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Jan 19, 2014 08:32 PM

How do you balance a dish?

I put together a dish that ended up ok, but not as good as it could be. Without getting into too much detail (I can if asked) it started with pork hock broth, which became green lentil soup (onion and garlic), to which I later added sweet Italian sausage cooked with more onions, sliced grape tomatoes and a red wine reduction. Lemon juice to finish.

Aside from the red wine, anything other than the sausage was only seasoned with salt and pepper. In the end it tasted fine but the sausage really drew attention to itself, becoming more "sausage and padding" than a cohesive dish. I really thought that with all the other ingredients going on it would offset the sausage (which most noticeably tasted of anise) but nothing stood out, even the lentils.

What else could I have done?

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  1. Sounds like you learned something here. One ingredient that is powerful in flavor can cause a dish to turn into a one man show. Try this recipe again & next time use a much milder protein (corned beef, ham, bacon, a mild smoked sausage, turkey, chicken, etc.).

    1 Reply
    1. re: i_am_Lois

      Yes, it was one of those situations where I had meat that I'd bought a couple of days before and wanted a way to use it up. Milder meat, or perhaps beans instead of lentils, probably would have worked better.

    2. Oooo, anise flavor from a sausage is sort of outside my experience. Fennel, yes - but I guess my sausage repertoire has had a paucity of anise flavors to date. Given sausage is low on my list of fav foods maybe that's just my inexperience speaking ... but anyway, onward ...

      I might try to pull some of that anise flavor back into the rest of the dish by adding some sliced fennel (the bulb, not the seed) to the lentils. Just a bit. To complement. Anise and fennel taste very different to me, but some people think they taste very similar. To me the fennel would complement the anise without pumping it up to ever greater licorice-like heights.

      Some hot pepper seeds wouldn't go amiss in my house and would certainly help to tone down the anise/licorice notes. YMMV. A bay leaf or two wouldn't go amiss.

      In fact if you can find it, Indian bay leaf (which isn't bay leaf - a laurel - at all but is in fact the leaf of a tree in the cinnamon family) also known as tejpat would be even better. Hard to find though. Failing that, try cassia buds or stick cinnamon. With lentils a small amount of clove would brighten things up as well.

      I don't think it's necessary to tone down the meat portion - but bump up the game for the rest of it for a melding instead of a domination of one ingredient.

      1 Reply
      1. re: CookingForReal

        I'm sorry--sausage seasonings are outside my experience! It was likely fennel or fennel seed rather than anise. We don't normally cook with fennel at all so have no experience, although I'd like to experiment sometime.

        Probably some chili flakes would have been just the thing. It's the only flavor-type I didn't add, now that I think about it. And after sitting in the fridge overnight the leftovers were much better balanced.

        Also the sausage was in pretty big chunks; maybe cutting it up smaller for better distribution would have helped. This is a simple dish but there's a lot I could learn from it.

      2. In this case, you could have done a few things a bit differently to good results. The sausage has enough flavor to overwhelm the other ingredients - but it can also be used to flavor the other ingredients. You might have benefited from starting by sauteeing the sausage and then adding other ingredients to it, letting the sausage donate some of its flavor to the rest. Alternatively, you might have improved your results by letting the meal sit for a few hours or overnight to allow the flavors to meld (and in this case, it is sometimes wise to wait until you're reheating and serving to add lemon juice, certain herbs, etc).

        Of course, you can also either opt to use less sausage in the future, or to add other more assertive ingredients to the dish in order to stand up to the sausage.

        1. I am not a pro but I usually run the five taste groups in my head to see what lacks (Sweetness / Sourness / Saltiness / Bitterness / Umami). I also think of spices or herbs to see if something is "flat".

          I must admit, I don't get to think "oh, this isn't bitter enough" often (maybe its a next level thing) but I'll usually play with the salt/sour/umami elements for savory dishes.

          Something you hear often is that we rarely season our dishes enough at home and that's why I usually start by adding a little salt to see if it helps balance the taste.

          There seems to be a large gap between your "soup" and the sausage so I'd try to close the gap a bit by adding fish sauce (my secret trick for umami). I'd also add a bit of acid (more lemon or vinegar) to brighten things up and add contrast. Finally, I'd try adding some herbs (fresh is best but use what you have).

          Don't try to do too much at first. Add a bit at a time and always taste. Go at it iteratively until you feel playing with it more would only make it worse.