This is a cookbook without a lot of actual recipes, has not a single enticing photograph (not even on the cover), and is set in what looks to me to be nine-point type. I don't know if it's really nine-point type. It's small. There's lots of cross-referencing ("mushroom & asparagus: see asparagus & mushroom, page 120," et. al.). All of which should conspire to make this a difficult read, right? Amazingly, not really.
I can't say I read The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook (Bloomsbury, $27) from cover to cover, because this is a book that is made for skipping around, like sampling from a buffet table. But I did read it compulsively, over a weekend, and now I have a long list of scribbled pairings I want to try ("rutabaga and carrot," "asparagus and peanut," "anchovy and watercress") as well as page numbers noted for recipes (scrambled eggs with extra yolks; maple cupcakes with chocolate ganache and bacon; cumin, lentil and apricot soup).
Niki Segnit, who is not a chef but comes out of the world of marketing (but never mind that), has done an impressive amount of research, reading everything from food chemistry journals to cookbooks to menus. Reading the bibliography to this book is just as interesting as any of the chapters. Segnit ultimately came up with a list of 99 "essential" flavors grouped roughly into 16 areas, from the expected ("meaty," "cheesy") to the more enticing ("brine and salt," "woodland,") to the verging-on-frightening ("sulfurous"). From there, it's annotated lists of matchups of ingredients, the culinary equivalent of speed-dating.
Take, for example, one ingredient: the olive. It appears in the "brine and salt," chapter, and is paired with: almond, anchovy, anise, beef, bell pepper, caper, carrot, chili, coriander seed, garlic, goat cheese, juniper, lemon, orange, potato, prosciutto, rosemary, shellfish, tomato, thyme, white chocolate, and white fish. Uh, hold the phone there -- olive and white chocolate? "The chocolatiers Vosges make a white chocolate bar with bits of dried kalamata olive in it," Segnit notes. Who knew? But The Flavor Thesaurus isn't about weird combinations. It's about combos of all stripes, big and small, comforting and surprising.
It's all about coming out, as a cook, from dependence on the recipe alone and learning what works together, and why. The write-ups might feature the bare bones of a dish in which you toss a little of this with a little of that and serve with a good crusty peasant bread; they might include an actual recipe with cups, tablespoons and the lot; they might note that the chef Heston Blumenthal finds olive oil the best oil in which to roast potatoes; or that eggs and tomatoes crop up as a pairing in numerous national cuisines. Really, there is no way to distill all that is in this book. It is like some sort of massive food geek smorgasbord.
And Segnit is far from being just an aggregator of the information. Her sensibility crops up frequently, in charming references and unexpected asides. On the subject, for instance, of eggs and tomatoes: "If all this sounds a bit too rustic, you might try the very Jamesian lunch to which Strether treats Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors. Over intensely white table linen at a little place he knows on the Left Bank of the Seine, they eat omlette aux tomates with a bottle of straw-colored Chablis."
Just the thing to pull all the entries in the thesaurus together...a white linen tablecloth. Nice.