Style Gourmet

The joy of really knowing what you're cooking about.

Food Articles Home
Style Gourmet Home
Contact Elliot Essman

Elliot's Wine Tasting Notes

Like bitter flavors? Tell me about it for my upcoming Bitter is Better book.

Bitter is Better
by Elliot Essman
I have read in a number of places that the ability of humans to taste bitter substances is a survival device; after all, many noxious and poisonous substances in nature do taste bitter. So does the Italian aperitif Campari, which I order whenever I spot it behind a bar, even if I have to help the bartender locate it. A friend once likened the taste of Campari to that of cough medicine. Over the centuries, monks and alchemists have produced countless alcoholic beverages using secret combinations of bitter herbs; the drinking public keeps many of these expensive beverages in production today. I can certainly understand why. If there be a such thing as a "bitter tooth," I've got it.

The (bitter) irony is this: science has proven that a wide array of bitter foods are, pardon the cliché, "good for you." Dr. Adam Drewnowski, Director of the University of Washington Nutritional Sciences Program, discovered what Popeye the Sailor Man has known all along: bitter foods like spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, radicchio, and dark chocolate are all rich in dietary phytonutrients, which may serve to prevent many diseases, cancer included. The food industry has worked for decades to remove these bitter tastes-and hence much of the nutrition-from its processed products. Good cooks know how to deal with bitter ingredients and flavors in more creative ways.

Most of us rave about and dream about a food product that is so bitter in its unprocessed state as to be inedible except by penitents: chocolate. Sweeteners enhance the power of chocolate, but over-sweetening will eventually dilute its complexity and turn it into a candy. It's a shame to trivialize chocolate so. The quality chocolates indicate their percentage of cocoa solids directly on the package. Bittersweet or dark chocolate should weigh in at a level of at least 60%. When I can find the 85% chocolates, I deplete store inventories. There is nothing wrong with milk chocolate (usually sub-40% cocoa solids), as long as you realize that the chocolate is playing a decidedly minor role in what is essentially a confection. You are under-dosing, and likely to consume the chocolate by the bar. The best bitter chocolate is savored by the square.

I reach into my secret ingredients cabinet for Angostura aromatic bitters several times a week. You don't use much; a bottle that costs a few dollars can last years. Medical doctor Johann Siegert emigrated to Venezuela from Germany in the 1820s in order to help revolutionary Simon Bolivar fight against the country's Spanish rulers. As Bolivar's Surgeon General, Siegert combined a variety of tropical herbs and roots into a concoction designed to alleviate the intestinal disorders that plagued Bolivar's soldiers. A thriving business, now based in Trinidad, resulted. Once the British and the Europeans discovered the product, it became widely used in mixed drinks and cocktails. The formula, unchanged since 1824, is known only in segments by a select few. A conservative dash of these bitters adds complexity to soups and stews, seafood dishes, vegetables, sauces and salad dressings. You can read the full story, in micro-print, on the product's unique label, or surf the company's extensive recipe suggestions at For supreme refreshment, I enjoy a glass of mineral water or club soda with a few squirts of bitters. You don't use much, but keep in mind that Angostura is 45% alcohol.

Bitter greens stimulate my creative juices; you don't snack on them out of the bag, like carrots, but combine them with other ingredients for flavor and texture complexity. I like to serve meaty fish, like tuna, over a bed of bitter greens for a superb marrying of flavors. For four servings, I'll shred well-washed heads of escarole (or frisee) and radicchio, mix together, coat with the juice of a lemon, drizzle on just enough extra virgin olive oil to coat, season with coarse kosher or sea salt, and toss together. For a stand-alone salad, I'll mix bitter greens with more delicate greens like romaine and baby red leaf lettuce. Sliced Belgian endive, with its mild bitterness, can act as a flavor bridge; like many expensive ingredients you don't need to use much. Other salad or salad dressing ingredients, like bits of apples or sugar-cured bacon, complement the bitter mix with sweeter notes. Balance is always the goal.

Try eating an olive directly off the tree and you will cringe from the bitterness. To be edible, olives need to be cured: in water, in oil, in a brine or alkaline solution, or even in dry salt. Herbs and spices are often added during the curing process, which may last many months. Hundreds of olive varieties exist, though most specialty food stores offer perhaps a dozen. I try to find the black, shriveled types, like the French dry salt-cured Nyons olives, for use in tapenades (an excellent appetizer spread), meat stuffings and sauces, and for eating out of hand (in which case I really enjoy the olives cured with herbs, particularly rosemary).

In a tapenade, olives will be by far the main ingredient. Tapenades are excellent candidates for experimentation; you can mix olive types-bitter or not-and adjust the spicing to your exact taste. Just watch the texture and be careful not to over-blend. A good tapenade should be spreadable but thicker than a puree. An olive pitter, which does double duty for cherries, makes life easier. I like to begin by combining a cup each of two different kinds of olives-at least one bitter-in a food processor with a quarter cup of fresh extra virgin olive oil (use more or less oil to achieve the best consistency). I'll add two tablespoons of fresh herbs (basil, thyme, marjoram, oregano, or cilantro) and pulse until just spreadable. I might add a tablespoon of drained capers, a single anchovy filet, a garlic clove. As a starter, tapenades work well when spread on toast points or crisp bread, but I like to combine bitter flavors and varying textures by spreading the tapenade onto Belgian endive leaves. No one will cringe from these delightful bitter foods. For a third bitter constituent, which you shouldn't overdo, add just a few flecks of grated orange peel.

I use an olive tapenade to add interest to chicken breasts. These can be bone-in or boneless, but they must still have their skin. I loosen the skin, being careful it doesn't tear away. Using a pastry bag, I pipe in a thin layer of tapenade under the skin, then smooth it in with my fingers. I will then sear the chicken breasts in medium hot olive oil in a skillet for perhaps a minute a side. For my final step, I'll season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper (and any herb that might match the theme of the tapenade) and bake in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes, or until tender. Add bitter greens, a bitter drink, and follow with a dark chocolate delight, and you will have a meal that proves bitter may well be better. Top -- Food Articles Home

- Style Gourmet -

Food Articles Home -- Style Gourmet Home
Contact Elliot Essman and Style Gourmet

Copyright © Elliot Essman 2004
This page is
Top of this page.