Approaching New Flavors

My process for cooking something fancypants on a lazy weekend afternoon has lately been as follows: 1) Acquire an ingredient. 2) Look it up in The Flavor Bible. 3) Become inspired (hopefully in a way that doesn’t require another trip to the store) and cook a thing.

I love the Flavor Bible. It doesn’t provide any recipes or technical instruction; instead, it draws on the world’s culinary traditions and the work of modern chefs to provide a catalog of effective flavor combinations. Turn to the entry on cantaloupe and it tells you to try lemon juice, black pepper, port, or curry powder. The entry for lavender refers you to both herbes de Provence and ras el hanout, and offers up caraway seeds as a potential substitute.

Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, the Flavor Bible does not have entries for Japanese knotweed, Oregon grape, or any of the other wild ingredients that often kick off my Step 1. (It does at least have dandelion greens, but it’s fairly obvious to me that you would treat those like collard or mustard greens, so that’s not much help.) When I get a new plant, I take the first wild-ass guess reasonable botanical analog that I can think of.

Last weekend, after picking three grocery bags worth of knotweed shoots, I looked up the bible entry for rhubarb. It told me to pair it with cardamom and orange, so I made a big batch of knotweed jam with cardamom and blood orange zest. Delicious jam success!

Then this morning, I read a post with several ideas riffing on the theme of lemons, instead of rhubarb. Oh man! How obvious is that in retrospect, and how jealous am I that I didn’t think of it first! It makes me wonder how many other excellent analogs and combinations I am missing while I’m grooving away in my little rut of Oregon grape PBJ and nettle-clam-alfredo pizza.

Once you’ve gotten over the novelty of a wild food and incorporated it into your regular harvest, how do you break that routine to explore its potential? I can only wade through the same 3 Internet recipes for dandelion petal bread, sorbet, and jelly so many times – life is short.

This is, of course, why they pay the Herbfarm folks (and other professional chefs) with real cash money. Maybe someone could just mechanically index a bunch of old Herbfarm menus and publish the results as a sort of cut-rate Wild Flavor Bible.

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