This is another building block for cooking without recipes! Once you can recognize the aromatics in a list of ingredients, you can change them to suite your particular taste or mood and create a dish all your own...
Aromatics are the supporting actors of a dish--infusing their individual flavors into broths and braises, and then quietly stepping aside for the main ingredients. They're also not necessarily eaten as part of the final dish and are often strained or picked out before serving.
A prime example of this is bay leaf. Added at the beginning of a long simmer, bay leaf adds a subtle astringent and earthy flavor to dishes. But bay is never meant to actually be eaten and is always removed when cooking is finished.
Cloves, peppercorns, and juniper berries are other spices that are valued specifically for their aromatic properties.
Likewise, the herbs used in a bouquet garni are usually removed and discarded after they have finished imparting their flavor. Playing with the kinds or proportions of herbs in a recipe is one way to start tweaking a dish to your particular tastes!
The classic combination of aromatic vegetables is onion, carrot, and celery, also called a mirepoix. These vegetables often serve double duty, first creating a flavor foundation and then being served along with the final dish. You get their flavors as a background in every bite and then the concentrated flavor of actually biting into a carrot or piece of celery.
Altering just one or two of the aromatics in a recipe can create an entirely new experience. Try replacing the celery with green pepper to make a Cajun mirepoix. For an Asian twist, think of using lemon grass and ginger.
Check out our posts on Cooking by Feel for more inspiration!
(Image: The Soup Chef by Aline Gauthier, $4.98 at AllPosters.com)