Balancing Food Flavors, Textures

Hot and cold. Sweet and sour. Hard and soft. Creamy and crunchy. Yin and yang.

You don't need a course in Chinese philosophy to understand yin and yang, the concept of balancing opposites or complementary pairs to create harmony. That balance comes into play when you serve cooling (yin) fruits and leafy vegetable salads in summer and warming (yang) roasted root vegetables and meat in winter.

Combining opposing flavors and textures can add interest without adding much fat. And joining sweet to sour can help reduce the amount of salt you put on food.

Think about using a variety of different ingredients to keep your palate happy. Fresh ginger, garlic, anise, and the herb savory offer strong flavors. You can also keep seasoning contrasts as simple as lemon or lime juice and pepper.

Try pairing flavors you like separately, like apples and onions with roast pork. Chutneys and salsas can include fruit with pungent ingredients, a low-fat way to spice up dishes.

You can puree dates with cumin and add it with chopped onions and yogurt to boiled potatoes. Cranberry juice instead of oil can baste a roast turkey. Pureed vegetables can make a creamy sauce for a crunchy vegetable. And cooking vegetables in the same pot with a little meat can create a satisfying balance.


• Cooking methods (steaming, poaching, boiling)

• Ingredients (bean sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, crab, cucumber, duck, eggplant, tofu, watercress, water)


• Cooking methods (stir-frying, deep-fat frying, roasting)

• Ingredients (bamboo, beef, carrots, chicken, eggs, garlic, ginger, lamb, mushrooms, sesame oil, wine)

Tastes to mix:

• Sour (lemon, vinegar, yogurt, sour fruit, such as tamarind, starfruit or mango, or vegetables, such as sorrel)

• Bitter (arugula, kale and other dark greens, fresh cranberries, grapefruit, bitter gourd, some cabbage varieties)

• Sweet (honey, sugar, most fruit, carrots, beets and some cabbage varieties)

• Pungent (pepper, chiles, ginger, mushrooms, horseradish)

• Salty (soy, salt)

Yang pork saute with yin vegetables

In this quick recipe, sour vinegar and sweet sugar balance salty soy. The combination softens and deepens the garlic and ginger flavor absorbed by the meat and mushrooms.

1 teaspoon peanut oil

1 pound boneless pork (about two thick-cut chops) cut into 1-inch cubes

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (red wine vinegar is OK)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 piece fresh ginger, about 1 to 2 inches, peeled and thinly sliced, to make about 1 tablespoon

3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

3 cups assorted mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, portabella, or ordinary white mushrooms)

2 cups snow peas, ends trimmed

4 cups cooked angel hair pasta

Heat oil in a deep frying pan, big enough so the pork fits on one layer. Brown pork on one side, then turn to brown other side, about three minutes in all. Sprinkle ginger and garlic over pork. Mix soy sauce, water, vinegar, and sugar and pour over all. Bring to a boil. Cover and turn heat to low. Cook five minutes and add mushrooms. Cook five minutes more and stir to coat meat and mushrooms with sauce. Layer snow peas on top. Cook two more minutes—just until snow peas are bright green. Remove from heat and pour over angel hair pasta.

For the pasta, bring water in a large pot to boil at the same time you're browning meat. Put pasta in the pot after you add the mushrooms to the frying pan. You should be ready to drain the pasta and serve when you put the snow peas on top of the pork.

Makes four servings. Each serving has about 402 calories, 33 grams protein, 8 grams fat (18 percent calories from fat), 48 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber and 650 mg sodium.

Orange-walnut salad

Sweet oranges contrast with bitter of arugula and earthy chopped walnuts. A little bit of blue cheese adds creamy saltiness.

2 cups coarsely chopped romaine lettuce (about 6 leaves)

1 cup arugula

1 cucumber, peeled, quartered lengthwise, seeds removed and chopped

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

2 navel oranges, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1 tablespoon walnut oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 ounces blue cheese

Layer ingredients in a large salad bowl. Just before serving, sprinkle with walnut oil and vinegar and crumble blue cheese on top. Toss lightly just before serving.

Makes four servings. Each serving contains about 152 calories, 6 grams protein, 10 grams fat (60 percent calories from fat), 12 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber and 203 mg sodium.

Steamed mussels with cilantro

1-1/2 teaspoons canola or corn oil

8 cloves garlic, smashed with a knife's flat edge and sliced thin

1-1/2 cups water

3/4 cup rice wine or sake

6-1/2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and rinsed lightly to remove sand and placed in cold water to cover for a few hours (if unavailable, use littleneck clams or steamers)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

In a large casserole or Dutch oven, add the oil and heat until hot. Add the garlic, toss lightly until fragrant, about 10 seconds, add the water and wine. Heat to boiling.

Drain mussels and add them to boiling liquid. Cover and cook about four to five minutes, shaking and stirring at times so they will cook evenly. When they are just opening, sprinkle in the black pepper and cilantro. Toss lightly and cover, cooking for another minute. Uncover and serve from the pot, scooping the mussels and some broth into soup bowls.

Makes six servings. Each serving contains about 205 calories, 25 grams protein, 6 grams fat (26 percent calories from fat), 6 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 486 mg sodium.

Source: A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). Reprinted with permission.