The Aroma Factor
My best food memory is a dinner at New Sammys Cowboy Bistro, a tiny shack of a place near Ashland, Ore., where chef Charlene Rollins was known for adventurous flavors and organic ingredients. The striped bass in a shiitake-ginger broth over just-picked spinach wowed me; so did a salad of tender baby lettuces with softened goat cheese, drizzled with Meyer lemon.
But it was the dessert that forever changed the way I think about food. Before the lemon-verbena ice cream touched my tongue, its tantalizing geranium-citrus bouquet knocked me flat. In all my years, I never realized how a foods scent could leave you lying in a heap of satisfied pleasure.
Smell The Rewards
Scent enables you to taste food; it fires up digestion and anticipation. If you can slow down enough to appreciate aroma, youll be richly rewarded.
From a humble pan of onions and garlic basting in olive oil to baked apple dumplings redolent with cinnamon and clove, aroma is undeniably seductive, says Jesse Cool, author of Your Organic Kitchen. Its an invitation to eat.
Unlike sight, sound, taste, or touch, your sense of smell goes directly from the sensory organthe noseto the limbic system, the part of the brain that enables you to experience needs and emotions like hunger and pleasure. Smell is unique because it bypasses the thalamus, where all the other senses are first processed, says Avery Gilbert, Ph.D., a sensory psychologist who served on the faculty of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
Theres another payoff when it comes to food: Scent lets you feel more satisfied while eating less. Smell can affect our internal cues of fullness, says Gilbert. Using fragrance in cooking and eating highly flavored foods can give you a more fulfilling experience as you consume less calories.
To ramp up aroma in food, add these fragrant ingredients:
Fresh produce. The fresher the goods, the more aromatic. I often buy food by smelling itif something gives off a bold, genuine fragrance, like a perfumed peach, its a good indicator of ripeness, says Cool. I prefer heirloom fruits and vegetables, which are bred for flavor, not shelf life. They give off the scent they were intended to. You cant beat food that retains its sensual qualities.
Herbs and spices. Fresh plants like basil or rosemary release oils when theyre cooked, which adds depth of flavor. When I use fresh herbs, I add half at the beginning of cooking and half at the end, says Cool. If you put them all in at the outset, you lose the aromatic top notes. It matters less with dried herbs or spices. You usually add these at the start, because cooking opens up the oils and flavor, she notes.
Essential oils. While they dont replace the fresh ingredients theyre distilled from, essential oils offer a deep, satisfying pleasure in food, says Mandy Aftel, co-author of Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance.
You must, however, select them with care. Use only those oils youd think of as food, such as citrus or seed oils like anise, dill, celery, cumin, and coriander, says Kathi Keville, co-author of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Adds Aftel: Use only food-grade essences, not synthetic ones, and very sparingly, one drop at a time. Avoid them if youre pregnant.
FCC-grade oils are considered safe for human consumption by the Institute of Medicine; find them at emsplace.com and snowdriftfarm.com. Always dilute the oils first in a carrier fluid like olive oil, peanut oil, butter, or honey, or in a small amount of your cooking liquid.
Flowers. Fresh blooms can provide spicy or nutty aromas to a dish. Cool adds nasturtiums to steamed bulgur for a peppery note, and puts lavender and violets in baked goods. Caution applies here, too: Make sure the flowers havent been sprayed with pesticides (never use anything from your local florist), and check that the blooms are, in fact, edible.
The Nose Knows
Scent Appreciation is a learned skill. You can train your sense of smell, says Gilbert. Perfumers, winemakers, and chefs dont have better noses, they just use them more. They pay attention.
I lost that option a few years ago when my sense of smell disappeared. (My doctor never figured out why.) I couldnt taste my food. I couldnt smell the roasted nuts I add to my cooked cereal or the resinous eucalyptus trees where I live. I couldnt smell my husband or my children. I hadnt realized until then how much I relied on smell to navigate through the world.
After two weeks, I woke up and breathed in the aroma of my coffee again. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, my life flipped from black and white to full-blown color. With great anticipation, I took a sip, and reveled in the partnership of all my senses.