                    That thread might help. At least provide a jumping off point before your own palate decides you like more rosemary, less thyme, or what have you.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Violatp

                                      Great link. But now I'm jealous cuz I want a garden! Except for tomatoes, basil and chives I tend to have a black thumb.

                                    2. Hi there,

                                      I know how tricky it is living with a limited pallet of flavours to play with, as I lived in Germany for a while with not much money which doesn't give you much scope for buying a wide range of seasonings.

                                      I would start by bulking up your flavours with a few of the following: paprika (smoked if possible), cumin, curry powder, smoked bacon/ham, brown sugar, pesto, bouillon powder, chorizo, dried oregano. (I use chorizo and smoked meat sparingly as a seasoning in some veggie dishes so it doesn't really count as the 'protein).

                                      Out of this and what you already have, there are some good basic combos:
                                      - tomatoes + paprika + cumin = tex-mex flavours, you can stir in any veg and some canned beans or what have you
                                      - soy sauce + tsp of brown sugar + tsp of curry powder = japanese curry, good if you thicken with pureed carrot and onion and toss into cooked vegetables
                                      - ginger + soy + brown sugar + citrus (optional) = Chinese-style flavours, add to a stir-fry or bubble this mixture away on a gentle heat with some low-salt stock until it gets syrupy and use as a glaze for vegetable kebabs
                                      - tomatoes + paprika + chorizo = spanish flavours, great cooked into rice with olives or tossed with roasted peppers
                                      - cumin + garlic = loves pumpkin, carrots, eggplant and zucchiini, especially roasted
                                      - chorizo loves beans of any sort (including haricot verts)
                                      - tomatoes + garlic + oregano/large dollop of pesto = classic Italian flavours, good on pasta or a minestrone base or just about anything
                                      - tomatoes + smoked bacon + brown sugar = good old hearty smokey cowboy flavours that make terrific bean dishes or potato fillings
                                      - smoked bacon loves pretty much any of the vegetables you mentioned when sauteed with them and tossed with pesto.
                                      - tomatoes + paprika + lemon juice/vinegar = eastern European flavours, make good vegetable soup bases or rice dishes and excellent on potatoes with creme fraiche and sliced gherkins if you have 'em.

                                      The bouillon powder really helps ramp up the savoury notes in most dishes. You could play around with these suggestions and see which ones work for you - as you play, hopefully you'll discover new combinations you like and crossovers you can exploit in other recipes. I'm very much an improv cook so I'm all about experimentation :)

                                      Let me know what you think of all this!

                                      7 Replies
                                      1. re: Elster

                                        Thanks so much these combinations are very helpful. I definitely need a few more spices in my France cabinet like I have in San Diego.

                                        I try to experiment with combinations of textures and ingredients but herbs and spices really throw me off lol.

                                        I don't eat bacon but I know the man will appreciate that.

                                        1. re: Elster

                                          If I may add to this -
                                          Caraway seeds - with white cabbage, savoy cabbage, sautéed de-seeded cucumbers ( those along with garlic, onions, tomatoes), celeriac, small potatoes in their skin( either boiled or panfried) any dish containing leeks, in sauerkraut.
                                          Nutmeg ( freshly grated) - mashed potatoes, brussels sprout, peas
                                          Sage - poultry
                                          Basil - a 1000 different dishes tntm, but along with garlic gently sautéed string beans
                                          Savory - the Germans call it Bohnenkraut since it goes well with all sorts of beans. I would never eat a dish of fresh Fava beans without it.
                                          Rosemary - pork
                                          Thyme - loves tomatoes
                                          Parsley - the curly kind. Finely chopped to finish carrots, peas and a whole lot of different vegetables, soups/veggie soup, borscht etc

                                          So many good combos.....

                                          1. re: RUK

                                            Good ones!

                                            Nutmeg is also sensational with spinach and makes buttered cauliflower taste like god.
                                            Sage loves pork and/or mushrooms as well as poultry.
                                            Fresh thyme + balsamic vinegar = very yes.
                                            Tarragon, cream, garlic and white wine simmered together make fish or chicken or fennel or shallots beautiful treats.

                                            I'm so happy to find another curly parsley advocate, too! All of my friends think the flat kind is the only kind that deserves a place on this earth... :(

                                            1. re: Elster

                                              Growing up in Germany I only saw the curly parsley until I moved to the US. It was THE fresh herb to be used as finish then.
                                              And ah yes, I forgot the nutmeg on cauliflower, it fits perfectly.

