‘Bitter’ Is Another Brave Exploration Into the Gustatory Outlands

Jennifer McLagan loves a controversial ingredient. Her cookbooks include works on bones, fat, and the scary bits. Now it's time to get bitter.

“I need a cigar,” I said to the tobacconist.

He gestured toward a locked cabinet. Behind its glass doors, cigars were arrayed floor to ceiling. The chocolate truffle recipe called for an inch of cigar, preferably Cuban, infused in heavy cream. Cuban cigars are illegal in the United States. I could choose a cheap cigar stinking through the glass like hell’s own aftershave, or do the bling thing and blow 30 bucks. Aiming for middle ground, I spent $9.

“For your husband?” The man asked, ringing me up.

“For a recipe.”


Jennifer McLagan loves a controversial ingredient. By staking her culinary territory in the gustatory outlands, McLagan’s made a career of bucking North American culinary conventions. Combining a chef’s training, a stylist’s eye, and scholarly research, McLagan expertly convinces readers to purchase and prepare new, sometimes scary ingredients in the safety of their home kitchens. She’s grown bolder with each cookbook, from the comparatively tame Bones to the more transgressive Fat to her piece de resistance, The Odd Bits. Subtitled How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, it leaves no eyeball raw.

Lesser chefs would founder after completing such a trilogy. Not McLagan, who rebounds with Bitter, packaging serious discussion about this complex gustatorial experience into a blazingly beautiful book. Once again drawing on science, history, and a clutch of recipes, McLagan takes on flavor others avoid and presents it in a new, appealing light. Bitterness is much more than a wince-inducing experience. It’s the note completing a meal’s flavor profile.

Our ancestors distilled bitter plants into alcohols intended not to inebriate, but heal. Chinese and Indian cooks have long known of bitter melon’s cancer and diabetes fighting properties; science has only recently caught up. And in a flourishing artisanal cocktail culture, all the cool kids are pouring the bitter stuff: Fernet Branca, Suze, Amaro, Jägermeister, Campari. Yet many North Americans, raised on sugary foods, find bitterness a tough sell.

Enter the recipes. McLagan helps the bitter go down easy, pairing savory foods with an ingredient dear to primal tastebuds: fat. Whether poultry, pork, dairy, or the abstemious olive oil, nothing flatters a pile of greens like a nice grease slick, brightened by a toss of hot pepper flakes. On the sweeter side, you need shock the local tobacconist. More moderate types can bake a Walnut Cake, stir up a Hot Chocolate, or freeze a panful of Campari Granita.

McLagan divides Bitter into six chapters. With titles like “Born To Be Bitter”, “Pungently Bitter”, and “Dark, Forbidden, and Very Bitter”, readers feel themselves partaking of a vaguely illicit gustatory journey. Cooking with tobacco aside, this isn’t actually the case: McLagan’s chapter headings anticipate reader hesitation to tastes like the aforementioned bitter melon, also called Karela, or to recipes like Beer Jelly than any real lawbreaking.

Chapter One, “Born to Be Bitter”, straps on culinary training wheels, easing readers into bitterness as taste and concept. The recipes are reassuringly familiar, many takes on classic French dishes. Most of us have sampled bistro relatives of Dandelion Salad With Hot Bacon and Mustard Dressing, or encountered Radicchio and Pumpkin Risotto on a restaurant menu. Many a pie-baker favors Lard Pastry for its flaky yet easygoing temperament.

McLagan, like her friend and fellow cookbook author Naomi Duguid, is a culinary anthropologist, immersing herself in her subject, interviewing fellow chefs, scientists, artists, farmers, gardeners, anyone with useful information. Thus Bitter offers historical background on a variety of vegetables, including radicchio, white asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and horseradish. McLagan even tackles the one vegetable she truly detests: the dreaded rutabaga.

There’s a plethora of science here, too. Bitterness is experienced throughout the body, from the tongue to, incredibly and inexplicably, the testes. Scientists are unable to explain the presence of testicular bitterness receptors, or the ones in our lungs. Taste receptors sensing bitterness in our mouths, airways, and our digestive tracts are protective, expelling poisons, which are most often bitter. This lifesaving response is strongest in small children, who have more tastebuds than adults, a mercy when one considers how often babies put things in their mouths.

Even the most dully aware amongst us respond viscerally to bitterness. A quarter of the population, dubbed ‘Supertasters’ find 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP, unbearably bitter. A quarter of the population cannot taste PROP, while the remaining half sense it ‘normally’. Yet taste is dependent on numerous variables, including culture, age, genetics, even plate shape and utensil material.

And while the notion of only four tastes is finally becoming obsolete, McLagan demonstrates it has always been convenient rather than accurate. Botanist Carl Linnaeus posited 11 tastes; Anthleme Brillat Savarin described taste as limitless. Contemporary scientists chime in somewhere between, with new tastes like soapy, metallic, fat, and rancid. Even the term “bitterness” encompasses enormous variability: grapefruit is bitter, but so is a cup of black coffee, a bar of bittersweet chocolate, and a bunch of turnip greens.

By Chapter Two, “Liquid Bitter”, the training wheels come off. It’s time to talk gelatin. It’s time to talk booze. The result ain’t granny’s Christmas mold. McLagan starts by jellying beer and serving it as Paris restaurant Semilla does, with charcuterie and cheeses. My wish to make this was met with loud objections, but I suggest you try it. Mussels with Beer was more happily met. Or should I say consumed?

Mussels have to be the world’s easiest shellfish. They’re sustainable, cheap, and may be purchased cleaned. The recipe calls for butter, fennel, and serrano pepper, which I set aside, the in-house recipe taster not being a serrano pepper fan. This was a good thing, as the pepper was blistering. Anything more than the tiniest dot would’ve ruined the dish. Next time I’ll use hot pepper flakes. For the one cup of pale ale, I choose a local brew, the eminently drinkable Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.

