Books for cooks


"The Elements of Taste," by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky (Little, Brown and Co., 2001, $40)


Making great dishes
is a matter of taste

Have you ever wondered why food served at the best restaurants can't seem to be duplicated at home?

One of the reasons is that chefs do not create from recipes, they create from tastes. Chefs ask questions such as: Are the strawberries sweet or tart this year? They make adjustments accordingly.

Thus, a recipe is more than a mere combination of ingredients and techniques. There is a fourth dimension: the taste experience from beginning to end, from first aroma to last lingering aftertaste. Great chefs create in the same way that a composer "hears" notes in the concert hall of the mind before anyone plays them on the keyboard, the authors say.

"The Elements of Taste" looks at how the dynamic of great taste is achieved. It attempts to put into plain language the thoughts that a chef has when creating a recipe.

In biology class we learn there are five taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and unami, the latter associated with foods containing monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

From these five broad categories, the authors defined 14 specific culinary tastes that can be used to add layering, balance and depth to foods. These are tastes that push (salty, sweet and picante), tastes that pull (tangy, minted, spiced aromatic, floral herbal and funky), tastes that punctuate (sharp, bitter) and taste platforms (garden, meaty, oceanic and starchy).

This cookbook is for individuals with plenty of time to cook, access to a wide variety of ingredients and a genuine interest in the complexities of fine food. The authors' recipes for "Confit of Veal Breast with Bulby Vegetables" or "Tender Leeks and Truffles with Potatoes and Vinaigrette" are not likely to grace my table anytime soon.

Still, I am still fascinated by the authors' explanations of why recipes work and how each flavor fits into the total taste experience.

Serve this tangy Papaya Pickle with any grilled meat, or as a pick-me-up for a summer green salad.

Papaya Pickle

2 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup sugar
Zest of 2 lemons
2 cups thinly sliced papaya (approximately 2 small)
1 tablespoon Short Rib Spice Mix (below)

Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the zest.

Toss the papaya with the spice mix. Pour the vinegar mixture over the papaya, and refrigerate until needed.

Short Rib Spice Mix

1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon cloves
4 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Szechuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Kosher salt

Toast the allspice, cloves, coriander, bay leaf, cumin and Szechuan pepper in a dry skillet until fragrant. Add black peppercorns, and grind in a spice grinder or mortar until the mixture is medium fine. Put the spice mix on a plate, and add cinnamon and a pinch of salt.

Nutrition information unavailable.

Rating Scale: StarStarStarStar Best in its class / StarStarStar Highly recommended / StarStar Recommended / Star Not recommended

Barbara Burke is a Hawaii-Pacific University instructor who teaches and writes about food and nutrition. Contact her at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, Honolulu 96813; or e-mail her at:

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