Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg are the authors of eight bestselling books focusing on food and drink, many of which have been winners or finalists for James Beard and/or IACP Cookbook awards. They have been married since 1990, write a monthly wine column for The Washington Post, and blog at BecomingAChef.com. Their most recent book, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs is an incredibly thorough and well-researched reference guide for home and professional cooks alike.
The Flavor Bible is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. How is it designed to be used in the home kitchen? Karen: We set out with a very modest goal: We wanted to create the ultimate cookbook. While The Flavor Bible doesn't contain a single recipe, it offers virtually endless inspiration through suggesting ways to work with a particular ingredient. Essentially, The Flavor Bible is an alphabetical reference of hundreds of ingredients -- from apples to zucchini blossoms -- along with the herbs, spices and other seasonings that will best enhance their flavor. So, with the ease of consulting a thesaurus, you can look up any ingredient, learn or be reminded of what goes with it, and invent a dish on the spot around the combination.
Andrew: As the cook in our family, I find The Flavor Bible plays multiple roles. Number one, it's an idea-starter after I come home with lots of different ingredients from the farmer's market or Kalustyan's (our favorite Manhattan spice store on Lexington Avenue near 28th Street). Number two, it's a memory-jogger when I'm low on creative juices in the kitchen. I've had summer on the brain for so long that I look at salmon and think "corn and tomatoes." But now that it's getting colder, looking up "salmon" in The Flavor Bible will lead me to serving it with lentils with bacon-sherry vinaigrette.
Lastly, it's the best way to save money on food: By mid-week when I'm staring at a refrigerator full of leftovers and I need to throw together lunch quickly, I'll pull out one of our favorite organic soups from D'Agostino and jazz it up with whatever's on hand -- with The Flavor Bible inspiring me to accent butternut squash soup with bacon and diced apple, and tomato soup with my three Tupperware containers of vegetable leftovers, some cannellini beans, and a little grated Parmesan on top.
How did you put these lists together? Karen: For the past eight years, we've been conducting research and compiling a massive database of how America's leading chefs maximize flavor. We've taken notes when dining at their restaurants, in addition to browsing their cookbooks and web sites. We've also looked at their dishes as singled out by restaurant critics, and deconstructed the elements that seemed to make them work so well.
Andrew: As a former professional chef, I've long been a compulsive menu saver. I've got a collection of restaurant menus dating back to the 1980s, and for The Flavor Bible we analyzed those dating since 2000.
What led you to the panel of experts you selected? Karen: A combination of experience -- as we've interviewed many if not most of America's top chefs over the years for our previous books (Becoming a Chef, The Becoming a Chef Journal, Culinary Artistry, Dining Out, Chef's Night Out, The New American Chef, and What to Drink with What You Eat) -- as well as serendipity led us to the chefs we interviewed for The Flavor Bible.
We wanted to interview an entirely different group of chefs than those we'd featured in our 1996 book Culinary Artistry which focused on classic flavor pairings (who included the likes of Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Gray Kunz, and Alice Waters). Some of the chefs featured in The Flavor Bible weren't even on our radar back then -- including chefs Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and Brad Farmerie of Double Crown and Public, as well as pastry chefs Gina DePalma of Babbo, Johnny Iuzzini of Jean Georges, and Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin.
There are several flavor combinations that you designate as "holy grail" pairings -- apples and cinnamon, for example -- that were highly recommended by the greatest number of experts you surveyed. What are some others? Karen: Manchego cheese and quince paste -- add some roasted almonds and a glass of dry sherry, and you've got a perfect pre-dinner nibble. And best of all, there's no cooking involved! Murray's Cheese in Grand Central Station near us sells the first three, and it's a favorite treat around our house.
Andrew: Lamb with rosemary and/or garlic. If you're cooking an entire leg for a crowd, you can stuff it with rosemary and garlic. For an inexpensive dinner for just the two of us, I'll make lamb shoulder chops by adding chopped garlic and rosemary to a little olive oil to make a paste, and rubbing the paste on the chops before cooking them in my grill pan on the stove top. Accompanied by instant polenta and sauteed zucchini, dinner can be ready in just 15 minutes.
Would you recommend for everyone to find some recipes that use these pairings in their arsenal? Do you have any specific recipes you'd suggest? Karen: We're actually suggesting that people learn the basics of flavor dynamics, which we share in Chapters 1 and 2, and flavor pairing, which is the focus of Chapter 3, and to apply them to come up with their own dishes. Let's face it -- after 15 years of the Food Network and increased food television programming across the board, Americans know more about cooking than ever before. Do you really need detailed instructions about how to grill a chicken breast or make an omelet? Probably not. But do you sometimes need inspiration as to what you can add to it this time around to make it even more delicious? Of course. We all do.
