Once upon a time, you may have wrinkled your nose when a plate of (pick one: Brussels sprouts, Belgian endive, mustard greens, radicchio) arrived at the table. You shunned espresso and Campari. You even steered clear of craft beers with a bitter edge.
It’s time to stop avoiding bitter foods. Just as you’ve embraced its fellow tastes — sweet, sour, salty and umami (savory) — bitter deserves a place at the table.
Bitter is downright beautiful. It has a crucial role in the kitchen because 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 foods may be pungent, others astringent. And, at least in the case of fresh greens, some can 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 in explaining, for example, how bitterness interacts with all our senses beyond our taste buds and which 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 that 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 are tossed with a warm bacon dressing or arugula’s bite “is tempered atop a hot cheesy pizza.”
Now, improvise or start with this pair of recipes from chef McLagan.