Cooking Class Review: Elements of Flavor

Even though I really wanted to go home and chill after work yesterday, I hopped off light rail early to walk to the Columbia City PCC Natural Markets for a “Elements of Taste” cooking class. As I suspected, I was glad that I did, because the class was awesome, with awesome food and some awesome tips that will improve my cooking. And I will not use the word “awesome” again during this post!

Chef Darin Gagner was our guide in this hands-on class (participation was not required, fyi). His local credentials include the much-loved but now defunct Carmelita and the also defunct Earth & Ocean. He was funny, knowledgeable and super-organized (“This will save your life” he said about mise-en-place and creating a recipe “shorthand” cheat sheet with key instructions when you will be preparing multiple dishes), and I appreciated how he made restaurant-quality food accessible to the home cook, and in fact talked about some of the differences between how he would do something in a restaurant and how he does it in his own home.

He said that one of the biggest challenges for home cooks is understanding how the physiology of taste can empower spontaneous cooking, and we discussed the five flavors (salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami) and how they factored into the evening’s dishes, and we also talked about mouth-feel, including the importance of contrast in a dish (combining warm and cold, smooth and crunchy, raw and cooked). He recommended the book The Flavor Bible, which I admit I bought a few months ago, based on another ardent recommendation, but haven’t had a chance to delve into.

He pointed out that taste and flavor are two different things. “Taste is very boring. Taste is about survival. Flavor is where all the magic happens.” He had us hold our noses and put two jellybeans in our mouth. All anyone could taste is “sweet.” When we unplugged our noses, we could distinguish the citrusy flavors. In other words, flavor is in the nose (no surprise, if you’ve ever noticed that food is less appealing when you have a cold).

Sadly, he said that around age 20, our sense of taste starts to drop and drop fast, but if you breath out through your nose when you eat, you maximize the flavor of the food. “If you go to an Indian restaurant and don’t breath out through your nose, you’re only getting about 30 percent of the flavor.”

The class included all vegetarian dishes (Chef Gagner does teach non-vegetarian classes, too), and after an appetizer of crackers, goats milk brie and fig jam, this is what we enjoyed, in order:

  • Chickpea Tagine with Kale, Olives, Harissa and Pickled Fennel Salad
  • Vegan Maple-Walnut Ice Cream
  • Ricotta Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms, Pine Nut Pesto and Pecorino (photo at top of post)
  • Goat Cheese and Caramelized Onion Flatbread with Balsamic Fig Jam, Walnuts and Arugula

My takeaways from this class:

  • I have not been caramelizing my onions long enough. (“If your caramelized onions take less than an hour…” [finger wag])
  • I need to make my own pizza/flatbread dough.
  • I need to make a “pizza” topped with kimchi and an egg (Chef Gagner says this is the bomb).
  • My botched batch of olive-oil based mayonnaise a few months ago is probably not because my oil was rancid, but because I let the mixture run in the blender for too long, and the oil oxidized!
  • I need to get myself to Fred Meyer’s to buy a Lodge cast iron pizza pan, stat! (Chef Gagner has three!)
  • I need to use my gorgeous dark-red Le Crueset tagine more often.
  • I need to make ricotta cheese (an intention I’ve had since April but have failed to act on).
  • I need to make a big batch of ricotta gnocchi and freeze the extras.
  • I need to incorporate harissa into more recipes.
The class also served as a reminder that a small portion of something really delicious can be totally satisfying if eaten mindfully. We ate what we cooked, but the portions were quite small, but I did not leave feeling like I needed more food because each dish hit ALL of the elements of flavor. It was an enjoyable, memorable, informative evening…even after a long work day. I would highly recommend the class when it repeats (it’s not on the slate for PCC’s fall classes, but I assume will happen again at some point), and I highly recommend Chef Gagner as an instructor. I’m now eyeing his upcoming fall classes (“Mastering the Pan: Saute,” “Soups and Stocks” and “Roasting Poultry and Meat” and deciding how many my budget will allow!).