Andrew: Build on what you know, and on what your comfort level is. I'd recommend looking at the Flavor Affinities at the end of the ingredient listing you're looking up, and start with what you love or have cooked before.
What were some of the greatest surprise combinations you discovered? Andrew: We loved listening to pastry chef Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin talk about the affinities between chocolate and corn. And while steak au poivre is often done with red wine, Michael Lomonaco of Porter House enhances his own version by making it with bourbon or rye.
Are there any key tips you learned during your research that you'd be willing to share? Karen: Of course -- as the great French chef Fernand Point said, "The duty of a good cuisinier is to transmit to the next generation everything he has learned and experienced."
Andrew: The short answer is to think of all the ways it's possible to add flavor to a dish, and to experiment with more of these techniques. After researching this book, I brine my chickens more often before roasting them, and I reach for my metal roasting rack less frequently in favor of roasting on a bed of herbs, because of the extraordinary aroma and flavor it infuses.
What are some of your favorite dishes from NYC chefs that use the "holy grail" pairings, and what are some that successfully use more unusual or non-traditional combinations? Karen: Andrew: While blue cheese and pears is an exquisite "holy grail" pairing, chef Gabriel Kreuther elevates the combination at The Modern by serving it as part of a salad made with roasted pear, Roquefort cheese, lemon, and olive oil garnished with borage flowers and served with a burnt caramel and pepper sauce. As for cutting-edge combinations, chef Brad Farmerie of Double Crown pushes the affinity of tomato, olive oil and basil into an exceptional salad of heirloom tomatoes with a curry leaf paneer with olive oil and lemon basil. And he pushes chicken, garlic and ginger into twice-cooked chicken with ginger-garlic relish and spinach.
When creating a dish from scratch without a recipe, what should a home cook think about overall and when picking individual ingredients? Karen: It's all about being present: in your senses, in the moment. Be present to the ingredients, and they will tell you how they want to be cooked that day.
Andrew: In the middle of summer, you can take advantage of the weather by grilling pieces of chicken, while in the dead of winter roasting a chicken in the oven will warm your whole home and fill it with the most delicious aromas. And the temperature outdoors will also help you decide whether to shred those carrots raw into a slaw, or to puree them into a soup.
Karen: When scanning the lists of compatible flavors, your cravings and intuition will lead you to combinations you'll find most appealing.
For home cooks who may need to master some basic cooking techniques before starting to experiment with flavors, would you recommend any particular book (or class in NYC) to help them get started? Karen: There are lots and lots of books to teach technique -- just walk into the treasure that is Kitchen Arts & Letters (1435 Lexington Ave. at 94th Street), and ask Nach [Waxman, the owner] or Matt [Startwell, the manager] to steer you toward something for a cook at your particular experience level. However important learning technique is, The Flavor Bible argues that it's even more important to master flavor. If you slightly overcook or undercook an ingredient, it's not the end of the world. But if you combine incompatible flavors, you've got a train wreck on your hands.
Andrew: A really fun way to train your palate is through wine education. You can even go to LocalWineEvents.com and find a free or low-cost wine tasting taking place in Manhattan almost nightly. Knowing what different varietals taste like can help you make better pairings -- as can, by the way, our last book What to Drink with What You Eat, which we see as an indispensable companion guide to The Flavor Bible.
This is the eighth book you two have published together -- any words of wisdom on how to work well with a spouse? Andrew: Appreciate each other's contributions, and make sure that others appreciate them. The Flavor Bible is the first of our books where Karen's name appears first on its cover. With our first book, she generously suggested that we list our names alphabetically -- a tradition that continued through the next six -- even though she's always been the lead conceptualizer and writer of our books. It became clear that it was time to make sure she received credit for that when people turned to me too often assuming I was the "lead" writer. Few know that Karen has a graduate degree from Harvard, while I'm a dyslexic who never finished college.
Karen: Also, find a way to carve out a life together that's separate from your work together. Andrew and I are both avid runners and members of the New York Road Runners Club, so we are able to share that passion away from our computers -- and, by the way, all the running is helpful in counteracting the caloric demands of our research! We also share an interest in the arts, and have expanded each other's horizons by taking each other to art exhibits, concerts or dance performances that we wouldn't have necessarily sought out on our own.
Karen and Andrew will be signing copies of The Flavor Bible at Borders - Kips Bay (Second Avenue at 32nd Street) on Wednesday, November 5th, at 7 pm, and featuring tastes from their favorite Moroccan-inspired restaurant in Manhattan: Casaville on Second Avenue near 35th Street.