Quick Tip 40 - Food Pairings

Quick Tip 40 - Food Pairings

Why Hello There! Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips. I’m your host with the most and Man of Constant Sorrow, Jon O’Guin. As you may have noticed,  Monday’s Catastrophe was metaphysically catastrophic, promising you all delicious beef recipes, and then simply being a guide to trimming roasts. As such, I swore I would provide a recipe here of a side dish I cooked with the beef. And I shall definitely do that, kind of. The side we prepared with the beef was, in the interest of total honesty, the literal directions on the back of the bag. Hence, it wasn’t my PROUDEST moment in culinary innovation. However, breaking it down, it was also something of an emblematic case for flavor matching, which made it still something useful to discuss. SO, Let’s dig into the world of culinary matchmaking!

A Perfect Pair. Pear? Pare?

Now, here’s the irritating thing about food pairings: because of the way we taste things, they’re…well, they’re basically impossible to fully dissect. The two main focuses are taste pairings and texture pairings, but people have based meals around pairings in temperature, color, even just the letters of their names! But first, what is a pairing? Simple: the combination of two foods. Now, in general parlance, “to make an enjoyable whole” is tacked onto the end in implication, but that’s still pretty simple. Bringing two food together and the end result not sucking. Easy.  But what makes them not suck when combined?

The three basic forms of pairing are: bringing things that are alike together, bringing things that are different together, and, much more rarely, “bringing things together either based on research into their composition, or through the manipulation of their composition”. These three camps are called “complementary”, “contrasting” and what I call “scientific” pairings. Now, from those simple classifications, you’ve noticed that we’ve generated 9 different types of pairings, from complementary flavor pairings to scientific color pairings.

The "cheese-flavored jawbreaker" idea was questionable at best.

Complementary pairings are of course the easiest to grasp, especially in flavor. Beef is salty, soy sauce is salty, boom, combo. Rich peanut butter hangs out with chocolate. Bologna on white bread is an example of a complementary texture pairing, as they’re both soft. Again, this is all pretty easy.

Scientific pairings, by comparison, are the most complex. They rely on the analysis of the chemicals in foods for flavor, and in using new techniques and options to generate new textures. These are the combinations most likely to make you do a double take, like “Parmesan Cheese and Dark Chocolate” (Both contain fermentation elements, crystalline bitterness, and ‘meaty’ characteristics.) or “Mango and Pine”. Or they’re making Beef Mousse and so on. There’s typically a lot of attention to detail and precision in these pairings.

Transparent Ravioli sounds rad as hell, though.

Contrasting pairings are less difficult to grasp, but can be tricky to master. They’re very prominent in texture pairings, where we often seek out things like Crème Brulee, contrasting  crisp, hot topping with soft cool crème. (Yes, temperatures can also be paired, but seriously at some juncture, we need to draw a line. Or do we…?) Peanut Butter and Jelly, a basic pairing of sweet acid with rich fat, is a contrasting flavor pairing.

So, now that we have some idea of the basics of pairings, let’s look at the side dish.


Broccoli Brocco-da, La La how the Life Goes On

So, we were having beef steaks. Immediately, we decided to pair it with broccolette, also known as broccolini. Raw, broccolette has a bitter taste ( more than normal broccoli) and a crisp texture. If steamed, it would serve as a contrasting texture to the steak, and something of a contrasting flavor. Our recipe did not call for steaming, however. Oh no, these broccolette were to be roasted!

"Prepare yourselves for the oven, little ones!" Jon cried, before realizing the dread implications of those words.

Of course, roasting it softens the texture, and mellows the flavor. But it would not roast alone. The broccolette was joined by lemon juice, garlic, and parmesan. The garlic is a common companion to both beef and broccoli, his sharp bite serving as a culinary underscore to the others, recasting their bitterness next to his fire. The parmesan brought fat, and salt, and more bitterness, making the broccolette even closer to the beef in terms of taste. The lemon served to make sure the whole operation didn’t go too far, cutting some of the fat, carrying faint hints of grass and herbs, and also serving a useful function of helping to regulate the broccoli’s color and texture (Sulfur compounds love to break down in air, a process lemon inhibits. It’s the same kind of idea as tossing avocadoes or apples in the juice to prevent browning.) Then, however, the meal gets a punch up from the cheat code of culinary luxury.

Ant Larva?

Those, my friends, are Pine Nuts, a go-to Italian topping that’s just the tops. I’ve talked briefly about them before on the site, but a quick re-cap won’t hurt, as well as bringing up some more details. Pine Nuts come from pine trees, in a situation that is both incredibly obvious and mildly surprising. This is because they’re only harvested from about 20 species of Pine Tree, out of 115. They’re notably pricey, due to the fact that harvest them is something of a pain: You have to pick pine cones, dry them, shatter them, dry the shells you get from THAT, and break them AGAIN. The whole process takes about a month. They’re roughly 4-5 times more expensive per pound than Titanium.

And what you get for that cost is…pretty remarkable. Pine nuts are a tiny, soft, rich nut. You can crush them between your fingers with roughly the same amount of force as you’d need for a grape. They taste like a delicate unsweetened peanut butter, creamy and smooth (though every now and again you’ll get one that’s notably piney). I’ve always noticed that they have a sort of absence to their end note: they don’t satisfy, but urge you to more consumption. That consumption can have risks, though. People can be allergic to them, and they can also inflict something called “pine mouth”, where if the company processing them used the wrong chemicals, you can end up with your world tasting bitter for a couple days.

And they’re what make the topping work: garlic, parmesan, lemon and pine nuts, are a mixture that’s basically a perfect Italian topper. Heat, salt, sour/sweet, and fat, all tossed over some bitter veggies? That’s every taste bud, and several different textures. This topping mix works for basically any green veggie you want to try it on.


And that generalization at the end is the ultimate conclusion of the entire food-pairing concept: it’s much simpler than people think. Herve This, a celebrated chef, goes so far as to call the idea of food pairing “a myth”, as there are too many violations and exceptions to really buy into the idea, especially when you cross cultural lines. Beef and Lime sounds weird in Europe, but not anywhere that eats street tacos. Pears and Beef don’t sound like friends, but Korea’s got two different dishes based on the idea. You would be hard-pressed to find two ingredients that DON’T eventually hang out, as long as they invite enough of their friends.

This isn’t to say pairing foods is pointless, oh no. Fresh mango with sprinkled chili powder is much better than straight. Beef and mushrooms are one of the few ways I’ll consistently eat mushrooms. But it’s less about knowing WHO will play together, than figuring out HOW they play together. That’s the real fun.



Broccolette of Italian Luxury


2 pounds broccolette

2 tbsps olive oil

4 cloves minced garlic

¼ cup pine nuts

¼ cup grated parmesan

2 tbsps lemon juice.



1.      Wash your broccolette, trimming any leaves or florets that look weird. Halve the stems, or quarter them if particularly thick. (You’re looking for ‘about the size of a #2 pencil’)

2.      Preheat oven to 400. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss broccolette, olive oil, and lemon juice.

3.      Roast 10 minutes, turning halfway through.  Pull out of the oven, toss with garlic and sprinkle with Parmesan, and roast 5 minutes longer.

4.      While broccolette is roasting, toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium-low heat until browned and fragrant, about 5-6 minutes. Do not leave skillet, as these will burn quite quickly.

5.      Remove broccolette from oven, toss with toasted nuts, let cool for a minute, then serve warm.