                                              1. re: RUK

                                                Nutmeg is strong, you need just a pinch to impart flavor. It is a background note.

                                                Do you taste as you cook? This would help you a lot in deciding if you are using enough of aomething.

                                                1. re: melpy

                                                  Yes I do. I have a feeling I go overboard with 1 or 2 ingredients, or sometimes I taste things and can't quite figure out what's off about them.

                                                  1. re: youareabunny

                                                    all the more reason to start off by cooking from a recipe -- I know it cramps your style....but select one dish, and follow the recipe exactly a time or two. This will show you what it's *supposed* to taste like, and how the flavors work together.

                                                    Then another dish, and another. Once you're comfortable, then make it a time or two, but this time don't look at the recipe (or just glance at it -- I still get out the recipe book if I haven't made something in a while, just so I don't forget something)

                                                    Then when you have a good feel for what a well-balanced dish tastes like, then you can start "winging it" and cooking as you go.

                                                    But you have to crawl before you can fly.....

                                        2. How are you cooking your vegetables?

                                          I love blanched green beans tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette. Served warm with slivers of avocado, makes a delicious side dish.

                                          Same mustard can be mixed with olive oil, maple syrup, salt and pepper and tossed with the cubed pumpkin and roasted.

                                          Completely different flavors.

                                          Button mushrooms are fantastic when cooked long and slow- sautéed or roasted. They give off all their juices and concentrate into an almost meaty part of the meal. The only additions are salt, pepper, butter or oil.

                                          You've got some great ingredients, just consider how to pair them together.

                                          13 Replies
                                          1. re: cheesecake17

                                            Cheesecake I cook in a few ways, sometimes blanched, pan fried, coated then pan fried, roasted in oven... So sometimes I can marinate the veggies and other times a sauce would be more appropriate. And I do tend to keep mushrooms simple, they're so great on their own.

                                            The Dijon use sounds great but I have to check what kind of mustard it is. Well I'm accustomed to bright yellow American mustard lol, and this French one we have looks a bit more fancy than that, so hopefully it'll work.

                                            I'm seeing much use for maple syrup so I'll try to get some of that. I've only ever had it on pancakes.

                                            I guess I've been hesitant to buy spices and dried herbs because I'm just cooking for 1-2 people. But I can just buy smaller quantities or split it with someone else. Thanks

                                            1. re: youareabunny

                                              Maple syrup is a fortune in France. They usually put jam or sugar on their crepe. I would sub honey for the maple syrup.

                                              1. re: Gloriaa

                                                Nope -- look at the natural foods store -- it's halfway reasonable there.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  I am French and spend lots of time in France. None of my French friends, who have no American or Canadian affiliation, cook or buy maple syrup. Whenever I go I bring masses. Will look into the natural food stores. Considering it is very expensive here and we have an abundance of maple trees one can only imagine how expensive it would be anywhere in Europe.

                                                  1. re: Gloriaa

                                                    My local Bio-coop has 1 litre of sirop d'erable for €23. That's about $30 -- which is a little more expensive than you'd pay for a quart of syrup in the US, but not by a huge amount, especially when you take taxes, duties, and shipping into account.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      It is 15$ for a liter at Costco in Canada. Call me crazy but I think 30$ is expensive....

                                                      1. re: Gloriaa

                                                        I think it was US$20 or so when I bought it from the producer in Wisconsin (can't remember exactly; a few years ago)

                                                        But €23/litre beats the hell out of €7 for 150ml in the supermarkets.

                                                      2. re: sunshine842

                                                        A little goes a long way. Have used my VT maple syrup for over 2 years.

                                                        1. re: melpy

                                                          i don't like maple syrup at all, ever, lol, so don't consider a pantry staple. and at $30 ltr? no way!

                                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                            but then, if you don't like it, $3 a litre is too much....

                                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                                              totes. we got a bottle as a wedding favor 2 summers ago, and it just gathers dust. lol.

                                                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                Damn. Can u mix it with bird seed and stuff it into a pinecone? Or send it to meeeeeeeeee

                                                      3. re: Gloriaa

                                                        Now I am curious about maple syrup in France.

