There is no conception in man's mind
which hath not at first, totally or in parts,
been begotten upon by the organs of sense.
---Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The tactile symphony

A couple of nights ago my wife and I cooked chicken picadillo tamales. Having not cooked picadillo since my stint as a Fellow for The American Bounty my memory was not one of taste, but of texture. In fact, I remember that I liked the flavor but couldn't even remember the primary flavor profile. My memory consisted of ground chicken with soft and juicy popping burts of sweet flavor from rehydrated raisins, crunch from almonds, stringy mozzarella cheese, soft masa dough, and a full mouth coating deliciousness from the butter and crisco. A tactile symphony, in tamale form.

Texture has long been the forgotten sensory property. Even so much, that a leader in the academic field (Szczesniak) recently wrote a peer-reviewed article titled "TEXTURE IS A SENSORY PROPERTY!!!!?!!!" (quotes and exclamation added for emphasis, I'm sure that's how she imagined herself saying it). Indeed, much of our perception of food relies on texture, but how much do we tune into that on a daily basis?

Have you ever asked yourself why is vanilla ice cream so popular? I guarantee its not the flavor (although sweet and vanilla-y IS delicious). Freezing is an expensive process and if it weren't necessary you'd hear kids chanting creme anglaise! creme anglaise! (which is frozen to make ice cream) in the back seat of your car rather than "ice cream! ice cream!" We might even be chasing down the "warm vanilla custard truck" down the street on hot summer days! It is the tactile feeling of cold, then the changes in texture as the ice cream melts from a hard-to-soft emulsion to a mouth coating smooth custard before finally swallowing the liquid remnants. This is what makes ice cream, ice cream. Add some pecans or dip it in magic shell (another terrible tasting but texturally wonderful product) and you're stacking the deck in your favor for something people will lose their minds over (not only children!).

A couple of years ago I ran a taste test on apples - specifically, I was interested in how people categorized overall perception of 10 different varieties (they were peeled and blinded, so that sight, color and names were not a factor). Only two primary attribute continuums came up, and the most important was texture, with soft and mealy at one end, and crisp at the other! How fascinating. The second most important was tart to sweet, which you can imagine had Empire at one end and Granny Smith at the other. Of all the differences in apple flavor, texture was most important in peoples' perception!

Szczesniak has spent a lot of time breaking down texture terms into definable properties. This is important, because if a chef or a food manufacturer wants to alter the "juiciness" of their product, she's determined that they should look at no less than six different properties (from Szczesniak, 2002).

1. force with which the juice squirts out of the product;
2. rate of juice release;
3. total amount released on chewing;
4. flow properties of the expressed fluid;
5. contrast in consistency between liquid and suspended
cell debris; and
6. effect on saliva production

That's something to ponder next time you pop a grape in your mouth!

Tonight when you're eating dinner think a little about texture. Maybe its the textural variation in salad (surely the flavor of the lettuce doesn't keep you that interested?), the layers of a sandwich, or the scoop of rocky road ice cream that really inform your overall perception of the meal.

I'd be remiss if I didn't occasionally include a recipe, although I don't intend this to be a recipe blog. Since chicken picadillo inspired me to write this entry here it is! This recipe was adapted from the CIA, which adapted it from the Bayless' Authentic Mexican. Use for tamales, enchildadas, as a side dish, in a soup, mix into some grits, top a poached egg with it - you get the idea!

Yield: 1lb
1lb Ground chicken
1 large Onion, coarse chopped
1 Tbsp. butter
2 Garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. Cinnamon
2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Black pepper, fresh ground
1/8 tsp. Anise seed, ground
1/8 tsp. Cloves, ground
2 Tomatoes, beefsteak, medium dice
¼ cup Raisins, golden
1 cup Water
¼ cup sliced Almonds, toasted
½ Tbsp. White vinegar
¼ tsp. Oregano, Mexican, dried

1 Combine chicken and onions and cook until onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Do not brown the chicken or onions. Stir in garlic, cinnamon, salt, pepper, anise, and cloves and sauté an additional 2 minutes.
2 Add tomatoes, raisins, and water. Cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the ingredients come together, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. The chicken should be barely coated with liquid, but not completely dry. It shouldn't ooze liquid out if you put some on a plate.
3 Remove from heat and stir in almonds, Mexican oregano, and vinegar.

Szczesniak, A. S. (2002). Texture is a sensory property. Food Quality and Preference, 13(4), 215-225.

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