Cook With Your Senses

When making spiced crème caramel — or sheet-pan shrimp gratin or red lentil soup — trust your eyes, ears and nose (and gut!).

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By Melissa Clark

Whenever I make brown butter, the first cue that it’s almost ready is sound: that moment when the frenetic hiss of melting fat goes quiet. That’s when I know the moisture has cooked out and the milk solids are about to caramelize at the bottom of the pan. The next sign is scent. Does my kitchen smell like toasting nuts? Only once it does do I peek into the saucepan to check the color.

Using all of your senses is one key to cooking well; it makes the process easier and more fluid. Yewande Komolafe explored this idea in her latest column, with an accompanying recipe for spiced crème caramel (above). When she makes it, she uses sight and smell to know how long to toast the spices and when to pull the caramel off the fire to suit her tastes.

Then she takes the concept one step further, explaining that using your senses helps you personalize a dish. “A single recipe is never the one true version of a dish,” she writes, “and minding sensory cues when cooking allows you to explore the boundaries of a recipe.” The next time you try a new dish, use all your senses and trust your gut. You know more about what you like to eat than any recipe possibly could.

We’ve got plenty of brand-new recipes for you to try, including Kay Chun’s simple cheese manicotti (known as cannelloni in Italy) and Yasmin Fahr’s baked chicken and feta meatballs (with oats added to the mixture to keep things moist).

And many recipes from the archives may still be new to you, like sheet-pan shrimp gratin with its crisp and cheesy topping; curried swordfish with tomatoes and greens; or Charleston red rice, a likely descendant of West African jollof rice.

I can personally recommend red lentil soup with lemon, this classic grilled cheese and Marcella Hazan’s perfect Bolognese sauce. Then, for something sweet, how about a simple mix-in-the-pan chocolate cake or a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies?

You need a subscription to access the many thousands of recipes available at New York Times Cooking — far more than you’d find in an entire shelf of cookbooks and a lot easier to store. We’re also on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, where Sohla and Ham recently went rogue with Hot Pockets. If you need any technical help, you can reach out to [email protected], and I’m at [email protected] if you just want to say hi.

Speaking of using my senses in the kitchen, I always listen to music when I cook. For upbeat chopping and bopping, the Beths just released a new album, “Expert in a Dying Field.” Or when I’m in the mood for a hypnotic swaying and stirring, there’s Caroline Shaw and Attacca Quartet’s latest album, “Evergreen.” This haunting song is called “Root” — does that make you think of trees, or radishes?

If the answer is radishes (or even if it’s not), here’s a quick nibble to serve with drinks. Trim some radishes, leaving some of the greens attached if they’re perky. Spread the cut sides with softened butter, and then drizzle with honey and sprinkle with chunky dried chile flakes, like Urfa pepper, Aleppo pepper or gochugaru. This goes particularly well with gin and tonics or seltzer spiked with a lot of fresh lime juice. Cheers! Sam’s here on Friday, and I’ll see you next week.

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