Cook Like an Artist, 1

At Linda's encouragement, I'm starting a new "collection" on this blog of posts about food and how I cook "like an artist." I've had lots of requests from those visiting El Cielo Studio for recipes for the food I serve at the artist retreats -- but, hey folks, I don't measure. So its had me stymied and seemed like way too much trouble to slow down and measure. 

But, as I thought about how I do cook, it occurred to me that I cook the same  way I make art, and I could describe some ideas, some techniques that might be fun for others who want to experiment with flavors. At the very least, I'll clarify to myself, how it is I am thinking when I am playing with food, creating new dishes or variations on old ones.

First, the ground rules. No exact measurements. I'll be general, but usually, the way I cook, you can do a bit more or a bit less. Its why I am NO BAKER. You will find no cakes in this collection. Baking is as much a science as an art, and it takes exact (or more exact) measurements.

Second, think of the color wheel. I cook with a mental "flavor wheel" in mind that kind-of is the taste/smell equivalent of the color wheel. I mix, match and come up with complementary flavors and textures and "notes" that are kind of like mixing and matching and using color in a piece of visual art. I'm not sure how well this analogy will carry throughout, but it's how I'm starting out. For example, an earthy ingredient always needs a spark of the opposite spicy or sour or fruity to bring out the flavor. I always try to have something light, intense and a high-note, with something rich or heavy and meaty. That's why barbeque sauce works.

Think of the "colors" on your flavor wheel as these broad categories of taste: salty, spicy, bitter, sour/acidic, sweet/fruity, earthy, meaty, grain/carbo -- yeah. there are a few more here than the "formal" ones of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami. And technically, earthy and meaty are probably both dimensions of umami -- but in my brain, they operate a bit differently. And grain/carbo is as much a texture as a dimension of flavor-- but I didn't promise scientific consistency here.

Texture operates in cooking a bit like value. Intensity exists in flavors, too. Color is color, both literal and flavorful. Let's see how this analogy plays out in the sauce and ravioli I made last night:

Red Ravioli for a Rushed Wednesday

This is a monochromatic sauce with various intensities all in the RED family, with little zaps of green herbs to complement and lift the flavors. 

Sauté in about 1-2 teaspoons good quality olive oil: (Whoops-- basic cooker techniques will slow me down, so look at this link if you don't know what saute means -- and go to this wikipedia outline to find out all you'll ever need to know about cookery techniques) the following in quantities that are interesting to you -- the amounts are just what I did last night, and I'll probably never repeat the dish. I

FROM MEATY RED: 1/2 large homestyle pork/beef smoked sausage, chopped

FROM SWEET/FRUITY RED: 1 large red bell pepper, chopped

and 6 or so chopped sun-dried tomatoes, (if not packed in oil, reconstitute first by soaking in warm water for 10 minutes) IF you only have fresh tomatoes, cut into eighths and add them the last 5 minutes of cooking.

FROM SPICY NEUTRAL/INTENSE: 2 cloves or more of garlic

and SPICY RED/INTENSE a sprinkle of red pepper flakes (or use a splash of Tabasco, black pepper, cayenne)

COMPLEMENTARY FLAVOR FROM GREEN: a handful of chopped herbs, nothing too noted intense or highnoted- -- I used Italian leaf parsley, a few sprigs of thyme, 2 small sprigs of basil (also all from the garden, easy to grow!)

a couple of green onions from the garden, sliced, including tender green tops

Sauté for about 15 minutes on medium heat, stirring occassionally so it doesn't burn, but browns a bit, crisping the herbs. Meanwhile, as the sauce sautes,  cook the ravioli according to the package in boiling water.

At the last 2 minutes of so of sauce cooking, throw on one more RED flavor, smoked paprika, about a tablespoon full, adding EARTHY RED.

Toss with your ravioli and serve with a complimentary green salad including some bitter-sweet-spicy spring greens like arugula or swiss chard or endive, a citrusy vinegar olive oil dressing (more on salad dressings later) 

Grate some fresh Parmesan cheese into large flakes or curls for a garnish, along with another couple of sprigs of parsley.

The way I see it, if you stayed with the basic idea of RED, with a bit of green to complement, you could do this same recipes with lots of different RED meats, different SWEET FRUITY REDS and SPICY reds and serve it on a wide range of carbo/grains.

You can substitute other meaty flavors, or serve it with a different kind of grain/carbo flavor, but I made the sauce to toss with frozen cheese ravioli (one of the freezer staples from Costco). Other ideas -- serve the same tossed with couscous or brown rice, or any other kind of pasta. Or top a big bowl of greens and beans with it.

If you are a vegetarian, leave out  the sausage or add in a red smoked type soy version, or use chicken thighs or  red spiced chicken or turkey sausage if you don't eat pork or red meat.

For example: next week I might try the same formula but using chopped chicken thighs with fresh tomatoes, red onion, earthy brown mushrooms, red peppers and the same spices and herbs. OR it might be interesting to try with sauteed plums instead of tomatoes. Since that's a real fruity flavor, it might need a bit of cinnamon or allspice, too. On couscous or egg noodles, or maybe on spaghetti squash!