Ask Peter: Popular ingredient combinations
Can you tell us about some of the popular ingredient combinations and why they work.
Combinations, of various numbers of ingredients, are what my food is all about really. In fact it’s what most chefs and good cooks do — bringing together a variety of flavours that hopefully work in harmony to produce something greater than the individual.
Some familiar combos would be salt and pepper, tomato and basil, chilli and chocolate, bread and butter, lemon and fish, or cheese and crackers. None of these duos would surprise people. But actually, I have to say salt and pepper is the odd one out for me as they don’t really go together particularly well.
Salt is all about heightening the taste buds and making foods taste that little bit better. Pepper really only works in my opinion if the pepper is black, freshly ground and slightly coarse. Combine that with thinly sliced tomatoes and salt and serve it on buttered bread and the whole far outshines the individuals. But put salt and pepper on a salad and sometimes I’d rather do without the pepper — and instead have some mustard in my dressing.
That aside, tomato and basil simply just work. The acidity and sweetness of tomato combined with the anise tones of basil are a match made in heaven. Vinegar on fries is another, but that’s more about the acidity of the vinegar cutting through the fatty richness of the chips — just like a squeeze of lemon works well with battered fish.
Roast pork and apple — what a perfect combo — as the sharpness of the apple, usually served as a sauce or roasted, works well to temper the richness of the pork.
Chilli and chocolate have become quite a common combo in recent years because the chilli wakes up our tongue’s sensors and seems to enrich the chocolate. Salt mixed with caramel does a very similar thing, and when I add miso paste to my mashed kumara is elevates them on to a much higher plain.
Who remembers peppered pineapple? Another example of how just one ingredient can make a huge difference, transforming a sweet fruit into something more adult and quite funky — bring it back I say!
A lot has been said about how foods from the same region will always innately work together. This is something I find slightly absurd because in many ways ingredients are not what they always seem — at least not on their passports.
Someone once told me the reason eggplant and polenta go so well together is that they both originate in Italy. The reality is that the former is from the Indian subcontinent and the latter from the New World, as Northern and Central America were once called. In fact it was grown in China well before the Italians got their hands on it. So you might imagine that eggplant is better served with cumin and soy sauce — and in fact it can be. But grill it and lay on a slice of grilled polenta, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and it doesn’t matter where it originated — just focus on what accompaniments go well with it. It’s very versatile.
Recent combinations are generally now with us because we can access a whole realm of ingredients that we simply couldn’t access previously due to quarantine border controls, an inability to transport (before refrigerated containers and planes) and other reasons. Sumac and tomatoes are a brilliant combo – especially if you peel the tomatoes and slice 3⁄4 cm thick and toss with salt and olive oil — and use lots of sumac. Lemongrass and prawns, wok-fried in sesame oil, are delicious. Kale and apple — what better juice to start your day,? Or carrot and ginger. And when it comes to our love of salads, beetroot and goat;s cheese would surely be one of the most popular pairings of recent years.
For some though, a popular combo just won’t work. I know for one that much as I’ve tried to pair brussels sprouts with most things to disguise their flavour — I haven’t yet found the perfect match, although we recently made a brussels sprout kimchi and it was the fermenting and the chilli that finally managed to disguise these strange veges.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.