Jumping, waving arms, screaming, I recommend this book to you: “The Flavor Thesaurus, A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook,” by Niki Segnit, published by Bloomsbury.
I don’t even remember ordering it, but just after the blur that was the holidays, I found “The Flavor Thesaurus” on my bookshelf, sat down to browse, and haven’t let go of it since.
What I love about this book, besides the fact that it is smart, sharp, and useful, is that it begins with an ingredient.
Got sage in your refrigerator, but are exhausted with the usual chicken-filled or pasta-and-browned-butter ideas options? Look up sage and a list of things that go well with it appears: anchovy, apple, bacon, blue cheese, butternut squash, chicken, egg, hard cheese, juniper, liver, onion, pineapple, pork, prosciutto, and tomato.
With each combination there is a short explanation, and recipe, or more like a description of a dish, in surprisingly entertaining prose.
Tired of cooking from the Western hemisphere, I recently flipped to “Limes.” Lime pairings according to the thesaurus are: anchovy, avocado, basil, beef butternut squash, chicken chili, chocolate, cilantro, cinnamon, coconut, cumin, ginger, lemon, mango, mint, oily fish, orange, peanut shellfish, tomato, watermelon, and white fish.
“Lime & Anchovy” stopped me, by which I learned the author really means lime and Vietnamese fish sauce, or nuoc cham, made with fermented anchovies.
Segnit describes a Thai salad dressing made with lime and fish sauce — “ lime will always be the underdog trying to shine a light on fish sauce’s dark thoughts and failing beautifully.”
At “Lime & Beef” Segnit recommends the beautiful Thai salad “Weeping Tiger,” in which sirloin steak is briefly marinaded, broiled, and served with the same sweet, salty, cool, and spicy “Lime & Anchovy” sauce from above.
In the same “Lime & Anchovy” paragraph, the author directed me to the “Mango & Apple” pairing, describing an addictive Thai salad of sliced mango, apple, green beans and tomato tossed in — yet again — the lime and fish sauce. Attesting to som tam’s guile, (It holds the four main elements of Thai cuisine in perfect balance: heat, sweetness, sourness, and salt.) Segnit says, “When I first discovered how easy som tam was to make, I got through a bottle of fish sauce faster than an unwatched kid gets through ketchup.”
While this salad is only a shadow of the true som tam, in which finely sliced papaya is tossed with a dressing of lime, chilis and fish sauce all pounded together in a mortar and pestle, this is cool, sweet, and refreshing, an excellent antidote to January. Double the sauce recipe and use it with Weeping Tiger.
These are exactly the light, fresh, colorful foods I want to eat right now, but I stumbled upon them not looking for a recipe, but beginning with an ingredient: To Google “Limes” means to be instantly overwhelmed.
Look up limes in “The Flavor Thesaurus” and be prepared for a manageable, educational and fulfilling trip down the lime rabbit hole.
Serves 2 to 4
2 or 3 good-quality, preferably organic, grass-fed sirloin steaks
For the marinade:
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Lime and Anchovy Sauce:
2 garlic cloves
1 piri chili, or other dried red chili, or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
pinch sugar, or more to taste
handful of fresh coriander leaves and stems, chopped
Stir marinade ingredients together in a small bowl. Put steak in a shallow glass baking dish, and pour marinade over all. Turn the steaks several times to ensure they are covered with the marinade. Place in the refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes.
While steak is marinating, make the accompanying sauce. Place all sauce ingredients together in a bowl and stir. Taste for a balance of spicy, sour, and sweet. Add more fish sauce if you’d like it saltier, or more sugar if too sour for your taste. Set aside.
Remove steak from the refrigerator, and place either on a broiling pan, or on a regular baking sheet lined with foil.
Broil steak approximately 3 to 5 minutes, then turn and broil another 3 to 5 minutes on the other side, depending on thickness. For this recipe, the steak should still be pink in the middle. Of course, if you choose to grill the steaks, the same timing applies.
Remove steaks and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly on the bias. Fan out several slices, and top with Lime and Anchovy Sauce. Sprinkle liberally with fresh cilantro.
Som Tam Variation
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup green beans, stemmed and blanched
1 green apple, thinly sliced
1 mango, peeled and sliced
10 cherry tomatoes (approximately) halved
2 tablespoons salted peanuts, roughly chopped
1 recipe Lime Anchovy Sauce above
Toss the apple in lime juice to prevent discolorations. Put all the ingredients except the dressing into a medium-sized bowl, and toss together. Then toss with Lime Anchovy Sauce, and serve.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.