Bitter stokes the appetite
“Bitter” is an underappreciated yet important part of the flavor spectrum – and the topic of a new book. We love the taste of bitter – from horseradish to winter greens such as radicchio and escarole, to coffee and IPA beer. Bitters — high proof alcohol infused with botanicals and other aromatic ingredients — have been around for centuries, and are now being handcrafted by the new wave of mixologists across the country.
Bitter is an acquired taste, one that Europeans and the Japanese have historically enjoyed, yet little attention is given to bitter foods in North America. We Americans tend to like salty and sweet. Our culture has synonyms for bitter that connote bad. We work to the bitter end. Bad news is bitter news. Winter cold is bitter. Bittersweet, however, is making engendering some positive connotations in the lexicon with percentages of cacao in chocolate and varietals of honey such as chestnut.
Author Jennifer McLagan takes us into the world of bitter in her new book, “Bitter – A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes” (2014, Ten Speed Press.) Bitter is one of several cookbooks by McLagan, a chef and writer, which focus on a single topic and provide the depth of information about food one longs for. These books include chapters that range from botany to history to international culture and recipes. McLagan is also a good storyteller as evidenced in her other books, “Bones” (2005), “Fat” (2008), and “Odd Bits” (2011).
Food without bitterness, she says, lacks depth and complexity. It’s the last taste we humans develop a liking for, according to Naomi Duguid, Canadian food writer and photographer, who has called bitter the “gatekeeper of adult taste.” Understanding the role of bitter in balancing a recipe, a plate of food, or an entire meal is an essential skill for a cook or a mixologist.
Although in earlier days, the bitter taste served as a warning that a food might be poisonous, bitter can also be healthful. Bitters have their origins in improving health, as well as digestion. Bitter alcohols, called Bitters, include such drinks as Fernet-Branca and Campari. They are definitely an adult taste, one that is increasing in popularity in the United States with mixologists concocting their own recipes as part of the farm to drink movement.
McLagan covers the span of bitter foods from savory to sweet. Of chocolate, another bitter food, McLagan writes, “too often we think of chocolate only as a dessert, but it is excellent in savory dishes, adding richness and bitterness. Her lamb with Dark Chocolate Pepper Sauce is delicious and there are numerous recipes for savory chocolate dishes in the book’s last chapter, “Dark, Forbidden and Very Bitter” in which she covers toast, bitter melon, fenugreek and caramel as well as chocolate.
Ann served McLagan’s recipe for Caramelized Oranges, included here, to rave reviews. The caramel sauce mixes with the oranges to create a bittersweet taste McLagan says, “The French aren’t afraid of darkly caramelizing baked goods (look at the edges of fruit tarts and the underneath of palmiers and croissants); they know that caramelizing, even burning a little, adds taste.” We both have Navel orange trees with bumper crops, and grapefruit trees as well, so we’re looking forward to trying her recipe for Grapefruit Curd.”
Ever wonder why fatback goes with collard greens?
“Fat will take the edge of off a bitter ingredient, making it taste less bitter,” McLagan says, which is why a pairing of bitter greens such as collards goes so well with fatback from pork belly — something we both love to make, given our southern roots.
“I prefer to begin a meal with something slightly bitter to stimulate the appetite,” McLagan writes. “You can also do this by enjoying a bitter aperitif before dinner.”
The mixologists have it right — bringing the underappreciated bitterness into drinks before dinner — as the Europeans have done for centuries. McLagan’s book may well herald a new chapter in American cuisine: appreciating bitter.
Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas
Rony, a friend of McLagan, says there are two keys to this recipe: cook your own chickpeas, and use a very hot pan to cook the Brussels sprouts. They should dance in the pan. Ann did both when she tried the recipe – it works. She served it for dinner as a side dish with pork chops, along with Caramelized Oranges for dessert.
1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
¾ cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
17 ½ ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons dry sherry
Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by 2 inches and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on the age of the peas, so you need to keep an eye on them. Check them at 30 minutes. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in one teaspoon salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Drain the cooked peas and spread them out on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.
Pour two tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heave frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add ¼ cup of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.
Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining two tablespoons oil. Place over high heat, and when hot add the Brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can; this will depend on the size of your pan. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the Brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.
Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6.
The author notes that this is a very good recipe to try if you are scared of burning the caramel, as it is much more interesting when the caramel has a bitter edge.
6 oranges or tangerines
1 cup sugar
½ cup warm water
Cut a slice off the top and bottom of each orange to reveal the flesh. Stand the fruit upright on a cutting board and, cutting from the top down to the bottom, remove the peel and pith. Set the peel of one orange aside. Cut each orange into five slices and place them in a bowl. If using tangerines, peel and cut in half.
Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice, and set aside.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, then shake the pan so that the sugar forms an even layer. Place over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan from time to time, until the sugar melts. As the sugar melts, gently swirl the pan to mix the sugar granules with the liquid sugar; you can give the mixture a stir to blend in any uncooked sugar. Once all the sugar has turned into liquid caramel, continue to cook until it is a rich, dark caramel color. You will smell the caramel and see it smoking quite a bit.
Remove the pan from the heat and dip the base of the pan into the bowl of cold water to stop the caramel from cooking further. Carefully add the warm water to the caramel, which will spit and splutter. Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring, to dissolve the caramel in the water; this can take up to 10 minutes. When it is dissolved, pour it into a jug and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, cut the peel you set aside into roughly equal rectangles. Remove some of the white pith but not all then cut the peel into thin matchsticks. Put some water into the pan you used to cook the caramel and bring to a boil over medium heat. This will help remove any traces of caramel in the pan. When boiling, drop in the orange matchsticks, cook for one minute, and then drain.
Pour the sauce over the orange slices in the bowl, sprinkle with the orange peel, and chill for several hours before serving. As the oranges sit, their juice mixes into the caramel sauce, turning it into caramel syrup. Serves 6.
Ann M. Evans writes and draws in Davis, and watches over her beehives, chickens and garden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes and oversees her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic – an on-line store with kitchen and garden products in the French style. www.lavierustic.com
Together they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) Or reach them at email@example.com.