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Astringent and even slightly medicinal, bitter has a bit of a bad rap.
But as Chris Nuttall-Smith discovers while prepping a particularly complex and tart meal with cookbook author Jennifer McLagan, that’s undeserved – in fact, it’s perhaps the most sophisticated of tastes

Jennifer McLagan’s Campari Granita

Campari and orange juice is an excellent aperitif, and a good introduction to bitter. The same combination, though in different proportions to the cocktail, can be frozen into a granita. The advantage of this kind of ice is that you don’t need any fancy machines; you simply need to stir the mixture during the freezing process to break up the ice crystals. The result is a granular ice. If you prefer more bitterness, try the grapefruit variation below.

Serves 4 to 6.

  • 1 cup strained freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1/2 cup Campari
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Stir the orange juice, Campari, and lemon juice together, then pour into an 8-inch square metal pan. Place in the freezer. Stir the mixture with a spoon every hour or so, to break it up into large ice crystals. If you forget to stir the mixture and it freezes solid, don’t panic. To return the granita it to its granular texture, break it into chunks and pulse briefly in the food processor. To serve, spoon the granita into chilled glasses.

Variation: Replace the orange juice with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and add 2 tablespoons superfine (caster) sugar.

Cookbook author Jennifer McLagan enjoys a homemade cocktail in her kitchen in Toronto. (Photos by Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

At 9:40 a.m. one recent Monday, Jennifer McLagan handed me a shot glass and a bottle of Fernet-Branca. Fernet, as the Italian digestive liquor’s advocates call it, is flavoured with a secret blend of a few dozen herbs, roots, oils and flowers, including gentian. Gentian, according to Fernet’s manufacturer, contains “one of the most bitter substances known.”

I’d tried it before, years ago, and still remember the taste – like dandelion sap mixed with cigarette ash and stale-dated cough syrup. My eyes began watering in anticipation. I quickly took a slug and coughed. McLagan didn’t speak. She didn’t look entirely impressed.

McLagan is 60 and speaks with a soft Australian accent. She keeps her hair in a tidy bob and wears subtly red-framed metal glasses. You’d never peg her as one of the most prescient thinkers and authors in the hard-living world of professional cooking.

Now she pulled a tall, brown clay bottle from a cupboard, this one containing another, more bitter liquor, from Latvia, and poured out a splash. “Even a lot of people who like Fernet can’t stand it,” she said. It was as good as a dare. I grabbed the edge of the counter and took a sip. “Not bad,” I lied.

McLagan had promised to take me on a taste tour through the world of bitter this morning. She calls it the world’s most dangerous flavour. And the booze was only the beginning. I drained a glass of water, swishing it around my mouth as discreetly as I could.

Jennifer McLagan’s Grapefruit Tart

I made this tart for my husband early in our marriage, and then like many things I forgot about it. He requested it several times, but I could never find the recipe – it was lost for a decade or more. Then several years ago I found it tucked inside another cookbook. It is one of those typically vague French recipes, a list of ingredients in no particular order with no real instructions. Since I rediscovered it I’ve been playing with it or, as I think of it, improving it. For the pastry, you can also buy a premade shell from the store.

Grapefruit Tart

Serves 8

  • 1/2 recipe Sweet Butter Pastry
  • 3 eggs
  • Fine sea salt
  • 2 small grapefruit
  • 6 tablespoons (90 g) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) superfine (caster) sugar
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup / 175 ml water

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and line a 9-inch /23-cm tart pan. Prick the base of the tart with a fork, right through to the metal, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Place a heavy baking sheet or pizza stone in the oven and preheat it to 375°F .

Separate 1 of the eggs, and add the yolk to the other 2 eggs. Whisk the egg white with a pinch of salt.

Line the tart with parchment paper and fill it with dried beans. Place it on the hot baking sheet and bake until the pastry is set, about 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and continue to bake for another 5 minutes or until the base is lightly coloured. Remove the tart shell from the oven on the baking sheet and lower the oven temperature to 325 F .

