Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bitter by Jennifer McLagan

I appreciate the taste of bitterness and so I was excited when I first heard about Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes when Jennifer McLagan was interviewed by Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. (You can hear the episode online here.)

I've since read it cover to cover and tried some of the recipes. The Tea-infused Prunes are already a favourite. (Earl Grey tea and orange peel--so simple and so good.) I combined two different recipes, Grapefruit Tart and Grapefruit Curd, to make lovely dessert tartlets for guests at Easter. Some of the other recipes I'd like to try include: Bitter Greens Ravioli, Beer Soup, and Homemade Tonic Water.

McLagan's vegetable recipes often include lard, duck fat, ham, anchovies or other such ingredients that don't come into my vegetarian house. It doesn't matter, because I'm used to making substitutions. In fact, I often go off onto such tangents that the original recipe is unrecognizable. Today I made dandelion and smoked cheese quesadillas. They were totally my own creation, but inspired in general by McLagan's recipes for bitter greens.

Bitter is the kind of cookbook I love to read because it's full of fascinating information. For example:
My sister's jelly tastes
like honey with a slight
touch of dandelion green.
Aurora Mountain Farm
  • There's an association between the shape of a plate and the way we perceive the taste of food.
  • Cold reduces the impression of bitterness.
  • The tongue map has been debunked.
  • A spoon tasting dinner was held in which each of seven courses of mild curry was served with seven different kinds of metal spoons (copper, gold, silver, zinc, tin, chrome and stainless).
  • Some goat and sheep cheeses are made using the enzymes from cardoon blossoms.
  • Forced hop shoots sell for up to 1,000 euros a kilo, making them one of the world's most expensive vegetables. (I'm glad I grow my own! They really are delicious.)
  • Jelly made from dandelion flowers has its own name in France: cramaillotte. My sister Simone Rudge makes dandelion jelly to sell in Whitehorse and I sometimes make it for myself too. 
The only complaint I have is that most of the information pages are laid out in white font on a celadon green background, which doesn't provide enough contrast to be easily read. The photo pages are plentiful and drop-dead gorgeous, especially the ones with plant materials displayed against a dark backdrop.

There are lots of quotes from other sources, such as:
  • "Who wants to eat a good supper should eat a weed of every kind." - Italian saying
    Anyone who loves beer
    as much as I do must
    also love bitterness.
  • "Bitterness is a crucial piece of the taste spectrum that when presented in balance rounds out our flavor experience." - Melissa Pasanen
  • "Food has become primarily an expression of each individual culture, needing to be learned anew form birth and passed on from generation to generation." Paul Freedman
The introductory notes with each recipe are just great:
  • "Serving the custard cold with warm poached fruit also stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which senses the temperature of food." (Tea Custard with Poached Fruit)
  • "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 a little burning, adds taste." (Toast Soup)
  • "This is a mixture of caffeine and nicotine, so I can't really defend it except to say the flavor is surprising and delicious, and not everything can be good for you." (Tobacco Chocolate Truffles)
McLagan's information about phytochemicals reminded me about another food book I like: Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson.

Bitter has received a James Beard Award in the single subject category. (Full list online here).

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