ONE OF the most tortuous food experiences possible is to be invited to a meal by one of those wait-till-you-taste-my . . . cooks only to be subjected to overdone pot roast seasoned with garlic powder, instant minced onions and half a jar of liquid smoke.
You can cook a little without knowing the basic techniques as long as you can follow a good recipe, but you'll never be a good cook if you can't taste.
Those funny little ripples on your tongue lie dormant waiting for their education -- the exercises that build their ability to tingle and curl according to the foods they're subjected to.
People aren't born with good palates, a tongue that can distinguish exciting from boring flavors, any more than they're born with an ear for music that allows them to distinguish between Beethoven's Fifth done by a symphony orchestra and that done by the local high school band.
Taste-blind is how food essayist M.F.K. Fisher refers to people either deformed and unable to taste, too stupid or just uneducated to the differentiations of flavor.
"He [the taste-blind] eats apple pie, good or bad, because he has always eaten it. Then one day he sees a man turn his back on the cardboard crust and sodden half-cooked fruit and eat instead some crisp crackers and with his cheese, a crisp apple peeled and sliced ruminatively after the crackers and the yellow cheese. The man looks as if he knew something pleasant, a secret from the taste-blind.
"I believe I'll try that," says the taste-blind man. "It is -- yes, it is good. I wonder . . ." And the man who was taste-blind begins to think about eating. Perhaps he talks a little or reads.
"All he really need do is experiment."
Enter Barbara Kafka, magazine editor (she was food director for Cooking, the Cuisinart magazine), restaurant consultant and occasional cooking instructor.
Her recent course in developing taste, given in California with James Beard, was given rave reviews. For a week Kafka and Beard had the students, most of them food professionals, sampling 20 different vinegars; discerning the effect of cutting a garlic clove compared to its impact when left whole, and otherwise cooking, sniffing and nibbling constantly.
Although she gathered students from around the country for palate-developing exercises, she suggested that the same sort of things can be done in the privacy of your kitchen.
"Not everyone wants to acquire taste. You have to work at it, although you may, by simple exposure to a good variety of foods, develop it."
Taste, according to Kafka, is necessary to serious cooking. You won't understand the inner meaning of a recipe and be able to improvise on it until you understand taste.
You can't make value judgments about food without a breadth of experience to back it up, she said. "If I don't like Rembrandt and I'm beginning to look at paintings, there would have to be a kind of foolishness inherent in saying Rembrandt is lousy. You could say, 'I don't appreciate or like Rembrandt.'
"To ignore the perceptual taste of a million people is vainglorious. It's the same with food. You have to be open."
Even those who don't cook but enjoy a good meal should understand taste so they can appreciate what they're eating.
The first thing Kafka suggested is to pinpoint the shortcomings of your palate. Don't go in for abstract exercises at first, but concentrate on those foods you use. Ask yourself what you really like to eat.
Take for example, a person whose repertoire of seasonings in cooking is limited to salt, pepper and garlic powder, but who is interested in expanding the possibilities.
"Compare the taste of fresh crushed garlic against powdered garlic. If you're used to making a vinaigrette dressing with garlic powder make the exact same dressing with a crushed garlic clove. Notice the difference in taste.
"Then vary the salt. If you're used to iodized salt on your vegetables, substitute an equal amount of sea salt for a change. You may find the food tastes less salty. There will be a difference you will be aware of. I could give a whole class on salt," said Kafka.
People limited to salt and pepper probably don't own a peppermill, either. Kafka recommended buying one and using freshly ground black pepper in place of the pre-ground type.
After you've tasted freshly gound black pepper you can buy several varieties of peppercorns and experiment.
If you really want to get technical about this -- perhaps to a degree that most people find irrelevant -- Kafka recommended making a light infusion of various peppers in water, steeping the peppercorns in boiling water as you would tea. Then taste the various peppers.
Next she suggested tests to show how cooking affects taste. Take a dish you're cooking, divide in two and add the same herbs and spices to each portion. To one dish add the seasonings as you begin cooking. Add the seasonings to the other toward the end of the cooking time.
"Herbs and spices don't release their flavor until they're subjected to heat. People who sprinkle paprika on deviled eggs are wasting it. All they'll get is a floury taste unless it's cooked in food."
If you're cooking with lemons, notice the obvious taste difference between fresh lemons and bottled lemon juice, and notice the difference in lemons from different parts of the country. Make a lemon chiffon pie with different varieties of lemon and taste.
You can do what Kafka's California class did with garlic. Take some chicken stock, divide in two and simmer an equal amount of garlic cloves in each. In half the garlic is left whole, in the other it's sliced.
