Getting old and embracing the bitter

I remember reading an article about the development of taste buds, and how we are born with a preference for sweetness and an aversion to bitterness. As children, we actually have more sweet receptors on our tongues than we will have later as adults. It isn't until our teenage years that we begin to lose our preference for the sweet and start to enjoy forays into sour, salty and bitter.

I notice that the older I get, the more I appreciate new flavors, particularly in dishes that combine tastes that I love with ones with which I am less familiar. Lately, I'm embracing the bitter that comes with ingredients like radicchio, broccoli rabe, mustard greens and tahini, and what these ingredients can bring to a dish when combined with more familiar tastes and textures.

Tahini is bewitching me at the moment. This paste made from ground, toasted sesame seeds is an ancient, North African, Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern and East Asian ingredient. It tastes nutty, like peanut or almond butter, and it can add a healthy creaminess to a dish or sauce. But it also brings a vaguely bitter, slightly dry note, so it can really change a dish's direction, bringing it to a new taste dimension. It's also a vegan ingredient and it's chock full of healthy fatty acids.

If you store it a long time or if you buy it from a grocer that doesn't sell much tahini, it will have separated into oil and a hard lump of ground seeds. Don't worry though. Scrape it all into a blender or go at it with an immersion blender and it will return to its creamy, emulsified, original texture just like that.

My husband and I cannot get enough of this recipe, Wilted Kale and Roasted Potato Winter Salad, which takes the familiar flavors and textures of creamy olive-oil roasted potatoes and garlic; melted, browned and salty Parmesan cheese; and fresh, chewy kale, and sends them to a new place with a tahini sauce that's tart with fresh lemon juice and sharp and rich with just the right amount of raw garlic.

I found the recipe at www.epicurious.com, which if you haven't explored yet, you really must. You can search for recipes by ingredient and by type of dish, and you can save your favorites in your own recipe box. There is a free mobile phone app, but there's also one that costs $1.99 that lets you sync your phone and desktop recipe boxes so that when you're food shopping and you see a beautiful ingredient, you can leaf through your recipes on the spot and make a dinner decision on the fly.

I'm really falling in love with this website. It makes you brave because it's a great resource when you want to try an unfamiliar vegetable or new type of seafood.

Be warned. This recipe offers a couple of taste challenges. Raw kale is delicious, but it is chewy. The hot oil and potato mixture doesn't really make it wilt that much. I use a high-sided roasting pan for cooking the potatoes then at the appropriate moment, I add the raw kale to that hot pan, toss to combine, then cover the pan with aluminum foil or a cookie sheet, just to hold in that steam and heat and get as much wilt as I can.

Although I haven't tried it yet, I think you also could blanch the kale first, making sure to squeeze out any excess moisture before you add it to the cheesy roasted potatoes.

I think I may like this dish even better the second time around. The leftovers are just brilliant when eaten at my desk at night after a brief reheating in the microwave.

Just one other tip. Double the tahini sauce. Use half of it in this recipe and put the other half in your refrigerator. Then, over the next couple of weeks, drizzle it over everything — grilled steak, lamb, chicken or fish, roasted green beans, broccoli, carrots or sweet potatoes. If you're like me, you'll find a lot of favorites made even more delicious by this lovely sauce.

Enjoy!

Wilted Kale and Roasted Potato Winter Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces (works fine with non-Yukon Gold spuds)

1/3 cup olive oil (seems like a lot, but it contributes to the salad dressing)

4 garlic cloves (3 thinly sliced and 1 minced)

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (I use a combination of grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses)

¼ cup well-stirred tahini

2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (only fresh will do)

¾ pounds kale, stems and center ribs discarded and leaves very thinly sliced crosswise

Preheat oven to 450 degrees with rack in upper third.

Toss potatoes with oil and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper on a large 4-sided sheet pan (I use a high-sided roasting pan), then spread evenly. Roast, stirring once, 10 minutes. Stir in sliced garlic and roast 10 minutes more. Sprinkle with cheese and roast until cheese is melted and golden in spots, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, puree tahini, water, lemon juice, minced garlic and a ½ teaspoon of salt in a blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Add a bit of water if sauce is too thick. (I don't think you need any salt here. And you don't need a blender, either. Just whisk all the ingredients together.)

Toss kale with hot potatoes and any garlic and oil remaining in pan (I toss in the hot roasting pan, then cover and let sit for a bit to get all the wilt I can), then toss with tahini sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.

From www.epicurious.com. Original recipe by Gina Marie Miraglia Enriquez, "Gourmet" magazine, December 2008.

Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Share comments or recipes with her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Homemade cranberry sauce can be a great last-minute Christmas gift

Homemade cranberry sauce is perfectly tangy and sweet, with a bit of texture from the tiny, crunchy seeds that slip through the food mill.

New cookbook offers baked muesli, a righteous way to start your day

Nothing smells more like potential than a new cookbook. 

Make no 'Mistakes' about it, Cowin's cookbook is an inspiration

Dana Cowin's new cookbook is great for browsing, filled with exuberant photos of Cowin cooking and laughing with famous chef friends.

It may be fall but it's not too late for the grill

Shrimp on the grill: four words that when strung together are the theme song for a great, uniquely summertime meal. And this Emeril Lagasse recipe nearly turns that...

Life's a carnival, and so is this squash

In case you haven’t met, I’d like to introduce you to the carnival squash. 

Cabbage can be so much more than slaw

With so many wonderful fruits and vegetables at their peak, it's a wonderful time to be hungry.