There are two ways to screw up mussels. The first is to eat bad ones. If the shell is broken, doesn’t close when tapped, or smells off, don’t eat it. The second is to overcook them. You might as well serve pencil erasers. Avoid these pitfalls and a cheap, delicious dinner is yours. All you need is bread to sop up the bitterly beery juices.

McLagan tells us Angostura Bitters are manufactured on Venezuela’s Orinoco River. Surely an “Enya” is available at a cruelly exclusive bar requiring murmured codewords for entry. Once inside, a whispered order gets a cocktail layered with those Angostura Bitters and headily obscure spirits, topped up with a healthy splash of the Chanteuse’s native Irish whiskey.

Back home, intrepid DIYers might mix up McLagan’s homemade tonic water for their gin while searching out bottles of Suze. Fernet Branca is less elusive—I found a bottle for $26.99. Finances did not permit, though Fernet Branca Chicken Livers look awfully good.

Chapter Three, entitled “Pungently Bitter”, looks like an Alice Waters guest edit. Recipes focusing on arugula, baby turnips, and fava beans will make farm-to-table types feel healthily smug. Why yes, that is Turnip Ice Cream for dessert. McLagan feels an occasional jolt to the taste buds avoids culinary complacency. Nevertheless, the turnips get help from plenty of whole cream, sugar, and a soupçon of vodka.

Following McLagan’s recipe for Rapini with Penne resulted in a dish already in regular rotation Chez Curious Omnivore, although here we call it pasta and greens, the greens being whatever requires immediate consumption. McLagan’s recipe uses pancetta or bacon with garlic and parmesan cheese. I am more lax about the entire dish, swapping out turnip greens or spinach for rapini, olive oil or poultry fats for pork, using whatever kind of pasta is handy. It’s a fast, delicious one-dish meal.

Dessert lovers should turn to Chapter Four, where “Subtly Bitter” offers recipes for Grapefruit Tart, Red Currant Ice, and Apricot Tarte Tatin. Winter is Seville Orange season, the perfect time to preface a bittersweet dessert with Seville Orange Pork Shoulder. Those of you making New Year’s diet resolutions can sample the Waldorf Salad Revisited. Bonne chance.

Much of Chapter Five’s “Surprisingly Bitter” is devoted to the cardoon, a flummoxing specimen resembling a giant gray celery. I now eagerly await cardoon season—any minute now, here in Northern California—to try Cardoon Beef Tagine and Cardoon Soup.

Chapter Six, “Dark, Forbidden, And Very Bitter”, concludes with the hard stuff: chocolate, tobacco, caramel, methi—fenugreek leaves–and bitter melon. You’re wondering about that cigar. We’ll get there. First, bitter melon, or Karela. McLagan writes it is “probably the bitterest vegetable you will ever encounter.”

Karela resembles a warty cucumber. Worried the in-house recipe taster would find it too weird or just plain inedible, I bought a small one, preparing just enough for a single portion of Bitter Melon With Pork. I made this alongside a stir-fry dish, and omitted the ground pork. I followed directions, halving the vegetable, scraping out the seeds, then purging it with salt. I stir-fried it with mustard seeds, garlic, lard, onion, and a bit of hot chile pepper, then tentatively forked myself a taste. A bitterness that increased as I swallowed. It tasted clean, with a vegetal edge. Issuing multiple warnings, I extended a forkful to the in-house recipe tester. Who promptly asked for more.

Bitter melon is intense: you cannot pound it down. Rather, you reach for small, palate-cleansing bites. I served two tiny portions, remembering something Judy Rodgers wrote about Madeleine Troisgros Serailles’s cooking in The Zuni Café Cookbook. All of Tata (aunt) Madeleine’s dishes had goût du revenez-y: “The taste you return to.” Bitter Melon Without Pork was that dish.

So, the cigar. McLagan offers two recipes using tobacco, a panna cotta and chocolate truffles, adding these are adult tastes. Tobacco infused foods should not be given to the ill, children, or the immune-compromised. Do not feed tobacco-infused products to the uninformed or unconsenting. Tobacco-infused foods are not for daily consumption.

I made tobacco-infused chocolate truffles with my nine-buck, no-name cigar and ended up with a decadently lush confection. Begin by breaking up an inch of cigar into a quarter cup of heavy cream. Infuse for 45 minutes, then strain the parchment-colored liquid into a pan. Stir in bittersweet chocolate, salt, and nearly a stick of butter—the most illicit part. Pour into a pan lined with plastic wrap. Chill. Shake unsweetened cocoa powder over the result, which will be too rich to consume in quantity. The tobacco is a barely detectable. McLagan says it should just tickle the back of your throat. And that’s all it does. The fun is in the doing.

Photographer Aya Brackett is already receiving awards for the images in Bitter’s pages. Rare is the cookbook whose photographs elicit gasps: Bitter is so beautiful you should buy two copies: one to splatter and crumb, the other to admire. The colors are shockingly vivid, the composition reminiscent of Dutch still lifes, admittedly an overused metaphor, but so apt here.

I write two weeks before Christmas 2014. The market is awash in alluring cookbooks to give and receive. Perhaps you’ll purchase a few top sellers, big name chefs fronting famous restaurants. As you or the recipients of your largesse page through them, ask yourself whether these books will see real use. Will those tight bindings break? Certain pages soften and stain with repeated use? Will scatters of flour or cornmeal permanently sand a recipe? Or will you or your recipient flip through the latest hit cookbook, sigh, then slide it onto a shelf, immaculate and unsullied?

Broaden your palette: bring Bitter into your kitchen.

RATING 9 / 10