One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in kitchens. A dish is not a single note but a chord, multiple notes working together to become something greater than themselves. Chord’s can be simple–two or three notes, they can also be as complex as you want them to be. The way to visualize this in your cooking is to keep it simple to start. Every plate/dish you make should have three components, a bass note to anchor it, a middle note to entertain your palate, and a high note to lighten it and give it a clean finish.
Think earthy. Onions, carrots, potatoes, garlic are all good. Butter, cream and cheese are good for this as well. They give the dish a solid bass in familiarity, comfort. These are things that you find is countless dishes from countless cultures. Then there are spices, cumin, chili powder, paprika, cinnamon, coriander. The ones that almost smell like exotic dirt. They will anchor the dish and give you a good base to build from.
Middles notes are the difference between a cream sauce and an alfredo. Middles are the little personal zigs and zags you take from recipes to make them your own. They’re the surprises that keep your diners interested. In musical terms, the middles are what makes a chord Major or minor, they’re where you provide dissonance and resolution, a tiny bit of discord to make the sounds of melody that much sweeter. Just beware, there is a very fine line between music and noise.
It took P.B. a little while to get used to it, but I finish almost every dish with lime juice or some sort of vinegar. It always works. Beef Stroganoff without the high note is like your very best friend coming over to visit and then never leaving. It makes you want to take a nap. Now add a squeeze of lime and the entire dish is elevated into something lighter that leaves your mouth as welcome as it came with you looking forward to the next visit. High notes come from tartness. Vinegars are good, citrus is good. Keep in mind that unless you are making a dish that’s supposed to taste like lime, don’t over do it. The trick to seasoning is to add as much as you need too achieve the desired effect without anyone being able to say ‘Wow, you like lime!’ Use a soft touch and watch as your meals evolve into far more complex flavors than you’re used to.