by Kate Heyhoe
The urge to crunch is what I call a food itch. It just won't go away until you scratch it.
It's often said we eat with our eyes first—meaning, of course, that the visual impact of a dish sets us up our expectations even before the food hits our tongues. From there, the actual "flavor" of a dish is typically conveyed along the lines of hot, bitter, salty, sweet, and most recently, umami. But when we casually describe a dish, we go way beyond these standard flavor terms. From smooth and silky to crisp and crunchy, texture is what gives ingredients their third dimension.
Texture is as responsible for making a dish "taste good" as is garlic, butter, or chocolate, or just seeing a luscious raspberry coulee drizzled around a kiwi-lime tart.
Sometimes we crave soft textures, like the comfort of velvety ice cream or the pleasure of pasta, or gloriously gooey melted cheese. At other times we get a hankering for things that make our teeth, mouth, and tongue explode with all the snap, crackle, and pop of a fireworks show on the Fourth of July. We want crunch—and nothing else will do.
Before 1960, no one gave much thought to the role of texture in food. But then the research and development scientists at food corporations like General Mills started quantifying textures and their sensory impact. McDonald's and other brands now spend billions on ways to improve the texture of their products, including running them through "sensory evaluation labs." and though most of us aren't paid to be on a taste-testing panel, our brains instinctively evaluate every bite we ever take, resulting in instant acceptance or rejection—leading to the prospect of being a one-time sampler, or the goose that laid the golden egg: the repeat customer.
Recently a new trend, molecular gastronomy, has got chefs bopping around their kitchens like kids with chemistry sets, printing up edible paper menus that taste like cake or sushi, churning out bacon and egg ice cream, and foaming up just about any flavor one can imagine. One of their goals is to turn our expectations upside down, to make us experience foods in surprising new ways. And I doubt any of them expect to create long-term repeat customers of some of their creations. In fact, the chefs themselves will likely move on to some other innovative trend before we get a chance to tire of this one.
I once tasted a foie gras foam—looking like a cappuccino in a champagne flute—created by Marcus Samuelson. It sounds horrible, but it was actually delightful. Rich and buttery, it rolled over every inch of the tongue in a way that solid foie gras never could. My preconceived notion was totally destroyed. And though some mad kitchen scientists do push the envelope too far, I admire the chef who manages to smash a diner's preconception in one well-executed bite, slurp, or smell. If that particular experiment, on that one individual, is successful, it has the potential to become a lifelong food memory. Not an easy thing to do.
But back to my own kitchen. I'm a big fan of textures, all types of them, but in a very un-scientific way. Working mostly by instinct, I serve even the simplest meal with contrasting textures, sometimes within the same dish but often just on the same plate. And whenever I've got a dish with textures that are soft or chewy, I absolutely must find some element of crunch to toss in—even if it's just chopped nuts as a garnish or buttery toasted panko breadcrumbs sprinkled on top.
Crunch comes in many dimensions: crisp, brittle, crusty, crumbly, flaky. Crunchiness can be independent and sassy, like popcorn and pretzels. Or, it can marry opposite textures, like soft, creamy, and moist, as in such classic cravings as crème brûlée, fried chicken, a crumb-topped gratin, and cheesy nachos. You could even say there are as many variations of crunch as there are colors of "white."
For some reason, outdoor dining and warm weather activities seem to increase the calling for crunch. So as we segue headfirst into the warm days of the season, I sought out specific recipes designed to satisfy the urge to crunch. And, like scratching a relentless little itch, these tasty, texture-rich remedies may make you feel so good, you'll sigh with every crispy bite.
Copyright © 2006, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created May 2006
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