Recipes

Think you hate bitter things? Better think again

Beer-glazed carrots: Will give you a taste for bitter.
Beer-glazed carrots: Will give you a taste for bitter. TNS

Once upon a time, you may have wrinkled your nose when a plate of (pick one: brussels sprouts, endive, mustard greens, radicchio) arrived at the table. You shunned espresso and Campari. You even steered clear of those craft beers with a hoppy edge.

It’s time to stop avoiding bitter foods. Just as you’ve embraced its fellow tastes — sweet, sour, salty and umami — bitter deserves a place at the table.

Bitter is downright beautiful. It has a crucial role in the kitchen since it can balance flavors or punch up the personality of a dish. And if you believe you don’t like bitter, consider that all of these foods can taste bitter: arugula, chicory, citrus rind, chocolate, celery, Aperol, horseradish, Fernet Branca, escarole, olive oil, quinine water, tea, toast and turnips.

Some may be pungent, others astringent and, at least in the case of fresh greens, change from mild to strong as a growing season progresses.

“We all have an innate aversion to bitter tastes,” writes chef Jennifer McLagan, in her award-winning book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, $29.99). Yet she’s quick to note that “food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity.”

The book is rich with recipes, of course. But McLagan also fills chapters explaining, for example, how bitterness interacts with all our senses beyond taste buds and what compounds (tannins, hops, etc.) contribute to bitter’s character.

“The culinary history of why we keep bringing this taste into our kitchens despite our natural dislike of it gives another insight into bitter’s persistent allure,” McLagan writes. “As cooks, if we understand the role of bitter in the flavor spectrum, we can exploit and harness it in the kitchen. ... Without a touch of bitterness, your cooking will be lacking a dimension.”

Another bitter booster is Laura B. Russell. In her book, Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables (Ten Speed Press, $23), she insists one should never “equate the words strong or bitter with unpleasant.” To steer cooks in the right direction, she offers three strategies under the heading: “Taming the Beast: Turning Bold Flavors into Tasty Dishes”:

Balance: To greens “too intense to eat on their own,” she suggests using: a starchy element (polenta, pasta, potatoes, rice) to “soften the flavors,” dairy (butter, yogurt, cheese) “to smooth out aggressive flavors,” sweetness (honey, caramelized onion, balsamic vinegar, fruit) to “lighten the intensity” or fat (olive or coconut oil, avocado, egg) to marry the flavors.

Bold on bold: With assertive flavors, “Stand right up to them.” Add: spice (red pepper flakes, fresh chiles or mustard, horseradish, wasabi) or salt (anchovies, capers, soy sauce, bacon, grating cheeses such as Parmesan or Pecorino).

Heat: It “mellows harsh edges.” It’s why “young tender mustard greens tossed with warm bacon dressing” or arugula’s bite “is tempered atop a hot cheesy pizza.”

Now, improvise or start with this pair of recipes from McLagan.

BEER-GLAZED CARROTS

1 pound carrots

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 cup beer, preferably a German lager

Freshly ground black pepper

Peel carrots; cut into 1/2-inch rounds. Over medium heat, melt butter in a saucepan large enough to hold carrots in a single layer. Add carrots and salt; cook 5 minutes, stirring to coat carrots with butter. The carrots will release liquid. Pour in the beer; bring to a boil. Reduce heat so the beer bubbles gently. Cook about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until carrots are cooked and the liquid is reduced to a couple of tablespoons. If carrots cook before the beer forms a glaze, remove carrots from the pan, keep warm and continue cooking until liquid is syrupy. Season with black pepper and more salt, if needed. Serves 4.

Source: Adapted from “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes,” by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, $29.99).

Per serving: 123 calories, 9 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 427 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

CAMPARI GRANITA

1 cup strained, freshly squeezed orange juice

1/2 cup Campari

1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Stir orange juice, Campari and lemon juice together. Pour into an 8-inch square metal pan. Place in the freezer. Stir mixture with a spoon every hour or so to break it up into large ice crystals. If you forget to stir the mixture and it freezes solid, don’t panic. To return granita to its granular texture, break it into chunks and pulse briefly in the food processor. To serve, spoon into chilled glasses. Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Adapted from “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes,” by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, $29.99).

Per serving: 74 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 1 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.

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