by Mariana Rufin
Sweet and salty, sweet and sour, savory and spicy; combining ingredients to result in a harmonious balance of flavor can be as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Yet, knowing how and when to pair different ingredients together doesn’t have to require a formal culinary education. Here are some of the best -and most unusual- flavor combinations to try on any occasion.
Vanilla Ice Cream with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Vanilla ice cream has the reputation among some to be the plainest or most lackluster flavor of ice cream, but rest assured they have never enjoyed ice cream like this. The practice of topping ice cream with olive oil and sea salt originated in Italy, where it is referred to as ‘Gelato con Olio e Sale.’ While gelato and ice cream are not exactly the same, a scoop of good quality vanilla ice cream will do just fine. At the supermarket, I recommend seeking out Haagen-Dazs or Talenti, or alternatively, making your own no-churn ice cream by simply combining whipped heavy cream, condensed milk, and a teaspoon of vanilla, and letting the mixture set overnight in the freezer. Adding just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil provides a slightly grassy and savory flavor, without an overpoweringly olive taste. Finish with sea salt to accentuate the savory notes from the olive oil, and draw out the ice cream’s sweetness as well- much like adding sea salt to caramel.
Chocolate and Chilis
The combination of chocolate with chili peppers may not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with mole sauce. This savory Mexican sauce, which incorporates different types of dried chilis with dark chocolate, is often served over stewed meats, such as chicken. Other chili-based sweet chocolate sauces can be served warm over stone fruits, or enjoyed with churros. Make a simple chocolate sauce by simmering heavy cream until just bubbling, then pouring the cream over chocolate in a heat safe bowl. Let this mixture sit for approximately five minutes without stirring, then whisk in a tablespoon of butter, along with a pinch of salt and any seasonings you desire (cayenne pepper and cinnamon are recommended). Additionally, chocolate bars flavored with chili pepper can also be found at many specialty grocers. This flavor combination lends itself well to a variety of desserts, such as a chocolate soufflé or a chocolate cake.
Cranberries with White Chocolate
For the perfect balance of tart and sweet, cranberries with white chocolate is an undeniable match. Cranberries are nearly unpalatable without copious amounts of sugar, so ultra-sweet white chocolate provides the sweetness necessary to enjoy the fruit without overpowering its natural flavors. Raisins may be an unpopular and disputed ingredient for cookies, but cranberry white chocolate chip cookies are guaranteed to please. If baking cookies seems like too much effort, a simple trail mix with dried cranberries, granola, and white chocolate chips takes minutes to assemble. If baking cookies isn’t enough effort, try your hand at making cranberry-orange scones with a white chocolate drizzle (adding dried cranberries and orange zest to a boxed scone mix works too).
Red Meat and Coffee
Most people are familiar with pairing red wine and red meat, however coffee and red meat is a combination just as deserving of attention. Much like red wine, coffee is extremely acidic, which makes coffee grounds a prime ingredient for cooking beef, lamb, and other red meats. Coffee grounds can be used to create an excellent dry rub that is for grilling and baking, and coffee and red wine can be combined for an acidic, ultra-savory marinade. This method of cooking could also be applied to non-meat products that have a similar taste profile: mushrooms, plant based ground beef, and hearty vegetables like eggplants can have a remarkably “meaty” taste by seasoning according to this method. To make a simple espresso dry rub, combine almost equal parts dark brown sugar and ground espresso beans, and add the seasonings of your choice. When in use, pack it tightly onto whatever is being prepared, making sure the seasoning covers every inch. Vegans could even use this method of cooking for preparing jackfruit “barbeque.” For Trader Joe’s aficionados, keep your eyes peeled for their “Cold Brew Coffee BBQ Sauce.”
Pork and Sugar
If you’ve ever drizzled maple syrup atop french toast or pancakes with bacon, then it seems obvious that pork combines perfectly with a sweet dish. However, in no way is this combination limited to maple syrup: honey, brown sugar, cane sugar, rock sugar, etc. all make excellent pairings. Brining and seasoning meat with sugar promotes browning, and when it comes to pork especially, it can add much needed moisture (who wants dry pork chops?). In a Chinese recipe for braised pork belly, the meat is cooked with rock sugar, resulting in pork that is perfectly tender and crispy, without compromising the layer of fat which makes pork belly so flavorful. Yet, the reasons behind this combination are not all related to food science. Take, for example, the Monte Cristo: a ham and cheese french toast sandwich, which is dipped in berry jam before each bite, or even dusted with powdered sugar. Although contextually different, this sandwich is celebrated for the same reasons that we enjoy maple syrup with bacon, or a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich in a donut.
Strawberries and Balsamic
Strawberries and balsamic vinegar is an unlikely pairing that can be used in sweet and savory dishes alike. The tartness and acidity of both the vinegar and the strawberries, alongside the contrast between the sweet and salty, brings complexity to a simple salad, or even works as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, waffles, and toast. To enjoy this treat, simply combine a serving of strawberries with a teaspoon, or a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and set aside for thirty minutes before use to macerate the berries- a fancy way of saying “soften.” In desserts, strawberries in balsamic vinegar could be used in a streusel, or for a unique twist on a traditional strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Japanese miso paste is an ingredient that many people may only be familiar with in the context of the miso soup served to them at restaurants. Miso, or fermented soybean paste, has a potently savory and salty flavor, sometimes referred to as ‘umami.’ However, it is an incredibly versatile ingredient that is also used to make sauces and marinades in Japanese cuisine, and a personal favorite of mine: combined with softened butter to create a paste that is delicious on bread, fish, or vegetables. Nevertheless, if you do manage to get your hands on this ingredient at an international supermarket or specialty grocery store, you would be remiss in thinking that miso paste is limited to savory uses. White miso paste is an unlikely ingredient that adds an inimitable depth and nuance to desserts. For those who are seeking to experiment with their dessert creations, here are some easy ways to incorporate miso: whisk a few tablespoons into a caramel sauce and pour over bread pudding or ice cream, or incorporate a tablespoon of miso paste into the filling for an apple pie. For no fuss miso-chocolate chip cookies, add a tablespoon or two of miso paste when creaming together butter and sugar.