I’ve seen this before


Recently, I watched an episode about memory from The Mind, Explained on Netflix, which gave me a new-found reverence for the brain, the most complex organ in the body. This highly evolved, efficient and impressive organ is responsible for so many important executive functions, including regulating hormones and maintaining homeostasis. It is also incredibly skilled at pattern recognition, responding to outside stimuli and connecting them to memories – both short and long-term – then storing that information for later recall. Essentially, it creates and maintains a giant personal Dewey Decimal System, cataloguing all of our experiences, ideas, sensations … and organizing them to be recalled in an instant.

The brain is one of the first organs to begin to develop in an embryo. Once we’re out in the world, our brains become pattern recognizing machines, teaching us to the ABC’s, the route we walk to get to school, the Please may I have that precedes any cookie. We become sponges for receiving and storing information in a shrewd attempt to make sense of the world around us.

This incredible capacity to recognize, remember and recall patterns brought us Mozart, the periodic table, language, and poetry. When I worked as a cocktail waitress at a steak house, I had an actor colleague who would spontaneously recite Hamlet’s monologue in front of his tables at their urging. Once he’d finish, people from other tables with join in to clap and commend his performance.

There’s something evocative about memory. I dare you not to cry watching the Ken Burns’ documentary, The Address, about a school in Vermont where young kids memorize The Gettysburg Address and in the process become suffused with pride at their accomplishment. To sit with someone suffering from dementia and watch those capacities slowly slip away is to the witness one of life’s great, enduring traumas.


I imagine my own brain possesses a virtual card catalogue of recipes, techniques, flavors, smells, sounds, tastes all tucked away in one of those deep folds of gray matter. When people ask me where I come up with all the recipes I cook for clients, I tell them the truth: it’s mostly pattern recognition. This skill provides the key to unlocking a deeper understanding about cooking, recipe development, and what make a dish good. When he was still writing for The New York Times, Mark Bittman did an excellent job breaking down pattern recognition in his recipes, like this special, twelve versions on chilled soup.

A few keys points about patterns in cooking:

1. Patterns in execution. For example: You build a braise in essentially the same way every time. Sear the protein, sweat aromatics, deglaze with wine, add the proteins back in with some liquid, cook over low heat for a long time until tender. You can swap in any flavor combinations – almost every culture has their version of coq au vin, although we all know the French would say theirs is the best.

2. Patterns in the interplay between the tastes. There are five principal tastes: salt (which we learn in the womb at 16 weeks once we start swallowing amniotic fluid), sweet (breast milk), sour (our first lemon), bitter (coffee, very dark chocolate, kale, radicchio) and umami (meat, miso, anchovy, mushroom). As you cook, you learn that salt enhances acidity and vice versa. Sweet balances bitter. Sweet is also lovely with sour (sprinkling sugar on your morning grapefruit, sweet and sour chicken from your favorite Chinese take-out place). Fat tames spice, which is why they say to chug a glass of milk if your mouth is on fire from that chili you just ate. Understanding the way these tastes interact is an essential aspect of cooking and one that will liberate you from recipes and embolden you to cook using your senses. In Small Victories, Julia Turshen has the best appetizer ever: drizzle sliced chorizo with spicy honey and brown under a broiler until crispy, combining sweet, salty and spicy. The. Best. Party. Snack. Ever.

3. Patterns in ingredients that pare well together. What grows together, goes together. Vignarola, a springtime Roman vegetable stew, is a good example. It features just about every green vegetable that pops up at the same time: favas, snap peas, artichokes, asparagus, spring onions and spring garlic. Gently cooked in water to capture all the delicious flavor from these vegetables recently sprung out of the ground. It would not taste nearly as good if you threw in an eggplant or a butternut squash.

Ingredients and flavors become like Legos, and the cook easily swaps one out for another to build their edible castle.


Here’s a perfect example of pattern recognition in play that pares sweet + sour vinegar with salty + umami fish sauce to dress up roasted vegetables.

Essenza is one of my favorite kitchen ingredients. I was fortunate enough to visit the acetaia where they produce this incredible vinegar a few years ago. So much love and care goes into the process. For vinegar to be labeled balsamic and recognized as such by the regional authorities, it must be aged for at least 12 years. Essenza is the oldest “non-balsamic” San Giacomo produces. It has incredible viscosity and the perfect balance of sweet and sour.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with fish sauce and essenza

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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You could use this same seasoning combination to dress any hearty roasted vegetable – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage – but I especially love the way the sauce catches in between the layers of the Brussels sprouts.

This is a ideal bed for seared steak or gochujang-glazed pork chops. I like them served over a pile of steamed rice with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil and thinly sliced scallions. You’ll be hard-pressed not to eat them all off the sheet tray.

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (quartered if they’re big)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 3T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2T fish sauce (I like Red Boat; try not to buy one with caramel coloring and other additives)
  • 2T San Giacomo essenza, or another good balsamic

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, toss the Brussels with a hefty pinch of kosher salt, 5-6 grinds of black pepper, and the olive oil. Lay on a parchment-lined sheet tray in a single layer.

Roast until evenly browned, 10-12 minutes, turning the tray half-way and stirring up the Brussels so the outside edges don’t burn.

Upon removing from the oven, douse with the fish sauce and essenza. Don’t be shy. Mix well with a large spoon to comingle the flavors. It’s important to add the seasonings while the veggies are still hot so that flavors penetrate the vegetables with greater ease.

brussels-fish sauce

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