Weekend Herald - Canvas
Three’s not a crowd on the dining table
If you’re looking to spark up the conversation at your next dinner party, the conundrum of the Incompatible Food Triangle offers a great round-table debate. It goes like this: can you find three foods where all three do not go together, but every pair of them does go together?
For more than 40 years since it was first posed by American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, this baffling question has been pulled out as a conversation starter all over the globe. Websites have been generated and cook-offs held, to try to find food trios that fulfil the criteria. So far it seems, without success.
The combo of lemon, milk and coffee sounds a likely contender — lemon and espresso coffee work as a partnership, coffee and milk work together (aka a latte), and lemon and milk sort of work if you accept the fact that the milk separates to form cheese. You would think the three would not work together, until someone suggests the heady pleasure of a lemon affogato. And so it’s back to the drawing board.
Putting aside the Incompatible Food Triangle, certainly some foods are happier in the company of others.
Savoury foods need salt. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and their food will taste awful (I accept that a few people can’t tolerate salt in their diet for health reasons but most of us need it and without it food tastes incredibly bland). Acid is another contender in the “can’t cook without it” stakes, whether in the form of lemon juice, verjuice, pomegranate molasses or any of the vast range of vinegars. If you have ever made a casserole or stew and wondered why it tastes rich, but still somehow flat on your palate, try adding a teaspoon of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice. Just like that, the dish comes to life, its flavours clearer and more layered, with a sense of balance.
Umami-rich ingredients also help boost the flavour profile of savoury dishes, whether in the form of a little tomato paste, a spoonful of miso, or a little bacon, cured meat or mushroom to start things off in the pan or a splash of fish sauce or soy sauce or a grating of parmesan cheese to finish a dish.
Fat also makes food taste better. Whether as butter, cream, oil or coconut cream, it carries flavour and gives food a rich mouthfeel, although it’s best used in moderation as it also adds a lot of calories.
When it comes to putting together main courses with side dishes that will complement each other on the plate, there are some matches you can’t really go past. Creamy dishes, such as macaroni cheese, cauliflower cheese and cheese souffle cry out for a green salad with a tangy vinaigrette. Rich, saucy casseroles and braises are most at home partnered with a gentle, unimposing starch that can soak up all the tasty juices — think mashed potato, pappardelle pasta or couscous.
A well-matched side dish is that “musthave accessory” that can make the main course shine. They also offer a great way to extend a meal and some, like a potato gratin or a crispy-topped cauliflower cheese, are successful central dishes in their own right.