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Cooking in College: Understanding spices and flavor

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This pork roast was cooked in the oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour on Sept. 12. Chopped green peppers and onions smother and surround it.

This pork roast was cooked in the oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour on Sept. 12. Chopped green peppers and onions smother and surround it.

One of my favorite things about cooking from scratch is the ability to control the flavor of the food. That’s something you can’t do at restaurants, and boxed and frozen foods can really only be altered after they are made.

When starting from scratch, you can control the flavor profile from the start. Many ingredients — particularly produce — have a natural flavor to them, and they can be augmented by spices, most of which are very potent and heavily affect the flavor of a dish.

Having a good sense of what flavor spices and ingredients have comes with experience, and that experience can only be built by following recipes and experimenting in the kitchen. For example, if you want to make something indicative of Mexican cuisine, you’ll find that cayenne and cumin are essential spices to create the right flavor.

Understanding how flavors can be made and tweaked is the fun of cooking. The challenge of creating a flavor new to you or theorizing how a new spice will affect an existing flavor are great ways to keep cooking interesting.

The unfortunate thing about spices, however, is that they tend to be expensive. If you seldom use the spice, it feels like a waste of money, especially as a college student. It’s about accumulating a proper collection of spices that you use often, while also being varied enough to create different flavor profiles.

Of course, the idea of essential spices is purely subjective and is dependent on your palate. What I can do is recommend two basic spices that deserve spots in your kitchen: salt and black pepper.

Salt, unsurprisingly, adds a salty flavor to any dish. Sharing its name with one of the five major tastes, it’s used fairly often on both meats and produce to complement their natural flavors. Meat tends to have a savory flavor that is enhanced by the salt, and when it comes to produce, salt generally complements the sweet ones like corn and balances the sour ones like tomatoes.

Black pepper is very often paired with salt because of its contrary flavor profile. Black pepper has an earthy yet vaguely spiced taste, which, when combined with salt, enhances the flavor of nearly any food item.

Salt and pepper are fairly universally used in many recipes across all cuisines, and they combine well with other spices to create complex flavors.

This week’s recipe is a bit more intensive than the previous ones, but I can vouch for how well the delicious savory taste of the pork is enhanced by the potpourri of flavor; the spice of the cayenne pepper is compounded by the natural flavor of the chopped green pepper, and the salt complements it. Furthermore, the earthy flavors coming from the cumin and black pepper synergize well with the sharp sweetness of the onion.

Even though this recipe is harder to fit into a busy schedule and requires more work and planning, it’s well worth the effort for this flavor-rich pork roast.



Prep time: 40 minutes + 4 hours (inactive)

Cook time: 1 hour

Servings: 8–10

3–4 pounds pork roast

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

5 cloves garlic

Salt and pepper

1 green pepper

1 large onion

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup water

In the sink, rinse off the pork and dry it with paper towels. Place it on a cutting board and trim off any excess fat. Then make six small but deep incisions in the pork, and make sure they are big enough for your fingertips to fit in.

In an oven-safe pan (like a 9×9 or 9×13 Pyrex baking dish), place the pork.

Before putting away the cutting board, give it a rinse and dry it off to remove the pork’s residue. Peel some garlic cloves and cut them roughly into halves or thirds, depending on the size of the clove. Set aside six of those portions, and then mince the rest into smaller bits.

In a small bowl, use a spoon to mix together the cayenne pepper, cumin, salt and black pepper. Then pour some of the mixture onto the pork, rubbing the spices into it. Try to get an even coating on all sides.

Put the halves or thirds of garlic cloves into the incisions in the pork. Then lift up the pork and make a bed of minced garlic under the pork.

Cover the dish with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for at least four hours to marinate the pork. Use this time to go to classes or do some work.

When ready to start cooking, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Put a skillet on the stovetop on high heat and heat up the olive oil.

Take the plastic wrap off the pork dish and and use the skillet to sear the pork on all sides to keep the juices inside while roasting.

Add 1 cup of water to the baking dish so the pork doesn’t dry out in the oven. Put the pork back on the baking dish and then put it in the oven for 30 minutes.

On a cutting board, remove all the seeds from the inside of the green pepper. Then chop it into relatively large bits.

On a cutting board, cut the onion in half and peel the skin off both halves. Chop up the onion.

In the skillet, throw in the onions and green peppers to stir fry them.

After the pork has been in the oven for 30 minutes, cover the pork with the onions and green peppers. Put the dish back in the oven for another 30 minutes.

After another 30 minutes, check the pork with a meat thermometer to see if it has reached 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If it hasn’t, put it back in and check every 5–10 minutes.

When fully cooked, take it out of the oven and let it cool for 5 minutes. Scrape the onions and green peppers off the roast, and then cut the roast into slices. Serve with the onions and peppers on top.

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