Some foods go together like a wink and a smile – peanut butter and jelly, Champagne and strawberries, wine and cheese – while others are somewhat more unconventional, even dubious, but just as delicious. You just need an open mind and eager palate.
“Rules are meant to be broken,” said Eric Wallace, executive chef at Pittsburgh’s Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, even when it comes to food and flavor combinations. Coming up with unusual yet tasty food pairings requires a lot of brainstorming, creativity and experimenting.
There’s a long list of ingredients at our fingertips, and possibilities are endless. “There’s no limit to what you can come up with,” Wallace said.
Not everyone is adventurous when it comes to food, but drawing from past experiences and deciding what one likes and dislikes is helpful. Also, it provides a good starting point for trying creative dishes and mixing flavors to bring another dimension to a plate, said Don Winkie, chef at Pittsburgh’s Eighty Acres Kitchen & Bar.
Additionally, a lot of trial and error goes into creating a dish that highlights peculiar tastes. “We make a lot of mistakes,” said Sarah Walsh, owner of Pittsburgh’s Caffe d’Amore. Walsh’s lavender lemonade, one of the most popular drinks on the shop’s menu, was coined out of an initial mistake of making too much of a too weak lavender syrup that she didn’t want to waste.
Pairing beets with chocolate, for instance, might seem unusual at first glance, but it works beautifully in a cake. “It gives an extra bit of complexity to something that’s already amazing,” said Ally Slayden, baker and owner of Pittsburgh’s the Butterwood Bake Consortium. The beets add an earthiness and make the cake dense and moist.
Chocolate and bacon make a wonderful pairing that’s getting more mainstream and showcases the playfulness of sweet and salty.
In terms of frozen treats, cucumber ice cream might sound intimidating, but it’s refreshing and creamy and provides a cleanness without being icy, said Katie Heldstab, co-owner of Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches.
Other odd pairings are dill pickles in ice cream, black sesame ice cream and even ice cream with capers and salmon.
On the savory spectrum, Winkie favors a dish of braised boar with orange juice, orange zest, cumin and oregano to which he also adds onions and raisins for an extra level of spice and sweetness.
He also likes mixing fruit sauces such as mango with seafood and tossing in some chipotle for heat and roasted garlic for smokiness.
Cheese and seafood also can produce wonders. Although the combination might not appeal to some, pairing Parmigiano-Reggiano with shellfish or blue cheese with Dover sole fish can turn out stellar results.
Flavor, texture, spice and balance are important aspects to keep in mind when mixing unusual flavors. “All of it goes into play,” Wallace said. “It’s like a piece of music.”
Ingredients such as olive oil or ricotta cheese also can add texture and complexity. For instance, they can make a cake moist and sturdy.
We eat with our eyes first because the way a dish looks influences if we will try it, Heldstab said, so color is key.
In addition, avoid combining ingredients that are too different or too similar. Turmeric and ricotta cheese would not bring anything to each other, Slayden said. Similarly, pork belly and oysters might be too mushy, said Winkie, but crispy bacon and oysters might be wonderful.
Some combos such as oranges and ketchup just don’t work together. Grapefruit ends up being bitter in ice cream, said Heldstab, while fresh ruby red pomegranate arils turn an ugly brown color when mixed with cream. Also off-limits are anchovies in cake. “There’s a line that you don’t cross,” Slayden added.
It’s best to see items that complement each other. The playfulness of salty and sweet enhances a cake or a drink, while crunchy and chewy ingredients offset the creaminess in ice creams.
In terms of proportions, “there is no true formula,” Wallace said. But it’s paramount to taste, so adjust spices and seasonings as you go along.
Unique flavor combinations allow a cook to learn and grow to be creative and daring. “Food isn’t as intimidating as some people might think it is,” Winkie said. “It can be fun to be surprised by food,” Slayden added.
At the end of the day, food is extremely subjective, Wallace said, and one’s palate is the ultimate judge. “Art is in the eye of the beholder,” he added.
Chocolate beet cake
Makes one 10-inch cake
This dense and gooey cake has a subtle and pleasant hint of beets, and is topped with delicate pears. Adapted from “The Yoga Kitchen: Over 100 Vegetarian Recipes to Energize the Body, Balance the Mind and Make for a Happier You” by Kimberly Parsons, (Quadrille, $24.99, pages)
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
1 1/3 cups cocoa powder
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 vanilla bean pod, seeds scraped out
1 pound cooked beets, pureed in a blender or food processor
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
2 pears, cored and thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform cake pan.
In a large bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Set aside.
In another large bowl, beat sugar and eggs using an electric hand-mixer until well combined. Add vanilla seeds and beat again. Add beet puree and mix well. Add oil and mix until combined.
Gradually, add dry ingredients to wet mix and beat well until smooth.
Pour mixture into pan. Place pear slices around the edges of the cake and bake for 55 to 65 minutes or until the middle has risen but still feels a little gooey. Remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.
When cake has cooled, remove it from pan and serve.
This recipe is an adaptation of the margarita served at the restaurant Masala Library in Mumbai. The spices and anise liquor lend an aromatic twist to the classic version.
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 slice of lime
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 rosemary sprig
2 cardamom pods
1 ounce anise liquor
2 ounces tequila
2 teaspoons caramel syrup
Juice from half a lime, optional
In a small bowl, mix sugar and cinnamon. Rub the rim of a glass with the slice of lime. Dip the rim of the glass in cinnamon and sugar mix.
In a glass, mix star anise, cinnamon, rosemary, cardamom and anise liquor, and allow to infuse for 10 minutes.
Add a couple of ice cubes to the same glass. Pour tequila and caramel into glass.
Strain infused mixture into tequila and caramel mix. Add lime juice, if desired, mix and serve.
These spareribs are intensely flavored showcasing a perfect balance between sweet and savory. They are messy but incredibly tasty. Adapted from “Cooking With Coconut” by Ramin Ganeshram, (Storey Publishing; December 2016; $18.95)
1 cup Chinese rice wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup coconut nectar
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
Freshly ground black pepper, divided
2 racks St. Louis-style spareribs
Salt to taste
Whisk together rice wine, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in a large bowl. Set aside to marinate for 10 minutes.
Add coconut nectar and hoisin sauce, whisking until they are completely dissolved. Add five-spice powder and 1 teaspoon pepper, and whisk to ensure all ingredients are well combined.
Rinse spareribs in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Season generously with salt and pepper, then place in a container that is large enough to hold marinade and ribs in a single layer.
Pour marinade over ribs and cover with plastic wrap. Marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place ribs on a lightly greased broiling tray or sheet pan with sides. Roast for 40 to 50 minutes, basting with marinade 2 or 3 times, or until tender and cooked through.
To serve, allow ribs to cool for 5 minutes and then, using a sharp knife, cut between each rib bone to separate them.