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.
Are you wondering what it means to buy “sustainable” seafood? The type of seafood, where it’s from, and how it’s caught or harvested all play into what makes seafood sustainable. Simply put, it means that the harvest of a particular seafood is done in a way that allows for continued harvesting into the future. But it’s not simply a question of controlling overfishing. Impacts on the environment are also key. Wild fish have the reputation of being more sustainable, but that’s only if they’re fished through managed seafood programs and don’t have other impacts such as pollution or depletion of other species. Seafood from aquaculture can also be sustainable, provided it is done in a way that avoids any detrimental effects to the larger ocean environment or other species. Stay informed, though, since species considered sustainable one day may be under threat the next. This might mean being willing to try something new or forgoing a favourite for something that is more sustainable. While that may sound like a sacrifice, it’s also an opportunity to discover a new favourite. If you live in an area where seafood is harvested, making a decision to support local fishers and harvesters may also influence your decision about which sustainable seafood choices to make. Navigating the specifics can be tricky, but your local fish counter is a great place to start your quest for sustainable fish. Your fishmonger is a valuable source of information about where the product is sourced. You can also look for certifications from organizations such as Ocean Wise and Marine Stewardship Council. Once you get it home, sustainable seafood’s variety and versatility presents us with an ocean of delicious opportunities in the kitchen. Try these recipes for simple, flavourful, and diverse preparations. Your choices can help Ocean Wise Seafood is a seafood certification program that helps consumers and businesses choose sustainable seafood options. The program works with scientists to assess the state of aquatic ecosystems and the species they support, making recommendations on sustainable choices. They employ a simple rating of either Ocean Wise Recommended or Not Recommended. Look for the Ocean Wise symbol when you buy seafood or check out their website ( seafood.ocean.org ) to search for sustainable seafood options. They have information about various species, where and how they’re fished or harvested, and whether your choice is sustainable. It’s simple, easy, and reassuring. Face your fish-prep fears Many of us shy away from cooking seafood because we think we don’t know how, or because we may be worried about spoiling a piece of beautiful fish. Here are some quick tips to relieve your fish-prep fears. Start with the best In addition to asking at your fish counter about sustainability, don’t be afraid to ask how the seafood you’re buying has been transported and stored. Frozen fish, which is flash frozen, may be a better choice than a piece of “fresh” fish that has been around for a while. Store it properly Shellfish Store shellfish in the fridge, in a shallow pan without water, and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Frozen fish Remove frozen fish from its packaging, and thaw, loosely covered, in the fridge overnight. Drain any water that collects as it thaws. Cook fresh fish within two days. Celebrate simplicity Quality seafood is its own celebration and lends itself to simple preparations: a quick grill, a dash of lemon. Keep it simple and let the flavour of the fish shine through! Let your fish warm up It may sound strange, but letting your fish come up to room temperature over about 30 minutes will help you get an even temperature when it’s time to cook. Explore different cooking methods Poached, grilled, steamed, baked—seafood does it all. If you always grill fish, explore a gentle poach or raw preparation. Know your temperature Use higher heat for grilling, and make sure the pan or grill is hot when the fish hits it. Use low heat and a gentle simmer when poaching. Skin side down Cooking fish with the skin on helps keep it together. When grilling, cook the skin side first to protect the fish as it cooks. Know when it’s done Fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork and is barely opaque in the centre. Dive in Don’t let your fear stop you. Just get started!
While sablefish’s texture and fat content stand up admirably to the heat of the grill, this firm fish is also delicious poached. For this recipe, sablefish’s luxurious taste is combined with a light fragrant broth of lemongrass and ginger punctuated with the heat of Thai chili. Sustainability status Sablefish, also known as butterfish or black cod, is a rich and satisfying fish, plentiful in omega-3s and sourced sustainably from the Pacific Northwest. Skin and bones Sablefish has large pin bones. Ideally, your fishmonger will remove them, but if not, before you begin, locate them along the fish’s centreline and, using a pair of needle nose pliers, grasp them firmly to remove. You can leave the skin on for this recipe, which may help the fish hold together a little better while cooking, but it can be tricky to peel the skin away from the cooked fish and discard before plating. I opted to remove the skin first and simply keep a close eye on the cooking time, being careful to remove the fish from the poaching liquid before it flakes apart.
These mildly spiced salmon tacos served with sweet and spicy pumpkin seeds will bring a party together. Make a small quantity of salmon go further when you pair it with a fresh red cabbage slaw featuring citrus and cilantro. Drizzled with some bright lime yogurt, the flavours come together perfectly. Sustainability status Wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are considered among the most sustainable, as the fishery is subject to limited harvests. With salmon stocks in decline, supporting managed fisheries such as these can help maintain populations into the future. That may also mean eating salmon less often than we do now. Salmon is a favourite Salmon is the most popular variety of fish in Canada and the second most popular in the US.
B12-rich mussels are a very good and economical source of protein and iron. Steamed mussels are a classic way to enjoy seafood—and so is this rich, aromatic broth of tomato, fennel, and saffron. Be sure to allow saffron to fully infuse to get the full flavour benefit, and finish off the dish with the fragrant fennel fronds. Sustainability status Farmed mussels are considered highly sustainable due to their low impacts on the environment. They are easy to harvest, require no fertilizer or fresh water, and don’t need to be fed externally, as they get all their nutritional requirements from their marine environment. Mussel prep Selection: Look for mussels with shiny, tightly closed shells that smell of the sea. If shells are slightly open, give them a tap. Live mussels will close immediately. Storage: Keep mussels in the fridge in a shallow pan laid on top of ice. Keep them out of water and cover with a damp cloth. Ideally, consume on the day you buy them, but within two days. They need to breathe, so never keep them in a sealed plastic bag. Cleanup: In addition to being sustainable, farmed mussels tend to require less cleaning than wild mussels. Most of the fibrous “beards” that mussels use to grip solid surfaces will have been removed before sale. But if a few remain, they’re easily dispatched: grasp the beard with your thumb and forefinger and pull it toward the hinge of the mussel and give it a tug. Afterward, give mussels a quick rinse and scrub away any areas of mud or seaweed, which, with farmed mussels, will require minimal work.