"The two stocks were unrecognizably different," said Kafka.
You may find these experiments more fun and more economical when done with a group. You can go out and buy 10 different vinegars and experiment using a different one in 10 vinaigrette dressings. Then sample the salads.
A mustard tasting with cheeses or pates is as entertaining as it is instructive.
Even if you're not interested in marathon cooking as an education, there are things you can do.
"Order the same dish in different restaurants. Not mechanically, however. Not just to say, 'that's what I like,' but to taste differences. If there's no difference in a dish made by two different restaurants, there's a problem with the restaurant. Chefs should even have individual styles when it comes to cooking carrots."
Kafka cautioned that unless you're attempting a career as a food technician there's no reason to be able to make subtle distinctions between various canned fruit cocktails, or other such esoteric things: "As long as you can tell the difference when fresh ginger is added to one."
As part of the class' introduction to vinegars, Kafka and Beard created a number of recipes, including those given below using various vinegars as a recipe ingredient. COLD CHINESE NOODLE SALAD (4 servings) 1 pound fresh or frozen Chinese egg noodles 5 large black Chinese mushrooms, soaked 3 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil 3 1/2 tablespoons black soy sauce 2 1/2 tablespoons black Chinese vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar 3/4 tablespoons salt 1/2 to 1 tablespoon hot pepper oil 4 heaping tablespoons chopped scallions, green and white parts 2 tablespoons packed, sliced coriander leaves
Have noodles at room temperature. Gently pull to separate long strands. Bring a generous amount of unsalted water to full boil over high heat. Add noodles and gently separate them with chopsticks or wooden spoons as they cook. Cook until firm, 4 to 5 minutes; do not overcook. Drain immediately in colander. Chill thoroughly under cold running water. Place in large bowl.
Drain mushrooms, squeeze dry, remove stems and cut into thin slices.
Combine sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper oil. Pour over noodles. Mix well with your hands. Add scallions and coriander and mix again. Adjust seasonings to taste. Remember that noodles will grow in flavor as they sit. Chill if desired. CHICKEN WITH VINEGAR SAUCE (4 servings) 3 pounds chicken, cut in serving pieces 2 cups chicken stock 6 tablespoons butter 15 large cloves garlic, unpeeled 2/3 cup raspberry vinegar 2 tablespoons tomato coulis (a coarse tomato sauce) or 1 tablespoon tomato paste 2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped Bouquet garni (1 teaspoon thyme leaves, 1 bay leaf and parsley) 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt Freshly ground pepper
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy skillet large enough to hold all the chicken parts without overlapping. Arrange them in the pan, skin-side down, and cook uncovered over medium heat for 5 minutes on each side or until nicely browned.
Scatter the garlic around the chicken and cook, covered, for 15 minutes over medium to low heat.
Holding the lid over the skillet to prevent chicken from falling out, pour off all the fat and pan juices into a bowl. Then skim off fat, reserving juices that accumulate at bottom of bowl.
Leaving chicken in skillet, deglaze the skillet with the vinegar. Boil vinegar until nearly evaporated, then add reserved pan juices. Stir in tomato coulis and add the chopped fresh tomatoes and bouquet garni.
Re-cover the skillet and simmer the chicken for another 10 minutes. Then remove chicken and cover to keep warm.
Add 2 cups chicken stock to skillet and boil down until there is just enough sauce left to coat the chicken. Season with salt and pepper. Over high heat, whisk in remaining butter, a tablespoon at a time. The butter should create a thick liaison. Then push the sauce through a coarse sieve, pressing down hard on the tomato pulp and garlic to release their juices. To serve arrange chicken on hot serving platter. Top with sauce. OLD-FASHIONED VINEGAR PIE 3 egg yolks, beaten 1 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 3/4 cups boiling water 5 or 6 tablespoons vinegar 1/4 cup cornstarch 1/4 cup cold water 1 baked 8 or 9-inch pie shell Meringue topping (below)
Combine egg yolks, sugar and salt in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place over medium-low heat, stirring, and slowly add boiling water and vinegar. Stir constantly for a minute and add cornstarch mixed with cold water. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until mixture is thick and smooth (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool a little. Meanwhile make meringue.
Pour pie filling into shell and cover with meringue, edge to edge. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until light golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Meringue 4 egg whites at room temperature 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/4 teaspoon salt 6 tablespoons sugar Place whites in bowl with cream of tartar and salt and beat until frothy. Add sugar slowly by spoonful and beat until very stiff.