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I have become interested in learning how to cook better, and how cooking works.

I prepared a dish, a kind-of pie made from tortillas as the base and top, with potato, feta cheese, sauteed soft rings of onion, mushrooms, garlic and spinach in olive oil with pepper as the filling ingredients, and baked until crispy. A pretty simple recipe. A lot of my meals so far seem to be based on this base of onion, mushroom, and garlic.

When eating the dish, I found that certain ingredients on their own were too much, mainly the spinach (bitter) and feta cheese (overwhelming), and that certain combinations of the ingredients were good, potato and feta, or onion and garlic, but when I ate full slices (ie. containing nearly all ingredients) they all faded into each other and lost sharpness and therefore seemed bland

I know without going into the specifics of my preparation of these ingredients, it may be hard to come up with suggestions, and this is a very general question but I am trying to understand the bigger picture of combinations of tastes, and cooking techniques to make food that tastes really good, so I am wanting suggestions of further ingredients, or techniques to refine this base, and add more flavour and quality to my dishes.

I appreciate any input or suggestions.

Thanks

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If I was looking at this 'recipe' I'd say you need some kind of herb to pull it together. Cooked Onions, mushrooms,potato and garlic tend to be fairly subtle in terms of flavour. Spinach and feta are quite variable, young spinach isn't as bitter and feta can be anything from creamy to very salty. I'd suggest some oregano or maybe some rosemary –  David Hayes Aug 24 '11 at 17:39

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

One of the most important things to consider when designing a dish is the balance of tastes in the dish: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Remember that certain tastes can combine with each other to cancel each other out, enhance one another, and sometimes even create new tastes. Here are three rules of thumb that should help:

  1. Sweetness can complement and even suppress bitterness. As an example, think of beer.
  2. Saltiness, in general, enhances the other tastes, and can often be masked by them. Sweetness, for example, can suppress saltiness and, at the same time, saltiness can enhance sweetness. That's why many baked confections contain salt. Also, that's one reason why a classic pairing for salty feta cheese is sweet watermelon.
  3. Sourness/acidity can make fatty foods seem less fatty. That's one reason why fatty meats are often served with vinegar-based sauces.

It is important to think about what each ingredient contributes to the dish in terms of taste, flavor, texture, and color. If two ingredients are serving the same purpose, then chances are you don't need one of them. In your specific case, here is what some of your ingredients contribute in terms of taste:

  • Feta: Salty.
  • Onion: Sweet.
  • Mushrooms: Umami.
  • Spinach: Bitter and slightly sweet.

The other ingredients are mostly just adding flavor and texture, which may not be necessary in your case. Also, keep in mind that the oil, feta, and tortillas (assuming you are using flour tortillas) all contain fat, so you may want to bump-up the sourness a bit. Also, if you found that the spinach was too bitter, you could offset it by reducing the amount and perhaps caramelizing your onions a bit more to add sweetness. You could also add some balsamic vinegar to your onions as they caramelize which will both make them sweeter and also add some acidity.

As a final suggestion, make sure to write everything down! That way, then next time you try this recipe you will know (1) how much of each ingredient you used before, and (2) what ingredients you'd like to alter.

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Great in-depth answer. Exactly what I was wanting. I will try your suggestions next time. Thanks! –  jimioh Aug 22 '11 at 20:31

My guess is that you are using too many bold flavors that are getting confused in your palate when you eat them all at once. I would recommend retrying this (and other) dishes you make with 3 or 4 'flavorful' ingredients and seeing how that changes the end product. Look at traditional dishes from cuisines you like - an example would be a Greek spinach-feta pie. There are really only two bold flavors in that dish - feta and spinach. Another classic example is a basic margherita pizza - three flavors; mozzarella cheese, basil and tomato sauce (which counts as one bold flavor as opposed to each of its component ingredients flavors). This isn't universally true, especially for things like stews that tend to have many flavors that cook down into each other, but for basic, experimental recipes I think it is a helpful rule of thumb.

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That is an interesting point that I may be using too many bold and competing flavours, and a good idea to look at other traditional recipes. I will take a look at a spinach feta pie recipe before I try it again. Thanks. –  jimioh Aug 22 '11 at 20:34

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