Take a bow, Jennifer McLagan. With your newest book, “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes” (Ten Speed Press; $29.99), you’ve given foodists the chance to chew on a topic made for adults.

Bitter, as the chef-author of the James Beard Award-winning “Fat” (2008) describes, is to her both a “taste” and a “flavor.” Recognizing its cultural significance and appreciating it even in the form of burnt edges on toast make us feel as if summer movies and squirt guns are behind us. The look of the book feels grown-up as well, in its favoring of dark backgrounds and moody lighting.

McLagan offers a little science by way of essays on the effect of phenolic compounds in olives and cardoons, a look at how our choice of cutlery can amplify bitter foods, and an explanation of why some of us experience bitterness more keenly than the rest of us.

Radicchio, dark chocolate, coffee and grapefruit are expected components among the book’s 100 recipes. Apricots, white asparagus and Fernet-Branca are chin-stroking surprises. A splosh of the latter added to a sauce for sauteed chicken livers is a deft touch that will help use up that brooding bottle of amaro on your shelf.

McLagan’s definition of bitter can be nibbled by quibbles. What part of sour or acidic is really just bitter? But that road leads to a greater exploration found in the transformative powers of cooking. Celery roasted with tarragon becomes bittersweet. A hoppy beer, simmered into carrots, offers a counterpoint to the vegetable’s sweetness.

“Bitter” affords thoughtful culinary adventures and a welcome level of sophistication for the mature palate.

The following recipes are adapted from “Bitter: A Taste of the World”s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes,” by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed Press, 2014).

Tarragon Roasted Celery

2 to 4 servings

The celery takes on a bittersweet edge when roasted this way, with a subtle licorice flavor from the tarragon.

5 or 6 outer celery ribs
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Several large tarragon sprigs, plus an optional few leaves for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet at hand.

Rinse and trim the celery ribs; cut each one crosswise into 3 or 4 pieces, then cut each piece into 4 to 6 sticks. Place in the pan or on the baking sheet and drizzle with the oil; toss to coat.

Season liberally with salt and pepper. Spread the celery in a single layer and top with the tarragon.

Roast for 20 minutes, then stir and roast for 10 to 20 minutes, until softened and lightly caramelized at the edges.

Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. If desired, sprinkle with fresh tarragon leaves. Serve warm.

Nutrition per serving: 70 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Fernet-Branca Chicken Livers

2 servings

This intriguing preparation calls for only 1 1/2 tablespoons of the bitter Italian amaro, yet its unmistakable flavor gives it top billing here.

Use fresh currants when they’re in season (summer); we tested this recipe with currant jelly and with fresh wine grapes (carignan) and liked both substitutions.

2 pieces day-old bread, each cut about 3/4-inch thick
1 tablespoon wine grapes, seeded (may substitute fresh/frozen currants)
1 1/2 tablespoons Fernet-Branca (see headnote)
3 tablespoons chicken fat (schmaltz) or duck fat
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 large sprig rosemary
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and patted dry
8 ounces fresh chicken livers
1/2 cup homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth

Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Place the bread on a baking sheet. Toast for several minutes, using tongs to move it around so the bread browns evenly and develops specks of black char.

Turn the slices over and toast in same manner on the second side. Let cool.

Place the grapes in a small bowl and spoon the Fernet-Branca over them.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the chicken or duck fat in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Once the fat has melted, stir in the onion and the rosemary sprig; season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the onion begins to caramelize. Transfer to a medium bowl, discarding the rosemary. Wipe out the skillet.

Add the capers and grapes with Fernet-Branca to the onion (in the bowl).

Trim off and discard the sinew, visible fat and any traces of green from the chicken livers, separating them into lobes. Use paper towels to pat the chicken livers dry, then season them lightly with salt and pepper.

Melt the remaining tablespoon of chicken or duck fat in the same skillet used to cook the onion, over high heat. Just before the fat starts to smoke, add the chicken livers; immediately reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 3 minutes, then turn them over and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; the chicken livers should be a bit pink at the center and tender/spongy to the touch. (Cut into a lobe to check doneness.)

Add the onion mixture and broth to the skillet, stirring to incorporate. Cook just until heated through. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Place a piece of the toast on each plate, then top with the chicken livers and oniony sauce. Serve right away.

Nutrition per serving: 260 calories, 20 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 400 mg cholesterol, 360 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Toast Soup

4 servings (makes about 5 cups)

Interested? This soup is a version of one served at a haute restaurant in Paris, France, named Astrance. Darkly toasted sourdough bread, mustard and bacon combine to create a softly bitter taste on the tongue.

You might be tempted to use day-old bread here, but the recipe works best with fresh slices.

MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2 slices bacon (1 3/4 ounces total), cut into small pieces
2 cups homemade or store-bought veal or chicken broth
About 3 slices sourdough bread (5 1/4 ounces total; see headnote)
1 cup whole milk, well heated (but not boiled)
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon brine/vinegar from a jar of cornichons
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into a total of 6 pieces

Place the bacon in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat; cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon is done but not crisped.

Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil in a separate saucepan over high heat. Immediately pour the broth over the bacon in its saucepan, cover and let stand for 20 minutes.

Toast the sourdough until well browned and even a little burnt at the edges. Once it’s cool enough to handle, tear it into pieces and add to the bacon broth. Cover and let it sit for 10 minutes, during which time the bread will soak up the broth.

Add the hot milk, mustard and brine/vinegar to the mixture in the saucepan, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree until smooth.

Heat over medium-low heat, stirring to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Once the soup is warmed through, whisk in the butter pieces until melted and incorporated. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Divide among individual bowls; serve warm.

Nutrition per serving:
240 calories, 8 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Facebook comments