The champion of uncelebrated foods including fat, offal, and bones, Jennifer McLagan turns her attention to a fascinating, under-appreciated, and trending topic: bitterness.
What do coffee, IPA beer, dark chocolate, and radicchio all have in common? They’re bitter. While some culinary cultures, such as in Italy and parts of Asia, have an inherent appreciation for bitter flavors (think Campari and Chinese bitter melon), little attention has been given to bitterness in North America: we’re much more likely to reach for salty or sweet. However, with a surge in the popularity of craft beers; dark chocolate; coffee; greens like arugula, dandelion, radicchio, and frisée; high-quality olive oil; and cocktails made with Campari and absinthe—all foods and drinks with elements of bitterness—bitter is finally getting its due.
In this deep and fascinating exploration of bitter through science, culture, history, and 100 deliciously idiosyncratic recipes—like Cardoon Beef Tagine, White Asparagus with Blood Orange Sauce, and Campari Granita—award-winning author Jennifer McLagan makes a case for this misunderstood flavor and explains how adding a touch of bitter to a dish creates an exciting taste dimension that will bring your cooking to life.
On Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm, Jennifer McLagan appears with Bitter at Omnivore Books on Food, 3885a Cesar Chavez, San Francisco. Bitter cocktails from Pisco Trail.
Reprinted with permission from Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan, © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photography: Aya Brackett © 2014.
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Serves 3 or 4
Often arugula is just scattered on pizza at the end of cooking, the heat of the pizza being enough to wilt it. In this recipe most of the arugula is added at the beginning, giving a touch of bitter pungency to the sweet roasted tomato sauce. Then the rest is added for a quick final cooking. This pizza can be made with any bitter greens: try turnip or dandelion greens. Of course you can buy the dough and the tomato sauce, but they are easy to make; just start the day before.
- 2⁄3 cup / 150 ml warm water
- 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons / 6 g active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 cups / 83⁄4 ounces / 250 g flour
- 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ cup / 60 ml plus
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pound / 450 g ripe tomatoes
- 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic
- Basil leaves
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ⁄ 2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 ⁄ 2 bunch arugula
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano (Greek), crumbled
- 3 large slices prosciutto
- 1 cup / 1 ounce / 30 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Mix 1⁄3 cup of the warm water with the yeast and sugar in a measuring cup and leave to proof in a warm place for about 10 minutes.
Stir the flour and salt together. Add the remaining 1⁄3 cup water and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to the yeast mixture, then stir into the flour and mix to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, until smooth and supple. You can do this in a stand mixer with a dough hook.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch the dough down and, if not using straight away, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Let the dough rise again. If you refrigerate the dough, take it out at least 1 1 ⁄2 hours before baking the pizza.
While the dough is rising, make the tomato sauce. Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C. Cut the tomatoes in half. Place the sliced onion in an ovenproof dish just large enough to hold the tomato halves. Place the tomatoes on top of the onion, cut side down. Add the garlic and pour over the remaining olive oil. Add some basil leaves and season with salt and pepper.
Bake for 1 hour, or until the tomatoes are browned and the onion is soft. Let cool slightly, then pass everything through the coarse disk of a food mill. You will have 1 to 1 1 ⁄2 cups / 250 to 375 ml of sauce, depending on your tomatoes; you’ll need 1 cup / 250 ml. If necessary, pour the sauce into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring from time to time, until the sauce is reduced to 1 cup / 250 ml. Season with salt and pepper and set aside; refrigerate if not using straight away.
Place the sliced red onion in a bowl of ice-cold water and leave it for 1 hour. If you refrigerated your pizza dough, take it out now. Place a pizza stone (or unglazed ceramic tiles) in your oven.
Preheat your oven to the highest temperature you can. Lightly grease a 12-inch / 30-cm pizza pan and sprinkle with corn meal. Roll out the pizza dough and place on the pan. Rinse and dry the arugula. Remove any thick stems, then slice the leaves thinly; you should have about 3 cups / 2 1 ⁄ 2 ounces / 70 g.
Drain the red onion and squeeze it in a towel to remove all the moisture. Scatter over the base of the pizza and top with three-quarters of the arugula, then the tomato sauce. Sprinkle with the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, or until the crust is puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and top with the prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, and remaining arugula. Slide the pizza off the pan and directly onto the pizza stone and bake for another 2 to 3 minutes to melt the cheese and wilt the arugula.
I remember clearly the first time I ate an arugula salad. It was in London at the top of the Oxo tower in the 1990s. Called rocket in the United Kingdom, arugula was new and exotic. The leaves were tossed with a lemony dressing that highlighted their peppery taste and topped with shaved Parmesan cheese. I loved the combination. Although you can make this with any variety of arugula, the more pungent, feathery ones are the best. Now that arugula is so popular, often not enough care is taken in preparing it. These leaves have long, thin stems that must be removed, as they are tough and unpleasant to eat.
- 6 cups / 5 ounces / 140 g small feathery arugula leaves
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Wedge of Parmesan cheese
Remove the stems from the arugula leaves and discard; rinse the leaves, then spin them dry.
In a salad bowl, mix the lemon juice and salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, check the seasoning again, and add the arugula. Toss well and divide among 4 plates. Using a vegetable peeler, shave over the Parmesan cheese.
TEA CUSTARD WITH POACHED FRUIT
Makes 2 Cups / 500 Ml
This started off as one recipe and ended up as two. I wanted to make Tea Ice Cream and began with a traditional custard base. When I took the mixture out of the refrigerator to churn it, I thought, why not just serve it as tea custard with poached fruit? Now, the choice of fruit is important. The tannins in the tea are strong and for that reason I think you should stay away from berries. I like to play up the tannins and match it with poached pears or apricots. When you cook apricots, they develop a tannic taste. Serving the custard cold with warm poached fruit also stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which senses the temperature of food. Poached peaches would also be a good match.
- 2 cups / 500 ml whole milk
- 2 tablespoons / 1 ⁄3 ounce / 10 g orange pekoe tea leaves
- 5 egg yolks
- 1 ⁄3 cup plus 1 tablespoon / 2 1 ⁄ 2 ounces / 75 g sugar
- A pinch of fine sea salt
- 1 recipe Simple Syrup (from Bitter )
- 12 apricots, halved and pits removed, or 2 pears, halved
Pour the milk into a saucepan and place over medium heat. Heat until small bubbles form around the edge of the milk; remove the pan from the heat and stir in the tea leaves. Cover and leave to brew for 20 minutes. Strain the milk into a measuring cup, pressing on the leaves to extract all the liquid. Discard the tea leaves.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt until light in color and thick, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. Pour the mixture into a clean pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Strain the mixture into a bowl and cool quickly by placing it in a larger bowl or a sink filled with cold water and ice. Stir the mixture often. When it is cool, cover and refrigerate.
Pour the syrup into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the fruit, lower the heat so the syrup barely simmers, and cook the apricots until they are just tender. Allow the fruit to cool just slightly. Serve them warm with the cold tea custard.
Jennifer McLagan is a chef and food stylist and writer who has worked in Toronto, London, and Paris as well as her native Australia. Her previous books, Bones (2005) and Fat (2007) were both widely acclaimed and each won Beard and IACP awards. Jennifer is a regular contributor to Fine Cooking and Food & Drink. She has lived in Toronto for more than thirty years with her sculptor husband, Haralds Gaikis, with whom she escapes to Paris as often as possible. On both sides of the Atlantic, Jennifer maintains friendly relations with her butchers, who put aside their best fat, bones, and odd bits for her. Visit www.JenniferMcLaglan.com.