Meanwhile, finely grate the zest from 1 grapefruit and squeeze the juice. Pour the juice into a measuring cup, you should have 2/3 to 3/4 cup . Pour the juice into a small saucepan, add the zest, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil until reduced to 1/2 cup , about 4 minutes. Let cool, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing on the zest to extract all the juice. Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt over low heat; set aside to cool.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk, then whisk in the superfine sugar. Continue to whisk until the sugar is well blended, then whisk in the juice, melted butter, and a pinch of salt.

Brush the base of the tart shell with the beaten egg white, making sure it goes into all the holes. Return it to the oven, on a baking sheet, for 4 minutes.

Pour the filling into the tart shell, and bake until barely set, 15 to 18 minutes; the filling should still be wobbly, but not runny, in the centre. Transfer the tart to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Cut the remaining grapefruit in half from top to bottom. Cut each half into thin half-moon slices, about 1/8 inch. You need about 20 slices. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place a large wire rack on top.

Put the granulated sugar in a saucepan and add the water. Place over low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Add only enough grapefruit slices to make a single layer of fruit in the syrup. Cover, and simmer gently until the pith is translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the slices, drain, and transfer them to the rack on the baking sheet. Add the remaining slices in batches and continue simmering, covered, until they are all cooked. You’ll need 16 slices for the tart, so if 1 or 2 fall apart don’t worry, you can eat them.

Mentally divide the tart into 8 portions. On each portion, place 2 slices of cooked grapefruit, overlapping them so the rind edge is to the outside and they make a stylized fish shape. You can, of course, cover the tart in cooked grapefruit slices, and while this looks very pretty, it makes the tart very difficult to cut. I prefer practicality to looks in this recipe.

McLagan’s first book, called Bones, was published in 2005 as a reaction to the rise of the boneless, skinless chicken breast; in our rush for convenience we’d abandoned the tastes and the textures of cooking and eating bone-in meats. Within a few years of Bones’ publication you could scarcely go to a restaurant without seeing whole roasted marrow bones on the tables. Fat, McLagan’s ode to the deliciousness and, yes, the healthfulness of animal fat, came out three years later. (“That one was about six years ahead of its time,” she says.)

2011’s Odd Bits celebrated animal hearts, livers, kidneys, hooves, lungs, tripe and other offal, lending not just momentum, but also many of the techniques and recipes that propelled the rise of North American nose-to-tail cooking.

Bitter, which will be released this week in Canada and the U.S., is perhaps her most difficult subject yet. “Bitter is a negative to most people,” she told me. “It’s a bad word in North America.” But it’s also the most complex and sophisticated of the tastes, the book argues – or as McLagan’s friend, the cook and author Naomi Duguid puts it in Bitter’s epigraph, “Bitter is the gatekeeper of adult taste.”

So maybe my response to the Fernet and that Latvian rotgut were a little childish. I had time to redeem myself. McLagan had laid out a pair of knobbly green bitter melons on her kitchen counter, as well as celery leaves, orange zest, walnuts, prunes marinated in black tea, a package of ground pork and a bottle of homemade tonic water. We were about to make a very bitter lunch.

Prunes marinated in black tea and orange peel.

Bitter was borne from McLagan’s remembrance of the grapefruit she used to eat for breakfast growing up in Melbourne, Australia. The grapefruit of McLagan’s childhood was white-fleshed and bitter – her mother used to sprinkle it with sugar to temper the taste. Bitter is a learned taste. You come to love it by experience.

“My experience with grapefruit gave me a positive attitude to bitter, and it became an important part of my flavour palate,” she writes.

Today most grapefruit is pink and sweet-tasting – the bitterness has been bred out of many popular varieties. In North America especially, we’ve forgotten how complex and interesting bitter foods can be.

McLagan studied politics and economics at university in Melbourne before moving to Paris and London in her early 20s, where she worked as a cook. She moved to Toronto in the early 1980s; she and her husband, a prop and special effects maker named Haralds Gaikis, have lived here for 33 winters, she says. McLagan worked as one of the city’s top food stylists until Bones’ publication. She’s been a full-time cookbook writer ever since.

