Seasonality—eating the best at its peak—and seasoning—the art of choosing and combining flavors to complement food—are vital for fighting off the food lover’s worst enemy: not calories but boredom. Eat the same thing in the same way time and again, and you’ll need more just to achieve the same pleasure. (Think of it as “taste tolerance.”) Have just one taste experience as your dinner (the big bowl of pasta, a big piece of meat), and you are bound to eat too much, as you seek satisfaction from volume instead of the interplay of flavor and texture that comes from a well thought out meal.
Planning with all five senses
Playing with seasonality and seasoning is something most French women are very proficient at. Many must also balance career and family. So it’s not that they have so much more time than other women to dream up new creations every week. They just have a few more tricks up their sleeves.
Just as they have an uncanny knack for using the same scarf to create a different effect by draping it over the head, neck, shoulders or waist, in the kitchen, they master a few basic preparations, and leave the rest to improvisation, the art of tweaking an old stand-by into seeming different. They do it by slightly altering the preparation or seasoning, by turning what is usually an entrée into an appetizer, or by transforming lunch left-overs into something rather different for several later meals.
It’s all about manipulating how the five senses are meeting what is put before them. And it can be as simple as choosing the more unusual yellow tomato over the standard red varieties. (Visual variety, color and presentation, are underestimated factors in food pleasure.) But you must think in terms of all the senses when planning meals. They are the reason why freshness, quality and other sensations dictate how we feel about our food.
One meal size doesn’t fit all
How you serve a dish matters greatly. Some things offer enough sensory stimulation to stand virtually on their own, at least as the day’s lesser meal; these need only some little accompaniments, a bit of bread, say. Others are only interesting enough to be starters, whetting the appetite rather than answering it decisively.
It matters whether you are serving the day’s main meal. Again, in France, as in most of Europe, that’s lunch. If you are having a full lunch with wine (which in France is sometimes employer-subsidized via restaurant vouchers—ah, Vive la France!), consider soups, our most versatile type of food. You might have a cup-size serving (nowadays more often served in a small well on a dinner plate) as the appetizer or between appetizer and an entrée.
If you’re planning a big lunch, you might have a bowl of soup as the main part of dinner. This can be served with some bread and a bit of cheese. If dinner is the big meal, do soup or salad for lunch. Whether we eat the meal of the day as lunch or dinner, the other meal is always a more modest affair. Keep this rule of thumb in mind, and your five senses in use, and soon you’ll be improvising your way to a repertoire of amazing meals.