Most of the cookbooks I’ve reviewed so far have revolved around a certain cuisine. If you were going to bring a collection of recipes together for a big, this is a pretty logical way of compiling and organising recipes. Award winning food writer Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter, if you hadn’t already guessed, is united by one aspect of our sense of taste.
The concept behind this book really interested me – bitterness is probably the least celebrated taste and far and away the most controversial. Bitter foods are generally ones we avoid, be that burnt toast or Brussels sprouts, so to write a cookbook all about them is a brave choice. Though given the previous works of the author celebrating animal fats, offal and bones in cooking, it becomes a little less surprising.
From the title of the book alone, it’s clear that Bitter is aimed at a decidedly foodie audience: if you’re after crowd-pleasing, kid-friendly weeknight suppers, I’d look elsewhere! As well as recipes, Bitter is interspersed with mini-essays on the subject of bitterness too, from the history of the gin and tonic, to the suggestion that even our bitterest vegetables are becoming less pungent and intense. This cookbook is one you can enjoy as bedtime reading, as much as you can in the kitchen.
The book is quite minimalist in design. There are limited pictures of finished dishes, which may put some people off, but I’ll admit that I’ve had the book since Christmas and hadn’t really noticed until coming to write this review. I think that the additional written content of the book, the aforementioned mini-essays, immerses you into the book and gets you to think about the dishes in a way that traditional cookbooks fail to do when simply giving ingredients lists and instructions.
Diving into the recipes, they are sorted somewhat haphazardly into the different qualities of bitterness that we look for in food – from the bitterness in drinks, to zestiness, pungency and ending with the most bitter ingredients of all like fenugreek leaves, bitter melon and tobacco. Personally, I found this made the book a little tricky to navigate and find recipes when I wanted to try them out, though it means that recipes featuring similar ingredients gravitate together – when you’re looking for Seville orange or radicchio recipes, they are all in one place.
The recipes themselves do assume you have some confidence and experience in the kitchen. Recipes aren’t step-by-step and will require you to exercise your own judgement, but this goes hand-in-hand with the inspiration-giving feel of Bitter. The recipes themselves are well-tested though – timings are fairly accurate and I’ve not found any blunders or dud recipes that just don’t work (although I couldn’t get the grapefruit curd to set sufficiently to form quenelles, it still made for a delicious and creamy sauce on a bit of shop-bought cheesecake). They’re also nicely balanced too – I haven’t found any to be over-poweringly bitter, nor have they lacked the bitterness that’s been advertised, the swede and apple soup, being a great example: the apple didn’t over-sweeten so you could still taste the swede, and the curry powder didn’t completely dominate. I did think the recipe gave a slightly-too-thick soup, but that’s down to personal preference – a splash more water or stock fixes the problem.
While not a deliberate decision I’m sure, many recipes are vegetarian (or easily adapted to be): bitterness is a taste we associate mostly with vegetables after. Many underappreciated and everyday veg feature heavily like turnips, swede and chicory so plenty of recipes can be cooked with what you’ll find in a local supermarket – makes a change for this blog, doesn’t it?! The pasta with rocket for example was made entirely with things I bought in the nearby Co-op, though I’ll admit I swapped out the orecchiette for some giant penne. While cardoons or fresh white asparagus might take some hunting down even when in season, suggestions for substitutions are often made such as using swede in the beef and cardoon tagine.
Of other recipes, I’ve already forwarded on the pork chops with coffee-blackcurrant sauce to my mum and will definitely by incorporating more of the flesh of citrus fruits into baking after trying the olive oil and orange pound cake. One problem I have noticed however, is a bit of a reliance on blenders, food processors and stand-mixers in the baking and other recipes – while most people do have at least one of the three, if you’ve got a very small kitchen like I do, these more complex recipes can leave you struggling for space: both the cakes I tried needed two or three mixing bowls and an electric whisk or stand-mixer, leaving me with next to no worktop space left!
I’d definitely recommend taking a look at Bitter though. Jennifer McLagan has written a cookbook that reminds us of the importance of balance in our food – dishes don’t only need to be sweet, or rich and creamy. It’s a book to cook from and be inspired by and be encouraged to experiment. I’ll certainly be on the lookout now for Jennifer McLagan’s previous books too.