You know how, when you chew on a piece of chewing gum, it loses its flavour after about 10 minutes? Well, I have got news for you. The chewing gum hasn't lost its flavour. You have. If you take the gum out of your mouth and leave it on one side for about 40 minutes, then eat something else and start chewing the gum again, you'll find that it tastes much as it did when you first started. The fact is that your brain has got bored with tasting the same old flavour, and just ceased to register it. We register the rate of change of flavour more than the flavour itself. This is the reason why, if we eat a plate of food of uniform flavour, we become bored.
It may seem obvious, but we eat with our brain as much as with any other part of our body. Think how memory affects what we eat. Childhood tastes can be positive or negative, depending on, among other things, our associations with them. My father will eat everything except baked beans. He went to boarding school, where he was fed them every day. He has not got fond memories of the school or of baked beans.
Or take colour. You have only to look at that green tomato ketchup launched a couple of months ago. We know what it is, but still we approach it with quite a different attitude from the red version.
Texture is equally important. Often, the texture of a food is intrinsically linked to what we associate it with. Fat, for example, would be more palatable to many who say they can't eat it if it was not considered so bad for you. And who hasn't bitten into a biscuit, anticipating that hard crunch, only to find that it's unappealingly soft? The texture alone means you'll pick up stale notes before you actually taste them.
In fact, we don't actually register the flavour of food in our mouths at all, but with our olfactory bulb, which is situated high up inside our nose, almost behind the eyes. Of course, we also taste with our tongue and the back of our mouth, where we register sweetness, acidity, etc. But the flavour molecules reach the olfactory bulb while we chomp.
If you don't believe me, try squeezing your nostrils together quite tightly, so that your nose is completely blocked. Now eat something (although preferably not bread, as it is relatively bland). While eating, quickly release the grip on your nostrils. The difference can be quite startling.
The recipes this week play around with some of our preconceptions about certain foods, using familiar ingredients in unfamiliar ways. They may be different, but that doesn't stop them from being delicious.
Spice mix for chicken or fish
This recipe is seriously intriguing, as it produces a flavour that would normally make us think not so much of food but of talcum powder. That's because we lend aromas associations that are often more powerful than the aroma itself. In any event, this spice mix is pretty fabulous. I thought that it would be interesting to come up with a mix made from regularly used and eaten ingredients, but which, in combination, would be reminiscent of something cosmetic. After all, spices such as vanilla, cinnamon and clove are often used in aftershaves and perfumes. When the smells of these spices are not associated with food, however, they may be pleasing to us, but they are definitely not hunger stimulators. When they are, as here, they add a whole new dimension to our food experience.
For the spice mix
1 liquorice root
1 vanilla pod
50 fresh mint leaves
Cut the vanilla pod in half and scrape out the seeds. Peel the oranges and limes, then remove the pith from the skin. Place the vanilla pod and seeds, liquorice and fruit peel on a tray and leave to dry in a warm spot (an airing cupboard would be ideal). When they're quite dry, place in an airtight container and keep until needed. When you need the spice mix, take as much of each ingredient as you need and blend to a powder in a food processor.
This mix can be dusted on cooked fish or on chicken just before serving, with the addition of a few drops of lemon juice, salt and pepper. On no account, however, add the mix before cooking, as heat destroys the flavours.
Parsnip cereal with parsnip milk
This is a bit of fun. We make a parsnip purée at The Fat Duck to go with sweetbreads cooked in hay with pollen and cockles, and wanted to concentrate the flavour of the parsnip. So we decided to try cooking them in a Vac-Pac bag with a small amount of milk. Tasting the milk after the parsnips were cooked, I was catapulted back to childhood and the memory of the milk left at the bottom of a bowl of cereal.
So, I thought, why not dry slices of parsnip and serve them with this milk as a form of cereal? You can have this as a pudding or even for breakfast, or just serve the 'cereal' without the milk, as rather sexy crisps for a nibble. Serves six.
For the 'cereal'
2 small parsnips
400ml stock syrup (200g sugar melted in 200ml boiling water)
For the milk
3 small parsnips
Up to 500ml milk
First, make the cereal. Slice the parsnips wafer-thin and immerse in the boiling syrup. Remove from the heat at once, and lift the parsnips on to some greaseproof paper. (Don't throw away the syrup, though - use it instead for poaching fruits, such as last week's recipe for poached pears.)
Leave the parsnips to dry in a warm airing cupboard at around 60C for five to six hours (or at 70C/130F/gas mark 1-2 in the oven for around the same length of time), checking regularly and turning if necessary (ie, if one side of the wafers is not as dry as the other). Once dry and crispy to the touch, remove the parsnips from the cupboard, discard the greaseproof paper, and store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Now make the milk. Peel and quarter the parsnips. Remove the core and chop finely. Place in a sealable plastic freezer bag and cover the parsnips in milk. Use as little milk as possible, so that the flavour is not too diluted. At the same time, make sure that there's as little air as possible in the bag. Put this bag into another sealable plastic bag, and place this into a big pan and cover with water. Cook very, very slowly for around 45 minutes, until the parsnips are tender, then remove from the heat. Pass the contents of the bag through a fine sieve, and chill until ready to use.
These make a great Christmas present. Alternatively, serve them to your guests at the end of dinner, and get them to guess what the jellies are made of.
In fact, the pectin-based gel is more reminiscent of fruit pastilles than of jelly. The tartaric acid in this recipe is required to set the jelly and prevent it from becoming too jam-like. It has an important secondary role, too - along with its colour, tartaric acid gives this jelly a taste of blackcurrant! Makes one tray.
For the beetroot juice
1kg fresh beetroot
For the jellies
1.75 litres beetroot juice
1 tsp pectin (available at most chemists)
450g unrefined caster sugar
90g glucose (available at most chemists)
10g exactly tartaric acid, mixed with just a touch of water
First, make the juice. Peel and chop the beetroot. Half fill a blender bowl with chopped beetroot, and add 60-80ml of water. Blitz until smooth, then pass through a fine sieve. Repeat until you have 1.75 litres of liquid. Pour the juice into a pot, and reduce down to 700ml, and set aside to cool.
Now take an oven tray big enough to hold the juice to a depth of 1cm, and line it with greaseproof paper (the paper must cover the sides, too). Mix together 40g caster sugar and the pectin, and add to the juice, whisking constantly. Now add the rest of the sugar and the glucose.
Cook until the temperature reaches 108C exactly (sorry, you'll also need a kitchen thermometer for this dish, though I promise they're inexpensive and will turn out to be a very useful addition to your batterie de cuisine). If the temperature is lower than this, the jelly won't set; if it's any higher, it will set like a brick. When the mixture reaches 108C, add the tartaric acid, whisking all the while.
Pour the jelly mixture into the pre-lined tray and leave to cool. Once cool and set, cut into lozenge shapes, dust with a little more caster sugar and serve