A unique cookbook appeared in my kitchenette this week. It is BITTER by acclaimed chef Jennifer McLagan. McLagan, an Aussie who splits her time between Toronto and Paris, is the author Bones (2005), Fat (2008), and Odd Bits (2011).
McLagan celebrates BITTER tastes, just like the authors of the Passover Haggadah. As British chef Sybil Kapoor wrote, “Every culinary choice we make defines who we are – and not just to ourselves, but to others.” …Whether it is following kashrut or eating bitter, I like that idea during the introspective month of Elul.
McLagan writes that cultures of Asia (the land of bitter melon) and Italy (Volari, Campari) appreciate bitter flavors in ways that North Americans do not. But with the surge in popularity of arugula, radicchio, dandelion, coffee, and dark chocolate, the time is right to celebrate bitterness – a bitterness that signals toxic danger, but provides pleasure and nutrition.
Her recipes use Belgian endive, radicchio, escarole, chicori (endives), blood oranges, beer (hops), arugula, Brussels sprouts, turnips, rutabagas, rapini (broccoli raab), horseradish, seville oranges, walnuts, grapefruits, cardoon (like an artichoke), dark chocolate with high levels of cacao, white asparagus, and more (but she left out cow bile).
The book grew out of the author’s memory of the bitter breakfast grapefruits of your youth. But they have been revamped by fruit marketing boards into sweet pink ones. Reading her recipes, storiesm, and analyses, you come away with the feeling that you have just earned a delightful degree in flavor, sensory cognition, and food history.
Standout recipes includes ones for Bitter Greens Ravioli; Belgian Endive Bathing in Butter (do NOT boil endive); Belgian Endive Flemish Style (uses milk and nutmeg but skip the ham); Radicchio Pie (red chicory, she tried this in Turin, but you can skip the pancetta); Radicchio and Gorgonzola Pasta Sauce (the radicchio offsets the richness of the cheese); (meat) in Coffee Blackcurrant Sauce; Whisky Chocolate Tart; Turnip Ice Cream; White Asparagus with Blood Orange Sauce; Homemade Tonic Water (less sweet, more complex zest flavors); Tea Infused Prunes (let sit for two days); Beer Jelly; Turnip (brassica) and Fava Bean Stew (with garlic, peppers, thyme, butter and onions); Rapini and Penne (once again skip the pork); Horseradish and Avocado Quenelles (a la Moustache in Paris’ 5th arrondissement); Lamb with Dark Chocolate Pepper Sauce; and Cardoon Beef Tagine with Israeli Coucous (uses 2.5 pounds of stewing beef, 2 onions, ginger, cumin, turmeric, garlic, paprika, 1 lemon, olives, cilantro, and 2.5 pounds of cardoons).
Radicchio gives the rice a lovely winey hue in this dish, and its bitterness balances the pumpkin’s sweetness. The word pumpkin here is used in the British sense–in other words, winter squash. Use a firm, dry variety like Hubbard or kabocha, which has a mild chestnut flavor. This recipe will stretch to serve four as a starter, depending on the rest of your meal; you can also double the recipe. Do use homemade stock, as it will make all the difference to the final result. You could also use a well-flavored vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian. You’ll probably only need 2 cups of the stock, but it will depend on your rice, so it is better to have a little extra just in case.
2-1/2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1/4 cup unsalted butter, or butter substitute for those using chicken stock
1 shallot, finely chopped
6 oz. pumpkin (or winter squash), cut into 1/2-inch dice, about 1-1/4 cups
5-1/4 oz. radicchio leaves, rinsed and trimmed
1/2 cup risotto rice (Vialone nano, Arborio, or Carnaroli)
2 Tbs. white wine or dry vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the stock barely simmers.
In another saucepan, if you are using butter or non dairy butter substitute – melt half of it over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent. Add the diced “pumpkin” and stir to coat the pieces with the “butter.” Season with salt, and cook until the pumpkin starts to soften slightly at the edges, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the radicchio leaves in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1/4-inch strips. You should have about 4 cups.
Add the rice to the pan, stirring to warm the grains and coat them in butter. Stir in the radicchio and continue stirring until it wilts and changes color. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring until it evaporates; season with black pepper. Now add a ladleful of hot stock and keep stirring the simmering rice constantly until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the stock, one ladle at a time, when the previous liquid is almost completely absorbed.
After 20 to 25 minutes, the pumpkin should be cooked and the rice should be creamy and cooked but still slightly al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Check the seasoning, stir in the remaining half of the butter substitute, and serve in warm bowls.
GRAPEFRUIT TART (Serves 8)
This recipe was first made when the author was studying in a course that made you learn Frnech through cooking French cuisine. It is much easier to learn a language if you need to know what everyone is talking about. Her husband asked her to make this tart many times in the early years of their marriage, but she had lost the recipe. Then she found it ten years later in another cookbook, tucked between some pages. Here is the improved version. It uses a grapefruit custard and candied grapefruit to balance bittersweet and tart.
2 cups flour
A pinch of fine sea salt
2/3 cup cold, unsalted butter, diced
1/3 cup superfine (caster) sugar
For the tart
Fine sea salt
2 small grapefruit
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/2 cup superfine (caster) sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
Make the dough
Combine the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles very coarse bread crumbs. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
In another bowl, whisk together the egg and sugar. Pour the egg mixture over the flour and butter mixture and then mix with a fork. Squeeze a bit of the mixture between your fingers. If it holds together, transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; if not, add a couple of teaspoons of ice water and test again.
Gently knead the dough into a ball, then divide the pastry in half, and flatten into 2 disks. Wrap each disk in a plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.
Make the tart
Roll out one disk of pastry dough on a floured surface and line a 9-inch 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 colored. 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 center. 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. This means that you do it in your head and do not actually divide it yet
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.