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Elements of Flavor: a conversation with Jorel Pierce

Get Euclid Hall Chef de Cuisine, Jorel Pierce, talking about food and you’ll quickly see why he has been described as ‘innovative.’ A simple question about how he creates unique pairings (featured at events like the annual “Midnight Breakfast”) evolved into a fast-paced, fascinating conversation about the elements of flavor.

Pierce grabbed his legal pad and made a list of the tastes with which everyone is familiar: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, salty, umami. This, he explained is absolutely not the way he thinks about food. These tastes are constants. Cavier, Pierce explained, will never be sweet, sour, spicy, or bitter. In and of itself, it’s only ever going to be salty and umami.

When you regard food in this manner, your variables become temperature, texture, and time. That’s where the magic really happens in cooking. You add heat to sweet and it gets sweeter. You decrease the temperature of something sour and you lessen the intensity.

“Let’s not write hard and fast rules about food. Let’s think about how food affects our mouth.”

Conventional rules dictate that a classic beer and cheese pairing is brown ale with a nutty, aged cheese. Forget that. Pierce asked me to think of Old Speckled Hen. It’s a malty, brown, English style ale. What really sets it apart from other brown ales, for Pierce, is that it is creamier than other beers of the same style. Now, think of a food that is very light, airy almost, and crispy. Phyllo. Pierce excitedly explained that if you pair phyllo with Old Speckled Hen, the beer suddenly becomes as heavy and rich as whipping cream when contrasted with the texture of the pastry. That, he says, is much more interesting than pairing a nutty cheese with a nutty ale.

When it comes to pairings, this concept of complement through contrast succeeds. The food and the drink together become something greater than just the components. But when using alcohol in cooking, you have to strive for unification and balance. I mentioned one of my favorite dishes on the menu at Euclid Hall: Steamed PEI Mussels. Here, they are prepared using a strong beer rather than the conventional crisp, white wine.

Creating this dish, Pierce explained, was about finding a way to use a strong beer without overwhelming the inherent sweetness of the mussels. This task required experimentation. First, cutting the beer with stock then adjusting the ratios. They had to consider the difference of flavor when adding the secondary ingredients (garlic and shallots) at different points in the process. Finally, there was the task of finding the right herbs to complement the balanced flavors of the broth and the mussels. He painted a picture of a dozen small dishes, each with a different herb, and pinching off a piece of this and a piece of that until they found the combination that worked with the existing flavors. Boy oh boy, does it work. This dish is simple but nuanced and I’m hard pressed to find mussels that interest me more than these.

Euclid Hall’s Steamed PEI Mussels

Recipe shared with permission

12 oz. mussels
2 oz. New Belgium Trippel
2 oz. vegetable stock
½ teaspoon garlic
1 Tablespoon shallots
1 Tablespoon basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1.5 Tablespoon butter
Salt & pepper (to taste)

Put ½ T. canola oil in a hot pan. Add mussels. Sweat garlic and shallot until they begin to turn translucent. Add beer, stock, and butter. Cover and cook over high heat 2-3 minutes. Once mussels are barely opened add herbs, salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread for soaking up broth.

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