Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes
— a cookbook from Jennifer McLagan
Like most children, sweet was the flavor of my childhood … pixie-stick sweet. Thankfully, as I grew, I encountered new foods that challenged my palate and eating became much more interesting. More specifically, pregnancy affected my palate. Oddly, after each child, I found myself enjoying flavors that previously I’d either avoided (pickled, briny, sour things with a punchy bite) or couldn’t tolerate (I proudly went up a star on the heat scale after my first pregnancy). In the case of my last pregnancy, I discovered bitter.
Adding bitters to my cocktails, falling for Campari-flavored soda, relishing the balance of a simple Belgian endive salad with a cheesy pizza. I felt reformed. Then, I ran across a recipe that surprised me, Jennifer McLagan’s Burnt Toast Soup. Burnt? Toast? Soup??? I was very curious, to say the least. Moreover, I was excited. Was bitter an entire world of flavor I’d only caught a hint of? Clearly, yes!
McLagan’s Bitter is a wonderful journey through her discovery of beauty and palatability in the worlds most bitter foods. (Be sure not to miss her epilogue re: cow bile and marinated cod roe.) Seems I’d only scratched the service of bitter. Burnt Toast Soup, sure. But also, Beer Jelly, Fernet-Branca Chicken Livers, Tobacco Panna Cotta, my loved Campari in a granita. And, before you shy from this bitter love fest, McLagan reminds that both tea and coffee, and chocolate too are considered our bitter friends.
But, pushing the boundaries of my new found bitter love, is the appropriately named bitter melon. Not really a fruit, but a vegetable, the bitter melon resembles a food cast on Fear Factor. McLagan informs that the bitter melon “is probably the bitterest vegetable that you will encounter.” Plus, where do you find the thing? (I found mine at Evergreen Asian Market in Everett.)
Determined to see if indeed McLagan has succeeded in taming this feisty king of bitter, and timidity aside, I set to make Bitter Melon with Pork and hoped for the best.
As cookbooks go, McLagan’s is very friendly and easy to use, forgiving the fact that some items we may not be able to source. She educates us on not just the flavor of bitter, but also our response to bitter through other senses — hearing, sight, even sound. In the end, however, Bitter’s main challenge is left to tasting the result.
The beer jelly woke my palate. Sure, I’d had the beer alone before, but with the salt and lemon, it jumped beyond beer, and became something more. I enjoyed this as she recommended, alongside some smoked fish and pickled beet slaw.
I bought a bottle of Fernet-Branca and was immediately a convert, so I went ahead and tried her Fernet-Branca Chicken Livers. Again, bitter provided something new here.
The Tobacco Panna Cotta was intriguing, and since I used my favorite pipe tobacco, was a flavor I didn’t have to be convinced to love. What was surprising, was the bitter sting in the back of my throat, like when you’ve smoked too hot a pipe, but the sugar and fat balanced this, and it was easy to love.
The largest obstacle was the bitter melon. I was rather frightened of it, until I put a raw bit in my mouth, and found the taste seemed familiar. It reminded me of the smell of broken wild plants like the sort I’d brush past while hiking through a field … it had a wild taste, and this wasn’t entirely tamed by the cooking. Partnered with the fatty pork, the melon was at first bite deliciously interesting, if a bit perplexing. My palate seemed to enjoy the assertive bitter partnered with the sweet fattiness of the pork. But, after a dishful, I found myself dodging the bitter melon, while still enjoying the embittered pork.
So many of McLagan’s recipes partner a fat with the bitter ingredient — horseradish with bone marrow, cardoons in a creamy gratin — clearly bitter’s strength lies in its ability to cut through a richer dish, keeping the bites interesting and giving them greater depth.
While I wouldn’t add every dish in Bitter into a regular routine, there are many recipes that would delight and surprise your guests at a next get together. Ultimately, Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor pushes your understanding of bitter, enticing you to add it in small ways to each meal. Highly recommended for the more adventurous home cook, and well worth putting on your library hold list.
Ten Speed Press // 29.99
Available on Amazon.com