                                              2. As to your music analogy: when I first started to improvise, yes, it was different, I made mistakes. But, I also had a knowledge of music theory, so I knew some basics based on that. Then, developed it from there. The more I did it, the better I got.
                                                Like others have suggested, start with recipes. It will give you a starting point, once you start seeing patterns emerge, you can take off from there. Experience helps.

                                                1. it sounds like your issue may be that of simply too heavy a hand and/or timing of when to add flavor.

                                                  dried herbs and spices need to be "fried" in your oil or butter before adding the other ingredients. (i prefer thyme to rosemary. the latter can be overwhelming even in small amounts.)

                                                  soy sauce is good for adding umami, but even when cooking several pounds of mushrooms, i only use a few splashes. if using it for a soup or sauce, add it at the end so it doesn't reduce to a salt lick.

                                                  fish sauce is VERY potent. a tiny splash goes a long way and if you are using it with soy sauce, add the soy later after the fish sauce has cooked into the liquid a little bit.

                                                  citrus is also best added at the end. it will amp up any salt you have already added so be careful there.

                                                  if you find your sauces or soups overly salty, the safest way to avoid that is to add it at the very end.

                                                  if your vegetables are excellent, they don't need a lot of fussing. steamed and finished with some thyme infused butter and a sprinkle of good salt works great for zucchini, haricot verts and carrots.

                                                  roasted with a brush of olive oil and good salt makes magic for eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and carrots.

                                                  some veggies, like eggplant and tomatoes really "need" salt to come to life. start off with less than you think you might need, til you become confident.

                                                  in summer, i make a lovely tarte tatin with tomatoes and mustard brushed on the pastry. i also really like tomatoes with sesame oil.

                                                  you don't need MORE of everything in every dish.

                                                  i hate pumpkin. :)

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                    Yes I think I need a bit more method. Fresh herbs are relatively easy to throw in, although I've only ever tried parsley, basil, and cilantro.

                                                    I've learned to fry the powder spices especially but never do it with dried herbs for some reason.

                                                    I think splashing ingredients will help, I probably am too heavy handed with one and mask all the others. Also I don't quite discern harmony - like the flutes in an orchestra.... Are often hard to make out but if they were removed the sound would be less beautiful and complex.

                                                    Too many music analogies but its a language I speak.

                                                    The tomatoes and mustard tart sounds lovely. Maybe I'll make it with pumpkin :) jk

                                                    1. re: youareabunny

                                                      i use dried thyme in every western-style (i.e. american or european) dish i make, and build from there. fresh herbs go in at the end.

                                                      i don't measure for savory cooking, but i think you need to start from a base of pulling everything back and working with one or two herbs/spices at a time. for example, i can't think of a dish where i'd use parsley, basil and cilantro together. the flute player practices many hours alone, before rehearsing with the orchestra. :)

                                                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                        Yeh maybe practicing with 1-2 spices would be best as I'm still unfamiliar. Maybe I've just been apprehensive.

                                                        And I played flute in the 5th grade btw!

                                                      2. re: youareabunny

                                                        I don't fry dried herbs; I rub them to release their oils.
                                                        again, as for the music analogies.... practice!
                                                        and as in music, patterns emerge like I stated upthread.

                                                    2. forgot! another great way to add subtle flavor is cooking with stocks. they are a snap to make, just needing time to simmer.

                                                      1. It usually comes with lots of cooking and practice, but perhaps these charts will help you match herbs and spices with appropriate foods:

                                                        http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/a...

                                                        http://www.foodandnutrition.com/appen...

                                                        14 Replies
                                                        1. re: LindaWhit

                                                          Great charts! Gives me a good place to start, thanks.

                                                          1. re: LindaWhit

                                                            Thank you for posting those, LindaWhit!

                                                            1. re: jlhinwa

                                                              You are welcome! I have something similar posted on the inside of my spice cabinet that I found in a cookbook a LONG time ago. I typed it up in a Word doc and printed it. I also have a "reverse herb/spice chart" that I use when I want a pork chop, for instance, and want to see what spices go with that.

                                                              Here's another long one - 8 pages! - that is similar to the Food and Nutrition one above - it gives the characteristics, the best use, and how it's available (whole, ground, seed, fresh, dried, etc.)

                                                              http://www.workman.com/static/assets/...

