Entrepreneur Trains Taste Buds in Identifying Herbs, Spices
Kathleen McCann demonstrates how to use her Culinary Flavors Kit, which educates both experienced and novice cooks on how to identify essential herbs and spices. EAST BAY - You might use fresh basil to make homemade pesto or to flavor a tomato sauce, but do you really know what it tastes like? Or how about bay leaf? So many recipes for soups, stews and braises call for the addition of bay leaf, and you may ask yourself why. What flavor does it impart to various dishes?
Actually, bay leaf has a flavor that is similar but slightly sweeter than clove, and as for basil, the essential flavor tastes more like licorice or anise than anything else.
Gaining a true understanding of the essential flavors of culinary herbs and spices can be an education in itself, but using that awareness in cooking can prevent you from becoming what Kathleen McCann calls a "recipe robot."
For Ms. McCann, East Bay entrepreneur and founder of The Educated Palate, finding a way to teach people about the essential flavors of culinary herbs and spices was an inspiration born out of her experience as a culinary student at Johnson and Wales. The result is her Culinary Flavors Kit, which she thinks will help culinary students and avid home cooks gain a greater knowledge of the complexity of flavors in cooking and help to unleash their creative potential.
Arriving on campus at age 47, Ms. McCann had a slight age advantage over her fellow students, many of whom she noticed struggling to identify the fresh herbs used in their cooking classes. She also had the good fortune of working with visiting chef and cookbook author Barbara Tropp. It was at Tropp's tasting where Ms. McCann saw the light.
"She opened my eyes to fact that you really need to know what these flavors are," she said.
The tasting included things like sea salts, a variety of soy sauces and even Schezwan peppers. "I had been cooking for all these years and yet I didn't know whether I would be able to identify (all the herbs and spices) because you don't learn flavors with a name."
Equipped only with a mission, Ms. McCann developed her concept of a tasting kit in the entrepreneurship program at Johnson and Wales. Product development continued with help from a Connecticut company called Flavor Sciences, which took the essential oils of the herbs and spices and mixed them with neutral, food-grade oil for the final product. Two of her Johnson and Wales professors helped her refine the levels for smell and taste, taking care that the oils not overwhelm the palate.
"We went through sample after sample and finally got the flavors to a level where we all agreed that the aroma and flavor was just right," explained Ms. McCann.
She also sought the guidance of Rachel Herz, a Brown University professor who's a renowned specialist in olfactory memory. "I thought it was a fantastic and unique opportunity for professionals to learn about the tools of their trade," said Dr. Herz. "It allows for a relationship between language, fragrance and flavor experiences."
Developing a lexicon for flavor is one of the most important attributes of The Educated Palate for Ms. McCann. As Dr. Herz also pointed out, "There are wide-ranging possibilities for Kathy's kits, but the one I am very interested in is a kit for children. By learning about flavors, children have the potential to widen their appreciation and acceptance of food. In addition to being playful, the idea would allow them to expand their diets."
Tasting's like a game
Indeed once you get started trying to identify flavors in McCann's kit, it quickly becomes a game. You can come so close to identifying the flavor and still get it wrong, and once you get one right, you want to try another.
The basic kit comes with 25 cleverly packaged vials of oil. Drops of oil can be placed on the back of your hand to smell and on the tongue to taste. Small pieces of edible paper can also be used in testing the flavors.
According to Dr. Herz, flavor experiences are dependent on smell. If your olfactory receptors are blocked, as when you have a head cold for instance, food just does not taste the same. Dr. Herz maintains that visual cues are also important in remembering flavors. She helped McCann finalize the lesson plan and booklet which accompany the kits.
Ms. McCann recently met with Chef Mark Molinaro, a professor at the New England Culinary Institute, who was enthusiastic about the kits and tested them with several students.
Ken Collins, a culinary professor at Community College of Rhode Island, uses the kits to teach his students about the essential flavors in cooking. "It has been a definite help," he said. "The students have realized how difficult it is to differentiate between the tastes and aromas. The first time around they may get two or three, and by the end of class they usually get five or six out of 10."
Ms. McCann, who grew up in the East Bay and returned after many years on the West Coast, is thrilled with the positive feedback her kits have thus far received. "Most of all, I want people to have fun with it and increase their knowledge and understand of the flavors we cook with," she said.
Without the help of nearby family, professors and mentors, she's quick to point out, Ms. McCann would not have been able unleash her own potential in creating her unique teaching tool.
By Genie McPherson Trevor
Celebrate the Seasonings with a Chef's Flavor Kit
BY GAIL CIAMPA Providence Journal Food Editor
Those looking to give the gift of taste have a most interesting option this holiday season. It's called the Educated Palate Culinary Flavor Kit, and it could change the way a person cooks. The idea is if you really know what different spices taste like, you'll know how to cook better. Think of the times you've looked at the spice shelf and uncooked chicken breasts and just knew you should be able to do something magical. But what? The kit to teach you all that is the brainchild of a Riverside computer programmer who went off to culinary school at age 47. Kathy McCann enrolled in the Advanced Standing Culinary Program at Johnson & Wales University and met chef Barbar Tropp, owner of San Francisco's China Moon Cafe. Tropp did a tasting with her students to sample different types of salt, soy sauces and flavored oils. McCann found the differences amazing, and took to heart Tropp's mantra, "Know your ingredients." She knew that she hadn't compared salts or soy sauces before. She just used them as ingredients. But when she tasted each on its own, she learned how vital tasting could be. All this inspired McCann to create a flavor kit of 25 spices. Each essence is in a neutral liquid base, waiting to be tasted and sniffed. You may think you know what clove tastes like, but until it's on your tongue, all alone, you really might not. Bay leaf, nutmeg, coriander, sage and marjoram -- all the essentials from the spice shelf are included. So, too, are parsley, rosemary and thyme. "Knowing the flavors allows a person to learn how to enhance creativity in their cooking," McCann said. The basic kit with 25 spices costs $95. The kit is sold online at www.educatedpalate.com.