As a flavour, bitter often gets a bad rap. A taste to grimace at instead of embrace. Evolutionarily, this is understandable: as a natural defence system, our taste buds adapted to detect a modicum of bitterness since many poisons are, well, bitter.
But while most people historically have been ardent avoiders of bitterness —more simplistic sweet and salty have largely edged bitter out of the kitchen—foods such as arugula, frisée, rapini, and their respective bitter edges are increasingly colonizing restaurant menus and the vegetable aisles of supermarkets.
The booming craft beer industry is relying heavily on the bitterness of hops. Artisanal chocolate makers are offering up their wares with higher and higher cacao percentages.
Why the surging interest? Long overdue, people are waking up to the fact that bitterness adds complexity to dishes and can balance out other tastes in the flavour spectrum. Without bitterness, cooking can lack harmony and dimension.
Beyond elevating a meal to elegant, we should also consider bitterness the taste of health, as bitter foods are often rich in compounds that have a positive impact on our health. So, when it comes to bitter, it’s time to push the prejudice off your palate with these recipes that open up all the possibilities of the flavour spectrum.
A bitter pill might be hard to swallow, but these bitter delights can wake up your taste buds and help to up the health ante of any meal.
In many cases, the nutritional benefits of bitter foods put others to shame. That’s because the compounds that make foods come off as bitter to our taste buds—think polyphenols in cacao, curcumin in turmeric, tannins in walnuts, terpenes in citrus peel, and glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts and kale—also happen to be powerfully good-for-you antioxidants that may help lower the risk for certain deadly diseases such as cancer.
Not to mention that medicinal bitter delights such as radicchio and walnuts contain an arsenal of micronutrients necessary for lasting health.
And developing a bigger appetite for bitter-tasting foods could help in the battle of the bulge. A study published in the journal Appetite found that individuals who frowned upon bitter-tasting fare were more likely to be overweight.
This makes sense if people replace bitter foods on their plate with sugary or salty processed foods and need to tame the bitterness of items such as coffee and chocolate with higher amounts of sugar. Plus, many bitter foods also tend to be low in caloric density.
Dumping a bunch of bitter greens on your kid’s plate is very likely to not go over well. Children naturally have an aversion to bitter-tasting foods (think of your failed attempts to get them to eat Brussels sprouts), so a better approach is needed to ease them into the world of bitter.
This means being stealthy and sneaking smaller amounts of bitter foods into dishes they already like. That could involve stirring a handful of arugula into mac and cheese or a spoonful of cacao powder into oatmeal.
Repeat exposure is a key way for all generations of a household to learn to enjoy the bitter side of foods.
Toss the tempered bitterness of raw turnip with sweet-tart apple slices, crunchy sunflower seeds, fresh mint, and a dairy-free creamy curry dressing, and you’ll have a slaw to take notice of. After all, bitter plays well with sour, salty, and especially sweet. Leftovers won’t disappoint. Deliver even higher nutrition by serving the slaw atop a bed of baby kale or spinach.
Within each bowl is a delightful play of flavours and textures with curly endive (sometimes labelled chicory) and the tahini-turmeric sauce delivering just the right amount of bitter punch. All the elements of this dish can be prepared ahead of time for a quick toss for lunch or dinner, but keep everything separated until just before serving.
Elevate your salad and side-dish game at once. When blasted in the oven and flecked with a bit of char, radicchio mellows and gains some sweetness while still retaining just the right amount of bitterness. Here, it’s paired with acidic (syrupy balsamic) and fatty (creamy cheese) ingredients to make a knife-and-fork salad with balanced flavours.
Together, arugula pesto and hazelnuts add a whisper of bitterness to this dish that offers a fresh take on pasta night to welcome spring. Tossing chickpeas into the mix adds some satiating plant-based protein. If orecchiette pasta is not available, other shaped noodles such as penne work as stand-ins.
Time to use a hit of bitter to wake up your breakfast routine. This coffee-chocolate sauce adds a haunting bitter element to everything it touches from creamy yogurt to pancakes to a bowl of vanilla ice cream. As with wine and vinegar, reducing coffee concentrates its flavour so a little goes a long way.