                                                              1. re: LindaWhit

                                                                Thank you again! What a great resource. I have been an okay cook for many years, with a few brilliant dishes that I learned to make and then about 5 years ago, decided I wanted to be more than an okay and occasionally excellent cook. I have gained a lot of ground using past successes, shamelessly borrowing recipes from friends, and reading recipes (mostly on-line). I have a few go-to spices/herbs that I am very comfortable, a number more that I have developed some comfort level with, but would really like to reach farther. These are the perfect references to help me--thank you so much!

                                                            2. re: LindaWhit

                                                              Since the OP's kitchen space is small, I'll mention that decades ago I cut some herb and spice charts out of Family Circle and Woman's Day magazines. Also ones on substitutions in baking, and measurement equivalents. These are still taped to the inside of my upper kitchen cabinet doors. When I need them, they are right there, but they take up no space. On other cabinet doors, I've put small nails or hangers on the inside, to hang relatively flat and small cooking utensils like a nutmeg grater and a packet of disposable piping bags. .

                                                              1. re: greygarious

                                                                The insides of cabinet doors can hold a LOT of things. As I noted above, that's exactly what I do with my two charts.

                                                                1. re: greygarious

                                                                  As someone who had to switch from an American sized apartment to a much smaller one overseas - changing my shopping habits helped considerably. Instead of doing one large shopping trip a week, I do 2-3 per week. It takes a bit of a change of thinking, but it's helped me a lot not waste food and think far more carefully about how I cook.

                                                                  1. re: cresyd

                                                                    I quite prefer doing smaller shops a couple of times a week -- having really fresh produce (as opposed to having kinda-wilted, seen-better-days produce) is worth it to me.

                                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                                      Produce definitely benefits - but I also find that helps me avoid stock piling staples. When I had all the cabinet space in the world, I'd end up with so many semi-used containers of different grains, pastas, nuts, spices, etc. Whenever I'd move there'd be all this stuff where it was a case of "oh, I had no idea I even had that".

                                                                      With a smaller kitchen, I'm more conscious of what staples I have that I'm not using and find a way to rotate them through just for the purpose of best using space.

                                                                      1. re: cresyd

                                                                        I agree on the smaller kitchen - I have an enormous kitchen, even by US standards, with enormous Ikea cabinets. Love the cabinets, but they're so deep that once in a while I go mining and come up with something that I don't even remember buying....

                                                                        I love the cabinets, but they're almost *too* big.

                                                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                                                          If I could switch to a bigger kitchen, I'd do it in a heartbeat - but as that's not the case, I've learned how to think of a well stocked kitchen differently. In that US to abroad transition, it was definitely a learning process because a lot of US shopping traditions (that I was taught) involve tips like "have a well stocked pantry".

                                                                          Now for me a "well stocked pantry" is more like a well stocked cabinet and crowded counter space - so it means thinking about things a bit differently.

                                                                          1. re: cresyd

                                                                            definitely -- I know I'm the exception, but most of my friends are at your end of the spectrum.

                                                                            1. re: cresyd

                                                                              I understand completely. In SD I can have a few cans each of the essentials always on hand, a few pots and skillets, and at least 7 medium-large size mixing bowls. So it's a bit of a shocker being here with only 4 cabinets. Luckily there is only two of us but I'm always reorganizing. I've finally gotten a counter layout that gives me room to knead bread and roll out flat doughs.

                                                                              Now that I'm more familiar with the space I know what I can and can't buy. I should only be buying small quantities of spice anyway.

                                                                              1. re: cresyd

                                                                                there is a distinction between a "well-stocked pantry" and food to get through the zombie apocalypse. my b/f has a huge pantry closet, and i just counted 22 boxes of pasta in there! i stopped eating pasta 3 years ago, so could count on one hand how many times i've cooked it since, lol.

                                                                                i live in a loft so very little storage space and counter space is minimal too. i feel much better being pared down. i also live on the 4th floor of a building with double-height ceilings and no elevator. essentially 6 flights of stairs, so only will carry one load of groceries up.

                                                                                all too often on here i read of lost bags of wrapped who-knows-what in the deep freezer, bags and jars of beans and spices that are super-old. lots of waste. very american, imho.

                                                                  2. I'm much more simple in approach--opposites attract. Salt and sweet; fat and tang/acid; soft w/ crunchy, bitter/sweet. I just found this article which is a good summary and has good ideas on the yin and yang of flavors.

                                                                    http://gianteagle.uat.staywellsolutio...

