Taste: Expanding the Palate This month’s interview with: Priscilla Martel

by Laura on September 27, 2009

in From the Experts

Chef, cookbook author, baking instructor

 

This month, Family Eats asked Priscilla Martel about how we can expand our palates and broaden our experiences with the foods we offer our family.

Family Eats: Would you say American palates are shrinking, or that they are underutilized because of the prevalence of fast food and processed foods has created a palate that is accustomed to mainly sweet, salt, and fat flavors?

Priscilla Martel: Recently, Mark Miller (of Red Sage and Coyote Café) told me that the Incans of Machu Picchu could distinguish between more than 500 varieties of corn.  There were people in that culture who could identify a variety just by its taste and smell.  So within that context, yes, we have sorely reduced our palate.

But when you talk about the palate, you are entering into a complex realm.  First, each individual has a different compliment of taste receptors. (It is a question of the number of receptors as well as other genetic factors.) One person may not find something bitter, while another considers the same thing inedible.  We also can develop a tolerance (or preference) for salt and sugar, and our ability to distinguish, or enjoy, different tastes is based on exposure.

Keep in mind that smell is one of our most powerful senses. Aromas account for as much as 80% of our sense of taste.  We have a powerful smell memory that is directly tied to our emotions.  This means that an unpleasant food experience at a young age can stay with us for decades.

So what can be done?

We can’t underestimate an individual’s emotional prejudice towards certain foods. Therefore, “retraining the palate” is key.  It is a process of constant learning.

For instance, if you want to wean yourself or your kids from mass produced peanut butter and go for something natural or a different product such as almond butter.  Pair it with something naturally sweet like a piece of apple or banana.   The flavor will be less strange to them and may expand their palate horizon.

Because processed foods tend to be highly sweetened, pairing a more natural product with something sweet is a good trick to keep in mind. Serving a strong farmstead cheese with a little honey or preserves might help you try an unfamiliar flavor.

One way restaurateurs introduce clients to new flavors and ingredients is by putting them in a familiar guise.  Let’s take the novelty of a purple potato.  The color may be a turn-off to some but the flavor is identical. Creating a baked stuffed purple potato with the “regular” recognized fixings of sour cream and butter for example makes it approachable.

You can do the same thing with whole grains – using whole wheat or spelt pasta in lasagna or other comfort food.  Or, if your looking to add different greens to your family meals (such as broccoli rabe, kale, beet tops, cultivated dandelion greens, mustard greens), spinach may be more familiar to many people as a place to start expanding their green horizon.  Instead of steamed spinach try sautéing it in olive oil with garlic.  Then add some hot pepper flakes to jazz it up.  Then maybe you can move on to any of the myriad types of greens out there.

Texture is important, too. I recently heard sensory scientist Gail Civille remark that we used to chew our food 20 to 30 times before we could swallow it.  If you think about it, fast food goes down in a few gobbles because processed foods tend to be softer. This is thought provoking because we know that it takes time for our stomach taste receptors to signal our brain that we are full.  So the p ossibility of overeating can be seen tied to the soft pabulum of processed foods.

FE: So how do we add back texture and chew?

PM: I’d say look for familiar foods that have texture – tacos come immediately to mind or even flour tortillas.  Shred some veggies in them in addition to the stewed meat. We also like crunchy foods so hiding a good-for-you vegetable in something crunchy can work too. Try sliced butternut, acorn or Hubbard squash roasted at high heat to create a pleasingly crispy good-for-you vegetable. – It is all about the familiar.

FE: For those readers who have a desire to expand their palate, what would you recommend?

PM: For those seeking to expand their palate, I recommend they start in a category they already like or one with which they are already familiar.   Take yogurt.  Try a natural yogurt plain and add some jam. Next try it with your own fruit and some granola.    You might be able to move on to plain Greek yogurt faster than you think.

The goal of trying new foods is to understand the taste experience.  We need to be articulate and appreciate the differences in the variety of foods. Why not have a simple tasting at home before dinner with family or friends? Parmesan cheese is a perfect place to start with a personal tasting. Buy what you know and then ask a cheese merchant for a recommendation of the best of an import.  Taste them side-by-side and observe how they smell, what they look like – crumbly, creamy texture, moistness etc – and of course how they taste.  Does the flavor linger on the tongue?  Is it sweet, sour, pungent?  You may not conqueror your food fear in one tasting but you are opening your senses to diverse tastes. And you are engaging in a conversation with your friends.

FE: How important is learning about the history of a food, where it comes from, in its importance of enjoying it?

PM: We live in an experiential culture. We love the story and the personality behind something.  (Why else would McDonald’s have Ronald and KFC the Colonel?)  Learning about the people behind our foods enhances our appreciation if only on a human level.  Visiting a farm, even meeting the guy who grew the Courtland apples at the local farmer’s market, enhances the experience of eating the fruit.

FE: Are there any unique and novel flavors or ingredients on the horizon?

PM: Where to start? What is interesting me – the super grains, quinoa, black barley, and amaranth.  These have robust nutty tastes and can be used like rice or in pilafs.  I love chunky soups when the weather cools and save any leftover chicken or meat to make them.  I finish them with greens and season them according to my whim.

The varieties of squash with edible skin in the family of the Delicata are so seasonal and delicious, naturally sweet and high in fiber.

Finally, natural and low glycemic sweeteners such as coconut sugar made from the sap of the coconut pal tree.  It has a great taste.

Priscilla Martel

The most important thing to remember when trying new foods is to make sure it is fun. If it is, I think more people would welcome a chance to expand their palate horizons.

Priscilla Martel honed her cooking skills as chef of Restaurant du Village in Chester, CT, which she opened, with Charles van Over in 1979. Today, she operates All About Food™, which collaborates with food manufacturers and restaurants to create innovative products, menus and marketing programs.  Her expertise in artisan baking, confectionery, sous vide and spa cooking techniques reflects her broad experience working with diverse companies such as Absolute, Borden’s and Smuckers as well as regional restaurants. One consulting assignment developed into her 4-year tenure as President of American Almond Products Company, an ingredient manufacturer for whom she continues to serve as culinary director.

Martel teaches regularly and speaks about almonds and baking to consumer and professional organizations. She is a contributing writer for Flavor and the Menu and co author of the award-winning culinary textbooks On Baking and On Cooking. All About Food™ holds several baking patents, which it administers nationally. 

 

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