Get J-C Poirier talking about food, and the word “honest” will be sprinkled throughout the conversation like the Diamond Crystal kosher salt the Michelin-starred chef uses in the kitchen of his Quebecois bistro, St. Lawrence, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Honest food Poirier’s favourite food is “honest food.” As a culinarian, and one paying homage to his French-Canadian heritage, he’s all about “being honest with his food.” But unlike the opaque marketing buzzword that “honest” has become in the food world, Poirier applies it with earnestness to the cooking that inspires him and that he hopes to encourage in others, including with his recently released cookbook, Where the River Narrow s (Appetite by Random House, 2022) . “What I mean is, you’ve got to be attentive to yourself as a chef or as a cook. It comes by knowing yourself and your background, and where you come from,” Poirier says. “Being honest is offering a part of who you are. That’s how I know the difference between good cooking and great cooking.” Honest roots Poirier comes by his greatness at cooking, well, honestly. All apron strings lead back to his bon vivant mother, who was as convivial as she was creative in the kitchen of the family’s Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, home. She bought local and stretched a dollar. She also pushed boundaries with the young taste buds around the table, exposing Poirier to quinoa before it became a household grain and making her own tofu. Honest training The magic of cooking and gathering over a meal compelled Poirier to eventually enrol in culinary school. He spent a year training in classical French techniques before putting them to the test in the storied Les Remparts in Old Montreal. Poirier was drawn to the physical aspect of cooking, but like many young people forging their own path, he was eventually lured away from the place that reared him. Vancouver beckoned. After stints at Rob Feenie’s Lumière, and even in his own Italian-inspired dining rooms and eateries, a meal in Paris inspired Poirier to get back to his roots in the kitchen. In 2017, he opened St. Lawrence, a cozy 40-seat space that’s like “entering my grandma’s house.” “It’s being authentic to myself,” he says. Honest legacy Poirier retraces his professional journey and personal growth in < Where the River Narrows > using recipes that channel timeless and foundational French and Quebecois cooking techniques, and a more relaxed Poirier at home. If he’s being honest, Poirier hopes the book will be a legacy to share with his two young daughters, Aïla and Florence. It also serves as a business card for a restaurant that’s earning prestigious accolades, including Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year by Vancouver Magazine . Last fall, dining authority Michelin bestowed one of its coveted stars upon St. Lawrence, too. Honest values That success can be linked to the professional values Poirier upholds in addition to raw talent. He leads by healthy example, eschewing alcohol, especially on the job, and espousing work-life balance by opening St. Lawrence only four days a week. He also offers employment benefits, including four weeks of vacation every year. His staff stay, and success follows honestly. Looking ahead, Poirier knows only that he will stay true—to himself and his craft. “I’ll just keep going forward and try to be me,” he says. “And my team? Try to be better and better every day at what we do, and the rest will come.” Key ingredients Quality over quantity is as much a mantra for J-C Poirier as honesty, especially when it comes to ingredients. That’s why he encourages home cooks to splurge on premium options. They make a significant difference to the end result, he argues, and because of their quality, you’ll need less of them, too, extending their value. Poirier’s essential top-shelf ingredients grass-fed, cultured butter organic all-purpose flour for baking; whole wheat, buckwheat, and Red Fife flours for bread making top-notch oils for a variety of purposes, including grapeseed oil for cooking, first-pressed canola oil for salad dressing, and extra-virgin olive oil for finishing dishes Diamond Crystal kosher salt for seasoning food and Maldon sea salt for a finishing touch to add texture high quality vinegars, including red wine, balsamic, and apple cider Cooking for the health of it French food doesn’t always conjure healthy eating. After all, the French eat four times as much butter and 60 percent more cheese than the average American. There are health-conscious ways to stay true to both your inner gastronome and the cuisine, however. For J-C Poirier, it’s cooking with emotion, logic, and love, and remembering the following. Less is more “I don’t need a 10 ounce piece of beef. I need maybe four or five, and a really high quality,” Poirier says. “I pay the price for it, but I just eat less.” Eat the seasons “In the summer, I will buy all the vegetables from the farm,” he explains. “When it’s asparagus season, we eat asparagus. In the winter, we eat potatoes and parsnips and sunchokes.” Cook for yourself—and from scratch “A lot of people buy processed food, and that has a higher amount of salt or sugar than if I start from scratch and control what I put in there.” Watch your fat Use high-end, pure versions of butter and cooking oils rather than refined options or those cut with other ingredients that could negatively impact health. “It’s being a little more aware, I think, of what people are buying,” Poirier says. Excerpted from < Where the River Narrows: Classic French & Nostalgic Québécois Recipes From St. Lawrence Restaurant > by Jean-Christophe Poirier. Written with Joie Alvaro Kent. Copyright © 2022 Jean- Christophe Poirier. Cover and book design by Jennifer Griffiths. Photography by Brit Gill, except page 148. Photo on page 8 by Amy Ho. Photos on pages 2, 5, and 6 courtesy of the author. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Penguin
Tourtière is, for me, the dish that best represents Québec. It can be traced back to the 1600s, and there’s no master recipe; every family has their own twist. Originally, it was made with game birds or game meat, like rabbit, pheasant, or moose; that’s one of the reasons why I prefer it with venison instead of beef or pork. Variation: If you prefer to make single servings, follow our lead at the restaurant, where we make individual tourtières in the form of a dome (pithivier) and fill them with 5 ounces (160 g) of the ground venison mixture. Variation: You can also use a food processor to make the dough. Place the flour, salt, and butter in the food processor and pulse about ten times, until the butter is incorporated—don’t overmix. It should look like wet sand, and a few little pieces of butter here and there is okay. With the motor running, through the feed tube, slowly add ice water until the dough forms a ball—again don’t overmix. Wrap, chill, and roll out as directed above.
My love of artichokes continues with this classic recipe, one of the best ways to eat this interesting, underrated, and strange vegetable. Frozen artichoke hearts are a time-saving substitute, though the flavour and texture of fresh artichokes are, by far, much superior and definitely preferred.