                                                                    14 Replies
                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                      I like that thinking! Other than hot and sour, and sweet and sour, I don't think in those terms but its something to research for sure.

                                                                      Bitter reminds me of bitter melon though. I shudder at the memories.

                                                                      1. re: youareabunny

                                                                        don't avoid bitterness. All flavors are important for harmony.

                                                                        1. re: magiesmom

                                                                          I'm just not sure I'm familiar with bitter taste... Closest things I can think of that I've tried are bitter melon and umeboshi.

                                                                          1. re: youareabunny

                                                                            Bitter flavours are really good for preventing a sweet ingredient dominating a dish and becoming like a dessert. And sweet seasonings make bitter ingredients taste complex and rich. Think radicchio with sliced green apple salad, green bell pepper sauteed with sweetcorn kernels, turnip braised in white wine and orange zest, sauteed kale tossed with a bit of honey and nutmeg...mmm...

                                                                            1. re: youareabunny

                                                                              Bitter melon is pretty extreme on the bitter end. Other things that tend to taste bitter include some types of green leafy vegetables, particularly dark ones (endive, kale), turnip, lime, the white part of citrus fruits, unsweetened chocolate, coffee, beer, sometimes eggplant, tea, green peppers.

                                                                        2. re: chowser

                                                                          Boiled potatoes with dates, cumin, onions and yogurt? What sorcery is this! Fascinating...

                                                                          1. re: youareabunny

                                                                            It sounds interesting but there are curries w/ dried fruit and potatoes so it's not that different?
                                                                            https://sites.google.com/site/ruchikr...

                                                                            I had an italian dish once that was tomato based pasta w/ sardines and some dried fruit. The combination was so unusual that I had to try it and it was surprisingly good.

                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                              meats cooked with dried fruit (especially prunes and dried apricots) are sublime.

                                                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                I really agree on this one. We often toss chicken, pork, or lamb in a tagine with chunks of onion, peppers, broth, garam masala, and dried fruits, whatever is around. Put it on low heat and return when you are ready to eat. This approach dissolves the fruit but infuses everything with their flavor. Add a little more dried fruit and some couscous a few minutes before serving. Another meat/fruit combo I recently stumbled onto was sautéed pork chops with white wine, a squeeze of orange and some grated orange zest, and some green olives.

                                                                                1. re: tim irvine

                                                                                  pork and prunes play well together too.

                                                                                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                                    yes - one of my all-time greatest meals was pork stuffed with prunes - it was in some little restaurant in Aachen, and was spectacular.

                                                                                    I roast or braise turkey thighs with prunes, too.

                                                                                2. re: sunshine842

                                                                                  and dates!

                                                                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                    +1. The best pork tamales I have ever made or eaten have raisins in the filling

                                                                                  2. re: chowser

                                                                                    not tomato-based, but
                                                                                    pasta con le sarde

                                                                                    http://allthingssicilianandmore.blogs...

                                                                                    with sardines, fennel and golden raisins is a classic sicilian dish.

                                                                              2. Throughout the cooking process I am always tasting. Concentrating on sweet, sour, salty, savory and umami. I always have room in the flavor to finish a dish with fat, acid and salt. Tasting and thinking. By building the flavor and continually tasting, the brain trains itself in portions and taste.

                                                                                That is a wide variety of vegetables and in infinite amount of cooking and non cooking variables and combinations to go through. The best way to go is to constantly taste every step. For instance, I would taste a vegetable before I peeled and after.

                                                                                1. Begin by cooking your ingredients au naturel just to see what they taste like unadorned with spices, sauces, condiments, etc.

                                                                                  You'd be surprised what delightful flavors they hold on their own.

                                                                                  Then go from there.

                                                                                  Not everything needs soy sauce, for example. Take rice. Ever just taste freshly cooked rice straight from the rice cooker (or pot)? It can be awe-inspiring. It has this subtle sweetness that's almost perfectly balanced with just the slightest hint of earthiness mixed with floral undertones. And, yes, I'm talking about plain white rice.

                                                                                  6 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                    Interestingly, in East Asia putting soy sauce on rice is something that *does not happen*. It's like going to a Western restaurant and asking for ketchup to go with your plain bread - you might like it, but you're going to be getting some weird looks, particularly at a nice meal.

                                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                      and then you can try basmati or jasmine rice....

                                                                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                        Basmati rice has a great texture and flavor.

