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How Cooking Changed My Palate

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Learning to cook didn't just allow me to make healthier meals than eating out, though that is definitely a factor. It also changed my palate.

When I learned to cook, I used whole, fresh ingredients. No heavy doses of fat, sugar, salt or MSG to make bad food taste better. Cooking with lower measures of each of these components altered my palate. I can spot a cheap meal right away.

If I eat at McDonald's, all I can taste is the salt. McDonald's french fries used to be my favorite, but now I notice there is no potato flavor in the fries. It is all salt, oil, and what should be potato tastes like pure potato starch. I'll take my homemade roast potatoes any day - they taste like potatoes. The new improved chicken nuggets still don't taste like chicken.

We went to a Thai restaurant recently. I couldn't finish my meal, and I didn't bother to get a box. All I could taste was MSG.

Chick-fil-A used to be one of my favorite fast food restaurants. Chicken has to be healthier than McDonald's, right? What is the #1 ingredient in their signature seasoning? Salt. Second ingredient? MSG.

My friend and I went to an Indian restaurant recently. We tried a dish we hadn't had before. I chewed on it a little bit, and identified hints of cardamom and ginger. My friend was impressed, and remarked on my sensitive palate.

When I went back home for a visit, I was surprised my friends and family wanted me to cook for them, rather than going out for a meal. They say I do better than the restaurants. I was very flattered.

On the flip side, it has ruined the experience of dining out somewhat. I turn my nose up at former favorite meals at Applebee's (all I taste is fat, sugar, salt). My British fiance says I am more like the French in my discerning tastes than I am American. The last time we went to a four star restaurant, we had orange balsamic glazed roast brussel sprouts. It was so good, I had to go home and copy it.

Americans have never been well regarded for our cuisine. All our really good food comes from other places. On the one hand, we don't have a deeply rooted culinary tradition like the French. On the other, there is no other place in the world where you can have such a diverse range of menus. It is a blessing and a curse.

The chain restaurant menus are engineered to sell quantity, not quality. The desserts are nearly inedible to me. They are pure sugar, and most of them would take four people to share. I was shocked to discover my favorite Cheesecake Factory dessert was 1,100 calories. It's no wonder I became obese. I can't handle something that rich and sweet anymore. It literally makes me ill.

I made a homemade dark chocolate gelato for dessert last night. It is very chocolately, but not overly sweet. It is the way my fiance and I like it, but I probably would not serve it to my friends. They would probably think it is not sweet enough.

Margaritas are ruined. The standard chain restaurant bar mix tastes like Kool Aid. I can't taste the lime juice. When I get a margarita made with real lime juice, I recognize it immediately. I don't want the calories if it's not the real thing.

Every once in a while, I can find the truly superb. I knew a number of restaurants in Seattle that made real lime margaritas. My favorite Thai restaurant was gourmet at a Chinese take out price - no hint of MSG what so ever. In Savannah, there is an amazing Cuban restaurant with Spanish Caribbean flare.

I used to be baffled how chefs could taste a food and be able to pick out flavors. Now I can do this to some degree, too. My pantry takes the best of the diversity of the immigrant cultures in America. In any given week, I can make food from Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, India, Morocco, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Latin America, etc.

I use so many spices and spice combinations, I can recognize them when I taste other food. On the flip side, I can also taste the cheap imitations.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
  • CAROLJEAN64
    You helped me understand something I was surprised by. We recently went to Applebees.... hadn't been in a while, but loved the idea of their calorie reduced entrees. All I could taste was salt!!! I didn't even realize that my palate has improved. We do eat out a fair amount, but rarely, if ever, at chain places. Local ethnic places are our favorites and they have changed how I taste food.
    3521 days ago
  • no profile photo CD8937156
    Becoming a "food snob" is the easiest way to control excess calories. I used to be better at it, but running a cafe makes you actually omnivorous in the worst sense. Surrounded by food with no time to eat. Having said that, not all restaurants are out to cheat eaters. We use higher quality ingredients than our customers expect and our prices belie. I will only serve what I will eat. Well, except pastrami/corned beef. I've chosen a good quality product, I just don't go there. ;)
    3521 days ago
  • FARWELLCLAY
    I completely understand. Especially the bit about not wanting the margarita if the lime juice isn't the real thing. In the book "French Women Don't Get Fat" Mireille Guiliano talks about making the calories count. If you're going to eat a piece of cheese, it should be delicious, not wrapped in a cellophane wrapper. And when I weaned myself off sugar, my palate became so much more demanding, less tolerant of over salting and too much sugar, which Americans too often substitute for real quality of flavor. You can make me homemade dark chocolate gelato anytime, I promise I won't complain about the sugar content. It will probably be perfect for me!
    3522 days ago
  • no profile photo CD5575543
    I have noticed that I can tell when something tastes good but it doesn't jump up and shout in your face. So many dishes are dull without spicing.
    3522 days ago
  • DDOORN
    I'm becoming more adventurous with spices when I can...haven't made the effort to "experiment" so much yet, but appreciate when I come across something that ZINGS the old taste buds in ways salt, MSG, etc. never could!

    Don
    3522 days ago
  • CTTAGENT
    Congratulations!! I totally know what you are talking about. I too enjoy making homemade meals. We hardly go out for dinner, except on a rare occasion, usually if we are out of town we may eat out a little. I want to have an herb garden so I can use fresh herbs and increase a dish's flavors even more.
    3522 days ago
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