Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Brussels sprouts, bacon and boar taint

If there was ever a vegetable guaranteed to divide opinion, it is the Brussels sprout. Like all members of the cruciferous family, Brussels sprouts are naturally bitter. Not only bitter – but sulphurous. And not only naturally bitter and sulphurous, but more bitter and more sulphurous when cooked. Particularly when over-cooked.

Taste buds are fickle. Just ask the three bears about their porridge preferences. Taste is one of those profoundly philosophical problems: it is uniquely and specifically subjective. Are Brussels sprouts disgusting or do some people just experience them that way?*

On the other hand, there is an increasingly detailed body of scientific research about the chemical and physiological nature of taste (technical term: “gustation”). There are chemical markers that determine whether something is sweet or salty or sour or bitter. We have discovered “unami”, chemically distinguishable (ie, monosodium glutamate – the dreaded msg) and sensed as savoury –occurring naturally in some seaweeds and soya sauces and meat for example. Not all flavours can be physically tasted by all people.** Some –supertasters - are very sensitive, almost prohibitively drawn to bland food. Some – non-tasters – need ‘excessive’ seasoning and spices to taste food at all.

For example, Brussels sprouts are particularly unpalatable for children who have a much stronger sense of taste than adults.***

Like sprouts, pork is tricky. Setting aside the well articulated religious reasons for foregoing pigs, you run into a more amorphous minefield of personal preference and pernicketiness. Pigs have a pretty bad reputation for being dirty. For eating garbage and wallowing in it.
Not only this, but a significant percentage of pork is affected by something known as boar taint. Boar taint is an odour and associated flavour that affects some adolescent pigs. Boar taint results in that oily, sweaty, dirty taste that pork is sometimes known to have. Pork is now selectively reared to avoid this, and using immature and female pigs can help in minimising the risk. Still, pork is not universally loved, and it takes trust, love and care to put it on a plate and expect people to eat it.

An idea forms: pork and sprouts. Given their shared outcast status, pairing them makes sense. No. Bacon and sprouts. Crazy sense.

It's not really that extraordinary: bacon and cabbage is a reliable fail-safe recipe. And Brussels sprouts are really just tiny wee cabbages when it all boils down to it. Not so intimidating or icky after all.
Rather than boil or steam the sprouts – I slowly caramelise in a pan, develop what natural sugars they have, letting the sprouts draw in the smoky sweet bacon flavour. I tasted this, about half way through the cooking process: I was surprised at how sweet the bacon and caramelising made the dish. As the idea takes form, developing a meal that will appeal is a matter of balancing, tasting and re-balancing the flavours, like a mantra: salty (bacon); sweet (apple); bitter (sprouts); sour (mustard); savoury (pork).

These sprouts were not too salty, not too bitter, not too sweet and not too sour. In the words of Goldilocks, these sprouts were just right.

* To paraphrase Donald Davidson, the phrase ‘food is tasty’ is true if and only if food is indeed tasty.
Donald Davidson is a brilliant philosopher of language. See also the works of Tama Coutts on Davidson.
** Danielle R. Reed, Toshiko Tanaka, and Amanda H. McDaniel; ‘Diverse tastes: Genetics of sweet and bitter perception’ Physiol Behav. 2006 June 30; 88(3): 215–226.
*** Except me. I loved Brussels sprouts as a kid. Not so my mum: bought up on sprouts boiled until mush, she refused to cook them.

Caramelised and braised sprouts with bacon

Per person:

6-10 small sprouts, trimmed at stalk and cut in half
1 middle rasher of bacon, rind removed and diced into 1 cm dice
1 tsp grain mustard
40 ml white wine

Heat a tsp or so of olive oil in a heavy pan. Toss in bacon and sprouts. Cook at a high heat for a few minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the bacon and sprouts are starting to brown. Toss in half the wine, deglaze the pan (ie, stir around the pan to scrape off all the brown bits). When the alcohol cooks off, add the mustard and the rest of the wine, reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the smell of alcohol is gone and the sprouts are just cooked (they should be soft but not soggy).

(For the vegetarians out there: there are lots of non-meat related ways to make sprouts interesting. For example: Steamed, halved, smeared with blue cheese, drizzled with honey and under the grill is also sensational.)

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