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.