The Bitter Truth

12_4_martel_1Greens with a touch of bitterness add a healthy and piquant accent that sets off other ingredients, as with this asparagus and fava bean salad at Philippe in Houston. Photo courtesy of KIM garver.
Optimizing the flavor potential of bitter profiles

Bitter conjures up disappointment or treacley Mary Poppins with her spoonful of sugar. Bitterness as a taste often alienates, but it is an essential flavoring component that adds balance and sophistication to contemporary dishes and spirits. For the mixologist, beverage bitters are the seasoning that makes satisfying cocktails. For the chef, bitter tastes punctuate a dish.

Take the Pan-Roasted Cod, Mashed Herbs and Lime Compote on the spring menu at Nougatine in Manhattan. The lightly salted fresh cod sits atop a bright green purée of oil-poached fennel, parsley, mint and Serrano chile. A topping of lightly bitter and acidic lime relish garnishes the delicately crunchy fish. Bitter notes from the herbs in the sauce and the lime make the palate receptive to contrasting flavors in the moist yet crisp fish. Without those piquant elements, the dish would be incomplete, lacking the complexity that makes one want that third and fourth bite.

“Phenols, flavonoids, terpines — so many types of flavor chemicals produce bitterness,” says Mariano Gascon, vice president of research and development at Wixon Seasonings. “Bitterness is Mother Nature’s protection,” he says of the human reaction to spit out bitter-tasting foods. For plants, this mechanism is like a “natural pesticide,” says Gascon, preventing them from being eaten by pests. We now know that foods rich in these compounds — phenol-rich berries, tea and chocolate, or those full of flavonoids, like citrus, tea and wine — are often the most health-sustaining.

As diners seek delicious nutrition, chefs and menu developers are turning to colorful fresh fruits, vegetables and bitter greens. On the recently rolled-out SkinnyLicious menu at The Cheesecake Factory, for example, more than half of the salad recipes include some type of a bitter ingredient and would be “incomplete without them,” says Bob Okura, the company’s vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef. (Entrées on this menu have less than 595 calories and appetizers less than 490 calories.) “Bitter is a good player,” says Okura of ingredients like radicchio, frisée and red cabbage. These ingredients deliver contrasting color, texture and flavor, and they keep diners “interested in a dish,” he adds. In a salad with bitter elements, Okura balances flavors by adding sweet and salty components such as candied pecans and blue cheese.

“Americans do not seek out bitter,” says Rich Collins, president of California Vegetable Specialties, the only Belgian-style endive producer in the United States. However, when paired with the right ingredients or cooking technique, the bitterness is appreciated, he says. In the classic French winter salad — a combination of Belgian endive, pears and blue cheese — bitterness is offset by the sourness in a light vinaigrette, the sweetness of a ripe pear and the umami from blue cheese. The salt and umami make for “a glorious combination,” says Collins, and a good example of how a bitter ingredient can be made palatable and even delicious by the company it keeps.

Technique is another factor in lessening the bitterness in ingredients like endive. “When grilling endive, some of the more complex sugars break down and that bitterness tends to get more muted,” Collins notes. Braising also helps to tame the bitter notes.
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