Q Seasoning has me stumped. I follow recipes like a slave and hate it. My dream is improvising, but my seasoning combinations are lousy. What's the secret that cooks know and I don't?
A My first instinct is to say, "Trust yourself." But instincts sometimes need a nudge. Two techniques will give you the proverbial secret handshake: When unfamiliar with flavors, taste them; and take ideas from classic seasoning combinations you can find in good ethnic recipes.
Tasting: Take a little of each on your tongue. You'll discover, for instance, that sweet-tasting tarragon and sweet-tasting dill each have different kinds of sweetness and don't like being teamed. But team tarragon or dill with anything in the onion family, and/or with black pepper, and/or mustard, and/or cream and the combos sing. This is how you'll know firsthand why tomatoes, garlic and basil are the goof-proof trio of Italy.
Classic seasoning combinations: Check ethnic cookbooks for traditional seasoning blends. For instance, in France, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and possibly savory and leek make the "bouquet garni" used in soups, stews and broth.
In Southeast Asian cuisines one repeated trio is chile, ginger and garlic; a popular quartet is lime, shallot, sugar and fish sauce. In Mexico there are chiles, of course, but often cumin, black pepper and cinnamon or clove come together. Morocco uses sweet (and sometimes hot) paprika, cumin, fresh coriander and dried coriander seed, parsley and cinnamon. In China, it's ginger and green onions, and soy sauce with rice wine. Thumb through cookbooks and you'll see literally a world of seasonings you can toy with.
Put the tasting theory to work with this dish. Take a little of the sage and rosemary leaves on your tongue. Taste. They work. Then add a piece of lemon zest and a bit of clove. They still work because acids are like exclamation points, they emphasize and heighten flavors.
Add a little olive oil and rub that same combination over anything you want to grill or roast. Add any member of the onion family and it will fly too. Add thyme or basil and the seasonings hold together nicely. Wine will open up flavors even more, as will a few drops of Asian fish sauce, or some tomato. This is how you begin improvising on your own.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table" radio show, and is the co-author of "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper." Send questions to email@example.com.