There are many cookbooks in my personal library, but only a few would I enshrine in the list of Cookbooks I’d Rather Not Live Without. My second review for this blog will also be one of those, The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg. Though, truth be told, it’s not really a cookbook, per se…
It will surprise no one who knows me well that most of my favorite cookbooks are as much food science/theory books as recipe collections. I like to improvise. I like to understand. A book that can help me do this will always rise to the top. The Flavor Bible is one of those books, but in a very different way than most. It is not chock full of recipes, nor even cooking techniques. Instead, it is to flavor inspiration what the card catalog was to libraries (before computer based catalogs made them obsolete, that is…).
The Flavor Bible is essentially a sequel to the authors’ earlier book, Culinary Artistry. I loved it, but lost it when we moved to the farm. Replacing it with this one was a great choice!
The heart of the book consists of an alphabetical listing of ingredients and flavors, from Achiote Seeds, Acidity and Afghan Cuisine to Yuzu Fruit, Zucchini, and Zucchini Blossoms. Each has a table of complementary flavors recommended by experts (mainly a large number of influential and creative American chefs). When a flavor combination is recommended by multiple experts, it’s bold. When lots of them recommend it, it’s in bold caps. If it is a flavor pairing made in heaven, it gets bold caps and an asterisk.
Most ingredients also get a listing of “Flavor Affinities.” These are outstanding groups of flavors, usually three (beets + goat cheese + walnuts), often more (Cherries + goat cheese + ice wine vinegar + black pepper + thyme). There are also suggestions on dishes and techniques from various chefs scattered about, as well as discussion of seasonality. For example, in addition to a huge number of ingredients, the entry for Autumn says the weather is typically cool, and suggests braising, glazing, and roasting as techniques. Sometimes you get helpful tips (add caraway seeds late in the cooking process, but Cardamom early). It also occasionally lists pairings to avoid (basil and tarragon, for example).
The Flavor Bible can really help improve your creativity in the kitchen, particularly if you produce a lot of your own food or shop farmers’ markets. Fresh, seasonal food always tastes best, and is most healthful. But much of our cooking guidance assumes everyone finds their sustenance in the supermarket, where seasons don’t exist (and nothing really tastes like anything). Cooking and eating seasonally can be a challenge at times, but The Flavor Bible inspires creativity, making seasonal and local cuisine a liberating experience!
It won’t give you a recipe for Oysters on the Half Shell, but it will tell you that Hyssop goes with chicken, tomatoes, and thyme, and that can lead you to some yummy experimentation. Hmmmm… Hyssop is plentiful right now…
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