When you get right down to it, most dishes are essentially fine just the way they are. You can heighten flavors by dabbling with the seasonings--a touch of salt here, a pat of butter there--but those changes are more tune-ups than overhauls.
But sometimes what seems like a minor change can make a major difference in a dish. Once I made a very simple soup of Swiss chard. It was OK by itself but definitely needed something more, so I ladled some into two bowls, added grated cheese to one and a dollop of good olive oil to the other.
The grated cheese tweaked the soup, making it better but not really changing its nature. It was still not much more than pleasant. The olive oil, on the other hand, worked changes bordering on alchemy, transforming that nice workaday bowl of soup into something with elegance and complexity.
Tasting the two side by side, it was difficult to believe they were basically the same recipe. Thinking about it now, I can understand how the deep, herbal green-ness of the chard was the perfect foil for the same qualities in the young olive oil. And I've stuck that away in my "next time" file, in case the same situation comes up again. But at the time it was nothing more than a stroke of luck.
Of course, there are people who can plan this kind of magic. I remember cooking a special wine-tasting lunch with a great local chef. When it was almost time to serve the main course, he sampled a glass of the appropriate wine and a bit of the sauce. He grimaced, called a cook over, had him fill a fine mesh sieve with raw, whole peeled garlic and poured the sauce through. He tasted it again and repeated the operation before giving his OK.
I got a spoonful of each version of the sauce. After the first pass, the change seemed almost microscopic. But after the second pass through the garlic, the sauce seemed to bloom in my mouth. It didn't taste like garlic, it tasted like . . . something else, something you couldn't put your finger on.
I could only shake my head. That infinitesimal bit of flavor shading made such a striking difference.
The average home cook, on the other hand, has to be satisfied with painting in rather bolder colors. Black and white, for instance.
What brings all this to mind was something I fixed the other day. I had my mouth set for a really good, strong coffee ice. What I had in mind was something like a straight shot of espresso--really dark and really potent, with just a touch of sweetness.
So I brewed up a good, strong pot of coffee (1 cup freshly ground Graffeo dark-roast to 4 cups water) and added it to an almost equal amount of 50% sugar syrup (2 cups water, 2 cups sugar, boiled until clear and chilled--I try to have some on hand through the summer for making ices and sweetening drinks). Then I froze the mixture in an ice cream machine.
After an hour of ripening, I tasted the ice. It was mildly sweet, smooth in texture and so powerfully coffee-flavored it tasted almost gritty. In short, it was almost exactly what I'd aimed for. And it was almost inedible.
I had intended to serve it with just a tablespoon or two of whipped cream. More cream, I thought, would cover up some of the grittiness. Again, I was not prepared for the way this simple change transformed the dish. The sweet, bland richness of the whipped cream was the perfect counterpart to the powerful, dark, almost dusty flavor of the coffee ice.
The trick is to look to the dish for hints. Sometimes it's flavors that mesh, as when that bit of olive oil complemented the chard. In other cases, it's a contrast that's necessary--the way the creaminess offsets the earthy coffee flavor in this parfait.
But the only way to pull off either one is to pay attention to what you're cooking--and maybe get a little lucky.
The texture of this ice is fairly smooth. You could make it more crystalline by using less sugar, but then the flavors would be out of balance.
1 cup finely ground dark-roast coffee beans
1 stick cinnamon
1 cup whipping cream
Make strong coffee from beans and 4 cups boiling water. Strain and set aside.
In medium saucepan bring 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar to boil with cinnamon. Boil 3 minutes until syrup is clear. Remove cinnamon stick. Combine sugar syrup and coffee and chill in refrigerator until cold.
Freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Ice should have fairly coarse crystals and be light in texture.
In medium bowl whip cream until stiff peaks form. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and beat well to incorporate.
Divide ice among 8 chilled wine glasses. Top each with 1/4 cup whipped cream. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about:
339 calories; 16 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 59 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0 fiber.
Napkins in espresso parfait photo are from Bristol Farms Cook 'N' Things, South Pasadena.