Pucker Power

If life gives you lemons, that's a start. But local chefs cook with a symphony of sour.

That the sweet, rosy lamb chops are like ripe raspberries of meat goes without saying. But the combination of lemon, vinegar, and goat cheese is the shocker: it's a lush, rich, and full taste, like a box of chocolate truffles in which each little dome was filled with an entrée. Amazing! How is it done?

"If you take out the Humboldt Fog, it's too tart," explained Daugherty. "Even though the goat cheese by itself is tart, it's also creamy, which makes it all okay. There's a lot of fatness in this dish, from the lamb shoulder, which means you have a lot of room to work with on the sour side of the equation."

I'll also mention that Daugherty makes a stunning vinaigrette by juicing fresh oranges and cooking that juice down with a vanilla bean until it's a syrup, and then whisking in extra-virgin olive oil. It makes salad greens taste as though they're floating; something about the plush texture of the emulsification of the oil, and the unusual vanilla-orange edge that makes the herbal qualities of greens stand out. (Cosmos; 601 First Ave. N.; inside Le Meridien Minneapolis; Mpls.; 612.677.1100.)

Jane Sherman

So there we have some acrobatics of sour in the hands of a master in the Western tradition, but how do they do it in Thailand? I dropped in at the former Sawatdee in Lowertown St. Paul, where Thai cooking instructor Supatra Johnson (www.supatra.com) recently took over the kitchen and has renamed the place Supatra's Thai Cuisine. I sought out a number of sour dishes: An Erawan steak salad, potatoes in a tamarind sauce, and a daily special of a garlic seafood soup. Each was sour, and delicious, in a completely different way: The salad was sour like late morning sunlight, piercing and utterly clean; the potatoes were a sweet, deep sour, like a half-sad smile; the soup was hot and fiercely sour, like a dense jungle of noise.

Of course, I had to call up Supatra and find out how she did it. All of these sour flavors, she explained, were achieved through different methods. The steak salad had lemon juice, lime juice, and white vinegar in the sauce, and was made with a minced sour herb. The potatoes were sauced with three sorts of sour, ripe tamarind paste, vinegar, and vinegar-laced puckery sri cha hot sauce. The soup had at least five sorts of pucker in it, including green tamarind powder, ripe tamarind paste, tomato, lime, and pickled garlic.

"Sometimes when I'm teaching my students about Thai cooking, they complain, 'It's too many ingredients!'" she told me. "I say, if you want the perfect taste, you have to combine all the right things. For one dish, if you combine lemon, lime, and vinegar, now that is the right taste. For another, it can only be tamarind, tomato, lime juice, and a little rice vinegar--not apple cider, or any other kind. Every sour has its right place. When you go to a Vietnamese pho shop you always have sri cha sauce, vinegar, fish sauce, and lime on the side for sour balance."

And for that matter, Supatra told me, what any of us ever see on a Thai menu is just the tip of the iceberg, vis-à-vis the life of sour in Thai cooking. Many of her favorite dishes are not on the Sawatdee menu because she thinks they're just too sour for the common taste. Why, just last night for dinner Supatra was dunking homemade pickled mustard greens in a dip made of lime juice ground with chiles. Now that's authentic Thai. And sour power to burn. (Sawatdee; 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 651.222.5859, and six other locations.)

Soon, I was seeing subtle manipulation of pucker everywhere I turned. At Surdyk's cheese shop they just started carrying verjus, that hard to find green-grape juice winemakers make and chefs love. Marianne Miller, the former chef and soon-to-be-owner of Red, that mercurial but dazzling French and Russian restaurant in the Foshay Tower, recommends that if you learn only one new sour trick this year, it should be this: Sauté a white fish, such as halibut or sole, with a little oil or butter in a very hot non-stick pan. Once the fish is toasty brown on one side, flip it, add a shot of verjus, cover the pan, and let the fish finish in the verjus steam for a moment.

"Brightening: We call adding a little acid at the end brightening a dish, and it's one of the most important things you learn as a chef in Western kitchens," Miller told me on the phone as she worked on trying to get the furniture and everything back so she could reopen Red (which closed last month and, cross your fingers, should reopen in late January). "In Florida, where I'm from, layering of acids is a key to 'Floribbean' cooking: You put lime juice on mango, for instance. But in a Western-kitchen mentality, you start with fat, and finish with acid. When I was cooking in London, it seemed like we deglazed every braised meat pan with malt or apple vinegar. Learning to deglaze a sautéed white fish with verjus is probably one of the more important things you can teach yourself."

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