We expect sugar in a dessert. We are accustomed to sugar in snacks. But we don't tend to think of sugar as an ingredient at dinner.
Although sugar is not appropriate for every main or side dish, there are certain savory recipes in which sugar plays a crucial role. Rather than shout sweetness, the sugar picks up the flavors integral to the dish and subtly enhances them.
The trick is knowing when sweet is savory.
Sugar is widely used in many Asian cuisines. Hoa Lai, chef at the family-operated Huong Que (also known as Four Sisters) in the Eden Center in Falls Church, notes: "In Asian cooking, sweet and savory have been combined harmoniously for a few thousand years." Lai explains that Asian cooking uses a lot of fish and soy sauces, both of which are very salty. As a result, many foods require a sweetness to counter the intense saltiness, such as Vietnamese caramelized dishes in which fish, chicken or pork are slowly simmered in a caramel syrup and fish sauce along with aromatics such as lemon grass and ginger. In addition to balancing the overall flavor of the dish, sugar serves to intensify the flavors that might otherwise be overwhelmed by the saltiness.
The use of sugar in savory preparations, although far less common, also can be found in Western culinary traditions. Many chefs consider the role of sugar in savory cooking to be nothing more than a dishonest means to doctor imperfect tomatoes or old peas. Other chefs, however, are quick to point out that sugar can enhance natural flavors. Adding a pinch of sugar to the cooking water of foods that are high in sugar -- such as perfectly ripe vegetables -- gives the natural flavor more spark.
"Why do we call it cheating if we add sugar, but not if we add salt?" says Gerard Pangaud, chef/owner at Gerard's Place in downtown Washington. "It helps to season. It is a natural ingredient. Sometimes people are too structured, too black and white. All the ingredients are like colors and we are allowed to use them all."
Pangaud points out that many ingredients, such as beets, carrots and onions, are valued specifically for the sugar they contribute to a dish.
Sugar can be invaluable as a means to balance spicy, not just salty, flavors. Chef/co-owner Frank Ruta at Palena in Cleveland Park dusts raw shrimp with a mixture of cayenne pepper and candied orange zest before sauteing them in butter.
In certain instances, sugar can provide texture in addition to flavor. Jeff Buben, chef/owner of Vidalia downtown and Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill, adds sugar instead of flour when browning cubes of meat for stew. While flour has a tendency to fall off the meat, Buben says, sugar actually adheres to the meat. (Buben essentially caramelizes the meat twice to achieve a thick, flavorful crust. First he browns the meat in hot oil, then he drains the oil, sprinkles the meat with sugar and sears it a second time.)
In addition to texture, sugar adds significant depth, complexity and richness. The duck confit at downtown's Cafe Atlantico receives a double hit. First the duck is marinated in a salt and sugar mixture, where the sugar helps to cure the meat. When the duck is reheated prior to serving, it is sprinkled with sugar then broiled to promote caramelization of a crust that lends a slightly sweet flavor and a crisp texture.
Even a sweet sugar syrup can lose its cloying characteristics and lend a dish a more finished flavor. Jeff Black, chef/owner at Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and Addie's in Rockville, begins with a basic recipe for caramel when preparing spiced duck breasts served with an orange and port sauce. And John Wabeck, chef at Firefly near Dupont Circle, occasionally drizzles seared chicken livers with a vanilla-enhanced simple syrup. Wabeck is a recent convert to harnessing sugar's savory side. "Once I started to learn more about Vietnam and Japan and their caramel sauces, I started changing my view on sugar," explains Wabeck. "These are ideas that have been around for thousands of years," he says, referring to their culinary traditions. "They know more than I do."
Shrimp With Spiced Candied Orange Crust
(8 first-course or 4 main-course servings)
The wonderfully aromatic, candied coating on this shrimp attains just the right balance of sweet and spice. Frank Ruta, chef/co-owner at Palena in Cleveland Park, recommends serving the shrimp atop an argula salad dressed with citrus vinaigrette.
Do not substitute store-bought candied peel; it is far too sweet.
For the candied orange zest:
43/4 cups water
11/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the shrimp:
1/2 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 to 6 large egg yolks
11/2 pounds fresh large or extra-large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound), shelled and deveined
4 tablespoons butter
For the candied zest: Using a zester or a vegetable peeler, remove all the zest from the oranges in long strips. Do not include any of the bitter underlying white pith. Cut each strip of zest into matchstick-size strips about 1/8 inch wide.
In a medium saucepan, bring the orange zest and 4 cups of the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Drain; set the strips aside.
Return the saucepan to medium-high heat and bring the remaining 3/4 cup water and the sugar to a boil. Simmer, without stirring, until the sugar dissolves, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low, add the drained orange zest, cover the pan partially and simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Check the zest frequently so it does not burn.
Pour into a strainer, discarding the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Spread the zest on the baking sheet, transfer to the oven and bake for 4 hours. Turn off the oven but leave the sheet in the oven to dry completely, at least 2 and up to 8 hours. (May transfer to an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.)