                                                                                      2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                        I agree! Many meats and vegetables have wonderful natural flavor and don't need much preparation. I love simple steamed Jasmine rice and roasted asparagus even with just a hint of salt and pepper is delicious. Oftentimes, I've found that simpler is better.

                                                                                        1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                                                          I roasted chicken leg quarters the other night with nothing more exotic than a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and pepper -- and my crew raved about the "new seasoning mix" I'd used.

                                                                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                            For really simple seasoning, I like Italian cooking - Marcella Hazan's books have some great recipes for very simple meat and vegetable dishes that are delicious.

                                                                                            One of my favourite vegetable preparations for something like green beans, asparagus, broccoli, etc is to blanch or steam it until just tender enough, and dress with good olive oil, salt and pepper, and a bit of fresh lemon juice. Chicken legs are great with nothing but salt and pepper, roasted until the skin is crispy.

                                                                                            I like both simple seasonings like the above, and the absurdly complex (Thai or Indian curries that have a list of 20 seasonings). But complicated mixes are much, much harder to do well without a recipe - the balance is important, and it's easy to get something that tastes muddy rather than great, or with one flavour dominating the others.

                                                                                      3. My mom makes great carmelised onions, with white wine added near the end of cooking. (from scratch)

                                                                                        You can mix opposite flavors, such as adding slight sweetness to soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. There aren't 'rules' but in my experience, opposites attract. Also, fat and carbohydrates balance each other.

                                                                                        1. Something else I thought of is to just read cookbooks. I pretty much taught myself to cook by reading cookbooks when I was a kid. Literally cover to cover. Joy of Cooking was an amazing resource for this as it has pages and pages just describing ingredients and flavors.

                                                                                          The more recipes you read, the more you will see patterns of what seems to go with what. And you can jump off from there once you know what flavors you like. For example, I can put together a sauce for pork really easily using the pan fond, stock, thyme, cream, and mustard. I know thyme and mustard work really well in that scenario and I don't need a recipe.

                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                          1. re: Violatp

                                                                                            I agree that reading cookbooks helps so much. I may not use recipes or I may use five and riff. Once in a while I will make something strictly as written. It is like reading a textbook and then taking a test without it.

                                                                                          2. I often balance my flavors by adding some acid (vinegar or lemon) and sweet - honey or even plane white sugar (just a touch). It works very well when cooking just about anything - just don't over do it.

                                                                                            3 Replies
                                                                                            1. re: sparky403

                                                                                              I saw a recipe on tv for balsamic dipped cherry tomatoes with sesame, similar to this: http://www.rachaelraymag.com/recipes/...

                                                                                              It appealed to me, anyway I think I understand - the sweetness of sugar, tangy balsamic vinegar, and the sesame which is... salty? Well I think it's for texture mainly. And the somewhat fruity tomato.

                                                                                              It's analyses like that that I'm trying to figure out.

                                                                                              1. re: youareabunny

                                                                                                sesame shouldn't be salty (unless, of course, it's salted) -- it's what we'd call a savory, or umami, flavor - kind of a non-specific meaty-type flavor.

                                                                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                                                                  Yes umami is a better way of describing it.

                                                                                            2. It's occurred to me that while a lot of comments here are recommending that you have a go at cooking from recipes for a while, what might be most helpful at this point is convincing a friend or family member who cooks to make one of their staple dishes with you and talk you through the recipe as you guys make it. That's how I have learnt to cook over the years, and what I like about it is that when the person is there you can ask them why they add a certain thing or cook something a certain way, and whether they think an alternative might work. If you ask them to make a point of telling you when an addition is their own personal touch (like if they have a secret ingredient or leave out something they don't like) you can start to figure out which aspects of recipes experienced cooks feel comfortable adjusting, and which tend to be left alone...

                                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                                              1. re: Elster

                                                                                                That is a good idea. I've watched my friends mother cook and I've asked her why she adds this and that, and when... and she generally has meaningful answers.

                                                                                                I guess I'm more of a learn as you go type.. Like when I have ikea furniture to put together I glance at the instructions for 5 seconds at most. Comes together just fine too.

                                                                                                But to have someone walking me through it and being able to ask about the details would be more my style.

                                                                                                1. re: youareabunny

                                                                                                  Have you thought about taking a cooking class? There are a lot of cooking classes in Paris that are directed towards visiting Americans.