Take a bow, Jennifer McLagan. With your newest book, “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, With Recipes” (Ten Speed Press; $29.99), you’ve given foodists the chance to chew on a topic made for adults.
Bitter, as the chef-author of the James Beard Award-winning “Fat” (2008) describes, is to her both a “taste” and a “flavor.” Recognizing its cultural significance and appreciating it even in the form of burnt edges on toast make us feel as if summer movies and squirt guns are behind us. The look of the book feels grown-up as well, in its favoring of dark backgrounds and moody lighting.
McLagan offers a little science by way of essays on the effect of phenolic compounds in olives and cardoons, a look at how our choice of cutlery can amplify bitter foods, and an explanation of why some of us experience bitterness more keenly than the rest of us.
Radicchio, dark chocolate, coffee and grapefruit are expected components among the book’s 100 recipes. Apricots, white asparagus and Fernet-Branca are chin-stroking surprises. A splosh of the latter added to a sauce for sauteed chicken livers is a deft touch that will help use up that brooding bottle of amaro on your shelf.
McLagan’s definition of bitter can be nibbled by quibbles. What part of sour or acidic is really just bitter? But that road leads to a greater exploration found in the transformative powers of cooking. Celery roasted with tarragon becomes bittersweet. A hoppy beer, simmered into carrots, offers a counterpoint to the vegetable’s sweetness.
“Bitter” affords thoughtful culinary adventures — a welcome level of sophistication for the mature palate.