The pair spend winters and summers in Ontario, spring and fall in Europe (they keep a small apartment in Paris). In Europe, bitterness never disappeared. In Italy, she’d drink Campari with soda and an orange slice, and the gently bitter digestives called amari. In France she’d eat bitter frisée salads with a poached egg and nubs of fatty bacon sprinkled on top.

She built bitter into her cooking. “Citrus zests, turnips, rapini, chicories and cardoons became some of my favourite tastes, and I found myself craving them,” she writes. When McLagan made caramel she’d cook the sugar until it began smoking – the heat breaks down sugar’s simple sweetness into a few hundred new molecules that taste sour, buttery, alcoholic, fruity, toasty, nutty and with enough cooking, complexly bitter. In North America, caramel was almost always one-note sweet.

That complexity is perhaps bitter’s greatest drawing power: Unlike sweet, sour or salty, which are simple, easily describable sensations, bitter comes in myriad flavours and textures, from astringent to burnt-tasting to herbal-medicinal, and nearly every person experiences them in a different way. “Thousands of different compounds in foods elicit a bitter response,” McLagan writes.

In her kitchen that morning, we started with something simple, a bowl of prunes chilled in a bath of strong black tea and orange peel. The sweetness of the fruit, the tannins and astringency of the tea and the bitter-floral oils of the orange played off each other, so that no one flavour spun out of balance.

McLagan roasted celery stalks until they were crisp and caramelized, subtly bitter and sweet at the same time, with tarragon thrown in for a layer of anise.

Before lunch, she handed me another glass. She’d mixed some gin with an orange-coloured tonic she’d made the week earlier. Her recipe calls for allspice, star anise, lemongrass, citrus zest and juice, peppercorns, powdered cinchona bark from the tropics, salt … The sensation of drinking homemade tonic water after a lifetime of the store stuff was like seeing a full-colour movie for the first time after being stuck all my life with black and white.

“In the kitchen, eschewing bitter is like cooking without salt, or eating without looking,” McLagan writes. I’d hardly been a bitter-avoider until then – I’d even begun seeking it out in green vegetables and chocolate, especially – but clearly I hadn’t also fully embraced its possibilities.

Bitter is filled with recipes for arugula and prosciutto pizza, caramel ice cream, pumpkin-radicchio risotto and a pretty spectacular looking grapefruit tart – hardly what you’d call double-dare dishes.

Rony’s Brussels Sprouts and Chickpeas

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 cup (180 g) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 500 g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry

Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water by two inches and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to over an hour, so you need to keep an eye on them. When they are cooked, remove from the heat, uncover, stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool for 30 minutes. Then drain them and spread them on a baking sheet lined with a towel to dry.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan with a lid, and place over medium heat. When hot, add the shallot and cook until soft. Add the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until lightly browned. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock and bring to a boil, stirring to deglaze the pan by scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Tip the contents of the pan into a bowl.

Wipe out the pan and then add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Place over high heat, and when hot, add the Brussels sprouts. Try and get as many of the sprouts cut side down as you can. Cook the sprouts until dark brown on one side, then add the remaining chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the Brussels sprouts are tender but still crisp.

Add the chickpeas, shallots, and any liquid and cook until warmed through. Check the seasoning and pour in the sherry. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Recipe adapted from Bitter © 2014 by Jennifer McLagan. Photography by Aya Brackett. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved.

She uses bitterness as a team player, as a way to temper salt, spice or sweetness, or to mellow the decadence of fat. “As soon as you put fat with bitter – maybe that’s why I did this book. You put bacon dressing on some bitter greens, it’s just delicious. Or braise some endive in butter and it caramelizes and it just retains a tiny bit of its bitterness.”

McLagan cautions that you’d never make a meal of only bitter dishes, just as you’d never make a meal of only sour or salty or sweet.

Except for at her house that morning. Bitterness was the entire point. The last savoury course she made was Asian bitter melon seared with pork, chiles, garlic and onions. As she served it, she cautioned that it was the most intensely bitter recipe in the book.

I hope she’s right. Even against the sweetness of the onions and garlic and the seared pork’s savoury voluptuousness, that bitter melon was what you’d call pungent. Still, I liked it.

I even had a second helping.

McLagan makes a dish featuring Asian bitter melon.