Foodie Sunday: Perfume Your Palate with Aftelier Chef’s Essences
As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am a big fan of Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier Perfumes. Her creative genius in making unusual and stunning fragrances from all-natural materials is legendary, as is her gift of communication through writing, mentoring and teaching about natural perfumery. Her other venture is closely related to perfume, but you can eat it – she has expanded her line of pure natural Chef’s Essences, made to enhance the experience of cooking and eating and a boon to creative types in the kitchen. (She co-wrote the book Aroma with noted chef Daniel Patterson in 2004, an experience that led to the creation of the Chef’s Essences.) She has been selling them on her Web site for a while now, and has recently collaborated with foodie favorite Williams-Sonoma to put six of the most popular Essences in stores nationwide. When Mandy asked me if I would be interested in testing some of these, naturally I jumped at the chance. She sent me samples of three of the Williams-Sonoma ones and two others that I thought sounded good.
The first one I tested had to be Sweet Basil, since basil is by far my favorite herb. I always grow several varieties of it in my garden, and then in late summer and early fall I make batches of pesto to freeze for use during the year. My recipe is simple, calling only for basil, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fruity Grana Padano parmesan cheese, Romano cheese and raw pine nuts, It’s always delicious even after months in the freezer, but it’s never quite as good as it is when it’s freshly made. Just one drop of the Sweet Basil Essence made my favorite dish of brown rice pasta with chicken and pesto come alive, making it taste like it just came out of the food processorduring harvest season. It was amazing, capturing that unique aromatic muskiness of fresh basil leaves, and I plan to keep this one on hand from now on to punch up my pesto-based dishes in the off-season.
My favorite summer salad recipe is perfect for the Sweet Basil Essence too. I make this during tomato and corn season. It’s super easy and I never get tired of eating it. I call it Summer Bounty salad but it really just a variation of a popular type of corn salad. This recipe tastes best if all the ingredients are freshly harvested and at room temperature.
Donna’s Summer Bounty Salad
3 large ears fresh raw sweet (super sweet is best) corn
1 small or ½ large firm-ripe avocado cut in ½-inch cubes
I small Middle Eastern type cucumber, or any bitter free type, cut in half rounds
½-cup fresh tomatoes- if using Roma or slicing types, just cube them; if using cherry or grape tomatoes, slice in half. I like to use at least two different colors for visual appeal.
¼ cup (or more if you really like it) fresh sweet basil, rinsed and dried gently and cut into a fine chiffonade.
Flavored balsamic vinegar (optional)
Grape seed or olive oil (optional)
1 or 2 drops Aftelier Sweet Basil Chef’s Essence
Cut the corn off the cobs into a large deep bowl with a sharp knife. Add the Sweet Basil Essence to a spoonful of the corn “milk” and mix well. Add the avocado, tomatoes, cucumber and basil leaves; toss gently. If you like you can dress with just a few drops of oil and/or balsamic vinegar (I like fig or raspberry) but I find that the milk from the cut corn is enough “dressing” for me and I want to taste the flavors of the freshly picked ingredients. Let it sit for a few minutes to allow the flavor of the basil to permeate the dish. You can vary this recipe with many different things, like adding chicken or cubed tofu to make it into a meal, or add any raw vegetables of your choice for variety. There is no wrong way to do it!
Pepper is certainly a popular seasoning, but the Chef’s Essence version takes it to a new level. I like to make scrambled eggs on the weekend for a leisurely breakfast, and I make a good version I have fine-tuned using a non-stick pan, Himalayan pink salt, a dash of nutmeg and a grind of fresh pepper. I made them without the pepper and used a drop of the Black Pepper Essence instead, and I just could not believe what a difference it made. I am not even going to bother buying regular pepper anymore after trying it this way. The gentle heat of the pepper infuses the eggs through and through without being harsh or too spicy.
The one drop rule is important with this product – two can be one too many, especially in a small recipe, since they are so concentrated, and it’s best to shake a drop onto a spoon first so you can control the amount before adding it to the food. I discovered this with the Fresh Ginger Essence; I already had great success adding it to tomato and red pepper soup, and I deliberately overdosed a small amount of the soup to see what would happen. It was pretty overwhelming, so more is not always better. The other thing to remember is to use them near the end of cooking and when finishing a dish, since cooking them for a long time will destroy the volatile aromatics. Speaking of ginger, I also made an Asian style clear soup with buckwheat soba noodles, chicken and mushroom broth, dark greens and extra firm tofu. I usually season the broth with several things including powdered ginger, but I used the ginger Essence instead, added after I turned off the heat, and it was delicious.
The above three are among the Essences available at Williams-Sonoma. I also have a sample of the Cardamom, which is intensely scented and needs to be handled with care. I have enjoyed this in coffee, but be very careful, because if you use too much you will only taste the woody-bitter aspect of this spice. I also added it to brown Basmati rice that I made with Garam Masala spices and turmeric powder right after cooking, along with the Fresh Ginger essence, and it turned out really well and tasted more authentic than any other seasoned rice I have ever made. Cardamom is probably my favorite among the sweet spices and I am always looking forexcuses to use it. It will be a challenge to see how well I can control the flavor of this one in more adventurous recipes.
You don’t necessarily have to cook anything complicated with the Essences, as they are great for using in cold dishes, desserts and drinks too. I added just a drop of Strawberry Essence to a cup of Chobani® Greek passion fruit yogurt to make an incredibly aromatic and satisfying dessert. The sweet Essences are perfect for blending with vanilla ice cream to make your own custom flavors; imagine adding Ylang Ylang, Rose or Jasmine Essence to a high-end ice cream or gelato! My only problem with the Strawberry is that it smells so good I am tempted to wear it as perfume instead of putting it in food! I am planning to try more of these soon.
The possibilities for using these in mixed drinks are endless, as Mandy describes in this article that recently appeared in the New York Times, and mixologists are creating cutting-edge cocktails with them that defy the imagination. I don’t usually make mixed drinks at home, but a drop of Strawberry Essence transformed a nice glass of flowery Oregon Riesling into something special. Maybe I should take a vial or two of Essences with me next time I go out on the town.
Disclosure: Mandy Aftel sent samples of the Chef’s Essences to me at my request for testing purposes. They are available for sale on the Aftelier Web site and a limited selection of six varieties is available at Williams-Sonoma, in stores and online.