Facts of Flavor: A Series

I’m starting an ongoing series of posts I’m going to call “Facts of Flavor”.  I want to dig a little deeper into good culinary techniques and talk about how good technique creates great tasting food, with an emphasis on how we can use good technique to create healthy food, as well as the occasional treat.

Here are some of the topics I plan to cover

  1. How the human body senses taste and flavor, and how the two interact
  2. Just enough organic chemistry technique to understand some of the things that happen as we cook
  3. The roles that different foods play as we cook
  4. The scientific basis of good technique
  5. Whatever else seems to fit

I’m hopeful to come up with some fun experiments you can do to see the difference that technique can make as well.  I’ll be kicking the whole thing off in the next few days by starting to talk about our sense of taste.

I hope you’re having a great holiday season, and that you follow it up with a happy new year! Stay tuned!

Vermouth Steamed Green Beans

In my last post I talked about the ways that dry vermouth can be used in cooking, and said I’d follow up with an example.  This is a fairly simple recipe, which uses the sweetness of the vermouth and shallots to compliment the flavor of the green beans.

Picture of green beans from recipe

Fresh green beans, lightly steamed with dry vermouth

Cooking Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4, 1 cup servings


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoon diced shallot (or substitute 1 teaspoon garlic)
  • 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth

Recommended Equipment:


  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat on the stovetop
  2. Add the shallot and chili flakes.  Saute until the shallot becomes translucent
  3. Add the green beans stir to coat with oil
  4. Allow the green beans to cook for about 5 minutes, sirring once or twice. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to move the shallots, or they may burn
  5. Add the vermouth and cover the pan
  6. Cook for another 5 minutes until the beans have turned light green.
  7. Uncover and cook for another 2 minutes to allow more of the alcohol to evaporate
  8. Serve immediately, or cover and hold over low heat.
Nutrition Facts
Calories 80.52   Calories from Fat 31.5
% Daily Value
Total Fat 3.5 g 5%
   Saturated Fat 0.5 g 3%
   Trans Fat 0 g
   Cholesterol 0 g 0%
Sodium 9 g 0%
Total Carbohydate 11.05 g 0%
   Dietary Fiber 4.025 g 16%
   Sugar 2.275 g
Protein 2.3 g 5%

Food Safety:

Cool below 70° within 2 hours, and below 41° within 4 hours.  Store for up to 7 days under refrigeration (less than 41°).

Need Just a Little White Wine to Cook With?

I’ve been wanting to write a post about dry vermouth for a while.  It’s a regular part of my cooking, and a great tool for adding flavor to foods without adding a lot of calories or salt.  Every time I try to write this post I get sidetracked, wanting to talk about the physiology of taste and the roles of fat, salt, and glutamine in creating the flavors we taste.  I’m getting sidetracked again right now, so I’m gong to start writing a series of posts where I explore these ideas and how to make use of them in cooking.  More to come on that later.

For now, back to dry vermouth. when I was still working as a cook, there was always white wine in the kitchen.  We would use it to deglaze pans, and flavor sauces and risottos.  I always wanted to have wine on hand when I was cooking at home.  The problem was, I didn’t use it up all that fast, and didn’t want to have to drink or waste most of a bottle of wine after I used a cup or so to cook.  The solution came to me when I learned what vermouth was.  Vermouth is wine that has had additional alcohol to it (fortified), and has been flavored (aromatized) with various botanicals. It makes a great substitute for white wine, and it has a much longer shelf life.

You typically find two varieties of vermouth: dry and sweet.  Dry vermouth is made with white wine and is, I think, a great substitute for white wine in cooking.  Sweet vermouth is made with red wine, and typically has added sugar.  I’ve tried cooking with it, and haven’t been happy with the results. Most recipes that call for white wine only need a splash, whereas most red wine recipes call for a good bit of red wine.  This means a lot of added sugar in recipes where you might not really want it.  Since you typically use more red wine when you cook with it there’s less waste, so it makes more sense just to buy a bottle.

My favorite use for dry vermouth is for finishing sautéed  vegetables.  I take green beans or leafy greens and sauté them in in a little oil. when they are mostly cooked I give them a splash of dry vermouth, cover and let them steam.  I prefer my veggies only lightly cooked, and bright green, but you can let them go until the bright green is gone and the vegetables softer.  I’ll put together a recipe for a post later this week.

Personal Note: Food Allergies and Restaurants

When it comes to food, I have a laundry list of issues:

Allergies? Yes!
Intolerance?  You bet!
Oral Allergy Syndrome? Of course, why not?!
Other strange stuff that I don’t know if it’s real or not?  Uh-huh!

My strategy for coping with these issues throughout my life has been a deep interest in food.  I loved cooking and baking when I was a kid, and was always interested in new foods.  I’ve spent the vast majority of my career in food service or closely related fields: I’ve been a cook, a food service manager and clinical dietitian.  I’m a Registered Dietitian.   I’m ServSafe Certified food safety instructor.  I think it’s fair to say I’ve developed some expertise in the area.

When and where I grew up in the Southwestern United States,  Mexican restaurants were a safe haven for me.  None of them had peanuts on the menu.  Mexican restaurants were safer for me than just about any other option. That, combined with the fact that Mexican food is, generally speaking, super tasty (though typically not particularly healthy), is probably the reason it’s my favorite type of food to this day. Back when we lived in the DC area, there weren’t a lot of good options as far as we were concerned.  This wasn’t due to the quality, but to regionality.  It seemed like the vast majority of the Mexican restaurants were not operated by people who were not really that familiar with Mexican cuisine.  A dead giveaway was seeing  pupusas on the menu.  Tasty, but not Mexican.

