Have you ever followed a delicious-looking recipe to the letter and felt a little let down by the finished product? Like, it needs a little…something. Me, too. That’s always disappointing, especially if the recipe took a lot of time, effort or expensive ingredients…or if you have a hungry family staring at you asking when dinner’s going to be ready.

I went to a talk/demonstration last week* by Rebecca Katz, author of several cookbooks including The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen and The Longevity Kitchen. Katz is a longtime chef who has worked with cancer patients. She decided to get her masters degree in nutrition so she could really understand the science behind the healthy foods she was creating for her clients. Her cookbooks are full of recipes that use fresh, whole food ingredients…I want to make most of them!

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Katz said it’s not uncommon for recipes, even those followed precisely, to need a little extra kick start. Why?

  • You may not have followed it as closely as you thought you did.
  • Your ingredients may not be exactly the same as the ingredients used by the recipe developer.

That second point was particularly relevant to one of the dishes Katz made during her demo, a Carrot-Ginger soup. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, not all carrots are created equal. Some are more flavorful than others, some are sweeter than others. That’s why it’s important to taste test, assess and tweak before dishing up your kitchen creation.

And how do you do that? By using FASS: Fat, Acid, Salt and Sweet. Katz recommends using olive oil (fat), lemons (acid), sea salt and grade B maple syrup for the sweet. She keeps those ingredients near her stove.

  • Fat helps carry flavor across the tongue
  • Acid brightens flavors brought out by salt
  • Salt pumps up the taste (but you already knew that one)
  • Sweet adds a depth or roundness, turning two-dimensional taste into 3-D flavor

When a dish needs help, Katz recommends starting with a few pinches of sea salt (her pinches are decent size). If that seems like enough, but something’s still missing, try several drops of lemon juice (maybe 5-6). Then add just a touch of maple syrup, like, maybe a few drops up to 1/8 of a teaspoon. You would think that doesn’t matter, but it really can matter.

Most dishes already have some fat in them (such as the olive oil that veggies are sauteed in), but her books include recipes for some fat-based enhancers, such as the cashew cream that we drizzled on top of our carrot soup.

It’s been a long time since I consciously played with balancing flavors (not since the summer of 2011, when I made Thai chili sauce for my Molecular Gastronomy class). But as my table of RDs doctored our bowl of carrot soup with pinches of salt, squeezes of lemon and drips of maple syrup, tasting after each addition, we noticed the difference. The soup had more zip and the carrot flavor didn’t crowd out the other flavors, which allowed the flavor of the herbs and spices to emerge.

What’s the point of all this? Well, it has specific importance for cancer patients who may have reduced appetite or diminished sense of taste. But really, don’t we all want our food to be as tasty as possible?

* The talk was sponsored by the Greater Seattle Dietetic Association and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.