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This article was published 3/12/2014 (2187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Toronto-based food writer and cook Jennifer McLagan has made a career of championing misunderstood foods. In her new book, Bitter, she makes the contrarian case that bitter is often better.
McLagan's award-winning Bones (2005) was a reaction to the skinless, boneless chicken breasts that dominated the supermarket aisles. Fat (2008) embraced not just butter but unfashionable ingredients like lard and suet. The Odd Bits (2011) celebrated cuts of meat that North American cuisine has often thrown on the scrap heap.
In Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes (HarperCollins Canada, 256 pages, $39.99), McLagan eloquently argues for a much maligned taste. To a world that adores the sweet and the salty, she offers up the astringent and sharp, the dark and deep, the pungent and harsh, all those unusual flavours that are often overlooked.
"We instinctively have a negative reaction to bitter. It's an innate protection," explains McLagan, who spoke to the Free Press from her Toronto home. "We're designed to react this way, because bitterness can signal a toxin or a poison."
But learning to love bitter brings all sorts of culinary rewards. "It's kind of an adult taste," McLagan suggests. "It's nice to have something sophisticated, a little bit dangerous in the kitchen with you. You're being a little more adventurous when you're welcoming bitter in.
"If you leave bitterness out, you're reducing your culinary palate in a big way."
The Australian-born McLagan believes that bitterness is starting to have a moment, partly thanks to cocktail culture. "People are starting to learn to love real cocktails, instead of cranberry, kiwi, those kinds of flavours, the ones like kids' drinks with alcohol in them," she jokes. "Don Draper has helped. People are making real cocktails, which of course require bitters."
McLagan points also to the rise of craft beers, which are often hoppy and bitter, and to the recent shift in chocolate varieties, which are getting darker and deeper, with cacao content climbing.
The recipes in Bitter explore the bright acidity of Seville oranges and grapefruits (especially the old-school white varieties), the astringent freshness of dark greens, the bite of coffee and tea, the bitter edges of walnuts and almonds. McLagan explores bitter melon, which has a very strong taste that is prized in many Asian cuisines, as well as cardoons, an Eeyore-ish kind of thistle. Some recipes -- for beer jelly, turnip ice cream and tobacco chocolate truffles, for example -- are intended for hardcore bitter enthusiasts.
"But it's not a recipe book full of bitter recipes," McLagan says. She advocates balance, the idea that a little bitterness can bring out the best in other foods, tempering the melting richness of pork, duck or lamb or cutting the sweetness of an ice cream or custard.
Often the effect is subtle. "You can make a better caramel if you cook the sugar to just the point before it burns, creating more and more complex chemical reactions," explains McLagan. "It will be sweet but it won't be that kind of teeth-curling sweet.
"Or it's Christmas time. If you're making chocolate truffles, don't roll them in powdered sugar. Roll them in cocoa," McLagan advises. "It's just that hint of bitterness to balance off the sweetness."
Along with expanding our range of tastes, bitter foods often bring health benefits. "Things that are bitter often signal the presence of vitamins and phytochemicals and things that are really good for your body," McLagan points out. "Bitter greens, especially, are just full of stuff that's really, really good for you."
Throughout this exhaustively researched book -- Bitter ends with a six-page bibliography -- McLagan cites nutritional statistics, genetic studies and developments in the science of taste. She also ranges through literature and history, quoting Pliny the Elder, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. McLagan writes about the bitterness of early chocolate drinks, which made them ideal for masking poison, and explores the bohemian allure of wormwood-laden absinthe in the 19th century.
McLagan admits that definitions and descriptions of bitterness range wildly, and that people's experience of bitter tastes are highly subjective. Her own perceptions of bitterness changed as she explored its many complex and perplexing dimensions. Even if all her readers aren't quite ready for turnip ice cream, she hopes they'll consider adding a touch of bitterness to their food. As she writes in the book's introduction, bitter "is a cultured, intriguing, and sophisticated taste, with a dangerous side."
And, as McLagan adds, "Who could be more fun to cook or dine with?"
Here are a couple of recipes to try out from Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor.
6 oranges or tangerines
250 ml (1 cup / 7 ounces) sugar
125 ml (1/2 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 1 orange aside. Cut each orange into 5 slices and place them in a bowl. If using tangerines, peel and cut in half.
Fill a large (heatproof) 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 1 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 a caramel syrup.
Tester's notes: Timing is everything with this tricky but lovely recipe. As my friend Jill says, "Making caramel is largely a matter of not losing one's nerve." This is especially true here, as you need to get as close to the edge of burning as you can without actually going over. As I was making the caramel, I found myself pondering just how rich and dark that final colour should be, immediately followed by anxiety I had pondered to the point where the caramel had gone too far. Initially, my very dark caramel tasted quite bitter, but once it mixed with the oranges' juice and chilled in the fridge, it mellowed out to complement the sweetness of the fruit.
I also love that the recipe incorporates the stickiest part of the caramel clean-up into the actual cooking process, so that boiling the peel cleans the pot. Genius!
Grilled Radicchio with Creamy Cheese
2 heads Treviso radicchio, about 200 g (7 ounces) each
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
75 g (2 1/2 ounces) creamy cow's-milk cheese
10 ml (2 tsp) balsamic vinegar
Cut the radicchio heads into quarters and drizzle with olive oil, turning to lightly coat the pieces. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat a gas grill to medium, or set a heavy cast-iron pan over medium heat. When it is hot, add the radicchio and cook, turning often, until it is soft, brown in colour, and lightly charred, about 12 minutes. Cut the cheese into pieces.
Transfer the radicchio to a serving dish. Top with pieces of cheese and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. The heat of the radicchio will melt the cheese.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
Tester's notes: Oh, so good, with the smoky sharpness of the charred radicchio contrasting with the melting smoothness of the cheese. I used a Brillat-Savarin, which is extravagantly expensive but beautifully creamy. McLagan writes that you can use any soft cow's-milk cheese as long as it is mild: You want it to balance the sharpness of the radicchio rather than compete with it. You can also use other varieties of radicchio, though McLagan finds Treviso easier to grill. I ended up with little round, red Chioggia radicchio, which fell apart a bit, but were delicious.