The peculiar pleasures 

Co-munching is an important culinary technique that straddles the line between cooking and eating. Co-munching is cooking in that it is a conscious attempt to adjust the final flavor of the finished product; co-munching is eating because it happens in your mouth, while you are chewing.

I first learned of this exciting practice during my restless high school years, when each afternoon would find me in the household of a different buddy. Each kitchen had its own culinary attractions, and there was much to learn. I discovered chips and salsa at Chad’s house. Heather’s place was good for cold cereal and ice cream. Judah’s fridge had really good digs, but between Judah and his two brothers, good luck finding any. Larry’s fridge had Budweiser. My preferred stash was at Jake’s house, where Jake’s long-suffering Red Sox fan of a Jewish mother could often be found by the radio, listening to the game, with an uncorked bottle of pretty good cheap red wine.

The Murray fridge inevitably contained “hippy dippy noodles” (also known as peanut-sesame noodles with green onion), and baked bluefish in Dijon sauce (usually near the bottom of the fridge, wrapped in foil).

Yes, Jake’s fridge had much to offer, in terms of food for thought as well as the edible goods. Jake once uttered a sentence that quickly branded itself on my impressionable psyche. We were talking about how good mayonnaise is when Jake announced, “I could eat (BLEEP!) with mayo.”

One afternoon, Jake and I were eating pasta. I had chopped some raw garlic and sprinkled it on top, as I am want to do. This delayed my eating by a few minutes. When I got to the table, Jake had his fork in one hand and a clove of garlic in the other. He would take a bite of pasta, and then a bite of garlic, and he would chew. Jake was co-munching, although neither he nor I knew it at the time. Jake had no cutting board or knife to clean afterward. He didn’t even bother to peel the garlic. He just munched through the wrapper. I should add that after years of co-munching, I have come full circle here. Rather than co-munch the garlic, I now mince and toss it into the hot noodles with olive oil before dressing with sauce. This is not an indictment against co-munching, just a personal choice. Pasta with co-munched garlic is still infinitely better than pasta with no garlic.

Today, it is rare to find me at the table without a pickled pepper on the side of my plate. The size of my co-munched nibble depends on how hot the pepper is, and with what food I am co-munching it. The best items for co-munching are those that add spice, acid, or some other component of your own personal flavor equation. And there are many flavor equations from which to choose. Asian cooking seeks a mix of sweet, sour, acid, and hot. Other folks follow a simpler addition: fat = flavor. I fall somewhere in between. I use the Asian equation as a rough rule of thumb, while looking for ways to unite fat and acid in my mouth before the chewing is done.

Technically speaking, you can co-munch from a cup as well. Coffee for example, is an important component of breakfast flavor. Bacon and eggs just don’t taste complete until there is coffee swirling around my mouth. Wait a minute…Violation! It still isn’t quite right. You need to be co-munching a hot pepper with your bacon, eggs and coffee.

And then there is wine. Have you ever wondered why certain wines go with certain foods, white wine for fish, red for bloodier meat? It’s not about color coordination (that’s Jake’s sister’s department).

It’s all about the flavor.

Here is a case in point, a pattern of mine as predictable as the “hippy dippy noodles” in the Murray fridge. It happens when I get set to cut up a deer that’s hanging in my garage. One of the things I’m still learning about this art is how to decide which meat is going to be so tough that it belongs in the hamburger pile. When in doubt, I consult the pan. I fry up some bacon and grapeseed oil. Then I add meat to the sizzling oil, and fry. When it is cooked, I add minced garlic and drizzle with soy sauce. Then I co-munch with pickled pepper and wine. Tough or tender, the meat inevitably tastes good, and wine makes it taste better. Sometimes I take two or three sips with each bite.

This tastes so good that I of course decide to fry up some more meat, some of the good stuff this time. More meat, more wine, and soon my bottle (or my housemate’s bottle) is empty, and I am no longer in any condition to be playing with sharp knives.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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