When my wife came to the Seattle area to scout for us prior to moving,  she noted that there were quite a few more Mexican restaurants here.  I won’t say it was a major factor influencing our move, but it didn’t hurt either.

One day after we moved, I stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant near home.  When I walked in, it smelled amazing! I looked around at what my fellow diners were having and I was excited.  More importantly, I felt “at home”,  and unfortunately I let my guard down.  I ordered a combination plate with an enchilada.  It was delicious.  After a few bites inside of my mouth started tingling.  I waited for the server to come back, and asked if there were peanuts in the enchilada sauce.  He said yes. I explained my situation and that I would need the check.  He replied, “Oh, well you should really ask first”.  I had to suppress the urge to argue.  He was right.  I should have asked.

I should have also had some anti-histamine, and/or an epinephrine auto-injector on hand as well.  Fortunately I caught myself before I ate much, so I wasn’t busy having to serious of a reaction.  I got myself home, gulped down some diphenhydramine, and settled in for the oncoming nap.

Up until moving to the Seattle metropolitan area, I’d taken my safety while dining out mostly for granted.  I still worried about it, but I didn’t really take any precautions.  Now I’m back on the case, communicating with restaurant staff and taking the proper precautions. I’m not sharing my experience in search of sympathy. I hope that it may encourage one of you to get back in the habit of notifying restaurant staff, and carrying supplies in case something goes wrong, or help readers without food allergy have a little better understanding of the challenges people with food allergies face.


Fresh Chickpeas

Fresh Garbanzo Beans

Fresh chickpeas in the the pod and peeled

I was at the Asian Grocery Center in Bellevue, hunting down some Dragon Well tea when I spotted these in the produce section.  I’m familiar with chickpeas, but I’d never seen fresh ones before.  I knew my wife would be tickled by them, so I grabbed  a pound.

They come in fuzzy little pods (pericarps, if you want to get technical) which are not edible.  Opening the pods reveals the crinkly, light-green bean inside.  As you can see in the picture above, they come in a range of sizes.  It made me think about how much the canned and dried chickpeas I buy must be sorted for size, as they all seem almost identical.

They are edible raw, which I tried and am not sure I would recommend.   They taste like chickpeas, but with a bit of sweetness and a strong vegetal flavor.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with them.  I already had some lacinato kale simmering on the stove, so  I waited until the kale was almost done cooking, tossed them in, and re-covered the pan to let them steam for a few minutes, until their green color had brightened a bit.  They were a nice accompaniment to the kale, and the only part of the dish that my daughters would eat without encouragement.

The fresh chickpeas are a nice change of pace.  Peeling enough to make dinner for four or so was a time consuming task. Now that I think about it, I should have delegated this responsibility to one of the kids.   It’s the perfect task for young helpers in the kitchen.

Perhaps with the with the exception of soybeans and favas, I don’t think I’ve seen any beans (where the bean itself is the edible portion), fresh before.  Perhaps that’s because the consumption of some raw legumes can cause lathyrism. Good news: According to Wikipedia, fresh chickpeas do not cause this disease, and so can be eaten raw. I can’t remember where in my nutrition education I learned about the protease inhibitors in some legumes, but hopefully their isn’t much in fresh chickpeas.  The presence of protease inhibitors would reduce the  digestive tract’s ability to breakdown protein, preventing the gut from absorbing this nutrient.  These enzymes are destroyed during the cooking process, which is why we can safely consume cooked beans.


Still Have Some Turkey and Candied Yams in the Fridge?

Turkey Flautas

Two Turkey Flautas, cut in half to show the filling. One is served with enchilada sauce and cheese, the other with cranberry sauce.

My wife and I were looking at the various “Thanksgiving Recipes from the 50 States” articles that were everywhere just before Thanksgiving.  Turkey enchiladas was one recipe that came up for more than a few times, but I wasn’t thrilled by any of the recipes.  One in particular just wasn’t very saucy looking.  Since “covered with tomato and chili sauce” is a necessary condition for a food to be called an enchilada, and since I deeply love enchilada sauce, that was a bit of a sticking point for me. I suggested Mole Poblano might be a nice pairing and we moved on to another topic of discussion

Then a few days after Thanksgiving we were trying to figure out what to make for dinner.  The possibility of turkey enchiladas was proposed, but we didn’t have any corn tortillas.  What we did have was a warehouse store size pack of uncooked flour tortillas.  So I said, “What about candied yam and turkey flautas?”  I was half joking when I said it, but my wife’s enthusiasm for the idea changed my mind from half joking to only 1/4 joking.

Flautas are rolled tacos.  Where I grew up, if it was rolled in a corn tortilla it was called a rolled taco, and if it was rolled in a flour tortilla, it was a flauta. According to the internet, that convention doesn’t hold true everywhere, though.

I don’t have a recipe for this, much less a nutrient analysis, but I can tell you what I did.

  1. Mash the candied yams
  2. Shred the turkey
  3. Spread a few tablespoons of the mashed candied yams across the diameter of the tortilla (ours were 8 inch tortillas, but smaller would work too)
  4. Layer the shredded turkey atop the mashed yams
  5. Roll tightly
  6. Pan fry the taquitos, starting with the end of the roll side down first to prevent the taquito from unrolling

I served them two ways, one covered in enchilada sauce and cheese, and the other topped with homemade cranberry sauce.   My wife loved both. One daughter loved it with cranberry sauce, and the other hates everything except pears and Elmo right now.  I was torn between my passion for enchilada sauce and the cold, hard facts: it was better with cranberry sauce.

We dubbed these flautas a new tradition, and look forward to making more in about 12 months.  For now we still have turkey, but are out of candied yams. I should also point out that I make my candied yams with a bit of chipotle chili powder, which may make them a little more compatible with a mexican food flavor profile