Using a food processor, process the candied orange zest until finely ground. Add the cayenne pepper and pulse to combine. Transfer to a shallow dish; set aside.
For the shrimp: In a shallow dish, combine the flour and salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
In a shallow dish, using a fork, lightly beat the yolks and set aside.
Have ready a platter or baking sheet large enough to hold the shrimp in a single layer.
Rinse the shrimp, pat dry and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Working 1 at a time, first dredge the shrimp in the flour mixture, turning to coat both sides and shaking to remove any excess. Then dip the shrimp lightly in the egg yolk, turning to coat both sides and allowing any excess to drip off. Then dip the shrimp in the candied zest mixture, turning to coat both sides and pressing the mixture to help it adhere. Place the shrimp on the platter or sheet. Repeat with the remaining shrimp. (May cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.)
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter, being careful not to allow it to brown. Add about half of the shrimp, being careful not to crowd the skillet. Cook, turning as few times as possible, just until cooked through, about 2 minutes per side, depending on the size of the shrimp. Do not overcook. Transfer to a platter and set aside. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet and repeat with the remaining shrimp.
Scrape any remaining orange zest crumbs from the skillet and sprinkle over the cooked shrimp. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 8): 315 calories, 20 gm protein, 43 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 244 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 165 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Duck Breasts With Caramelized Orange-Port Sauce
This is caramel sauce with some sass. The sweetness lends the necessary underpinning to citrus and port flavors, all of which serve to counter the richness of the duck. You may substitute chicken thighs for the duck (see variation that follows). The demi-glace results in a sauce with more depth of flavor.
From Jeff Black, chef and owner of Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and Addie's in Rockville.
For the duck:
4 duck breast halves, preferably Muscovy
4 teaspoons blackstrap molasses*
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin, or less to taste
Salt to taste
For the sauce:
3/4 cup port
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Zest from 1 orange
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 to 1 medium jalapeno chili pepper, seeded and minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon rice vinegar, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup demi-glace (optional)**
For the duck: Rinse the duck breasts and pat completely dry. Rub each duck breast all over with 1 teaspoon of the molasses, then season all over with pepper and cumin to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or, preferably, up to 24 hours.
For the sauce: In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the port and 1/2 cup of the orange juice to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.
In another saucepan over medium heat, heat the sugar and orange zest with the remaining 1/4 cup orange juice, tilting the pan occasionally but not stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture turns an amber color. Immediately add the ginger, shallot, garlic, jalapeno, thyme and the reserved port reduction and simmer just until the sauce begins to thicken, 5 to 7 minutes. (The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.) Strain the sauce, discarding any solids.
Return the sauce to the same pan, return to medium heat and bring to a simmer. Gradually whisk in the butter, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste and, if desired, the demi-glace. Simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat; cover to keep warm and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place a heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Season the duck with salt to taste. Place in the skillet, skin-side down, and sear until golden, about 3 minutes. Turn and sear for 1 minute. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until the desired degree of doneness, 12 to 15 minutes for medium. Transfer the duck to a cutting board and set aside to rest for 5 minutes.
To serve, thinly slice each duck breast crosswise and fan the slices on individual plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the slices. Serve immediately.
* Note: Blackstrap molasses is a thick, dark, somewhat bitter by-product of sugar refining. Stronger than light or dark molasses, it is often found in health food stores.
* Note: Demi-glace is an intensely flavored glaze that is attained by reducing stock, typically veal or duck, with fortified wine. It is used to add richness and thickness to sauces.
Per serving (meat and skin): 928 calories, 21 gm protein, 41 gm carbohydrates, 70 gm fat, 138 mg cholesterol, 24 gm saturated fat, 254 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Chicken Thighs With Caramelized Orange-Port Sauce: Instead of duck, substitute 8 boneless chicken thighs. Rub each thigh on all sides with molasses (about 1/2 teaspoon per thigh), then season with pepper and cumin to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Proceed as above with preparation of the sauce. To cook the chicken, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add the thighs, skin-side down, and sear, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until no trace of pink remains, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the thighs to a platter and pour the sauce over them.
The sweetness of this dish approximates that of the traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole -- and is therefore guaranteed to entice anyone to eat his vegetables. You may temper the sweetness by adding less sugar.
6 to 9 medium carrots, peeled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 to 6 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
Cut each carrot crosswise into chunks about 1 inch long at the thicker root end and 11/2 inches long at the narrower tip end. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the carrots, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate; set aside.
Wipe the skillet clean and return to medium-high heat. Add the brown sugar and butter and heat, tilting the pan or stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Add the carrots and cook, tilting the pan to coat the carrots, until the carrots are well coated and cooked through, about 5 minutes. The sugar cooks down to a syrup that will cling to the carrots.
Per serving: 148 calories, 1 gm protein, 17 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 47 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Andrea M. Vayda, a freelance food writer based in Boston, last wrote for Food about how to incorporate vegetables into the daily routine.