Pucker Power

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

That noted, you can also note that verjus is what most chefs make vinaigrettes with for wine dinners. Since it's not vinegar, it doesn't destroy the taste of wine. Sour secrets everywhere!

Last weekend, I dropped by the newly renovated Auriga to find out what it's like to have chef Doug Flicker's delicate cooking in a restaurant space that feels grown-up and luxurious. Well, it's wonderful. And do I need to mention that there were secret sour touches everywhere? I tried an appetizer of teensy deep-fried artichoke hearts coated in the most subtle, buoyant golden batter; each was like munching on the perfect cross between a State Fair mini-donut and a wee seaside cloud. Later I learned that the itsy-bitsy darlings had been misted, from a spray-bottle, with Italian apple cider vinegar. "If we drizzled it on, it would make the batter wet and mushy," Flicker explained to me on the phone.

And if I liked sour, I should have been there the season he was making his own version of verjus, with a home-brewing kit and green table grapes. After that, he made wine from fresh beets, and then from red bell peppers, and used it for sauces. (What separates the chefs of note from the rest of us? Well, when was the last time you thought of making bell pepper wine or pulverized preserved lemon dust?)

Jane Sherman

But it's not the beet wine that gets his line cooks teasing him, says Flicker, it's his constant harping on the Holy Trinity. No, not that Holy Trinity: "It's olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. It's something people pick up from working with me, they're always asking, 'What does this need, what does this need?'" The answer, says Flicker, is almost always one of those three. "Virtually everything and anything can take a little lemon juice. Even mashed potatoes. When we reheat a bit at a time for service, we're always adding a little salt or a little lemon juice."

Lemon juice? On the mashed potatoes? The palate doesn't read it as lemony, Flicker explained, just as correct. I pestered him until I got this further chef's secret out of him: At his station at Auriga he always keeps several lemons. He cuts off the far ends, so that he's exposing the flesh, and uses that to squeeze over the dishes that are about to head to the tables. If you cut the lemons in the middle, that's where the pits are, and you don't want to spend five minutes searching through the spinach for a lost lemon pit, he explained. The juiced lemons then are used in reducing sauces, to add a hint of lemon oil and the depth of pith. (Auriga; 1930 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls.; 612.871.0777.)

And that, Dear Reader, is everything I learned in a month of pursuing the idea of sour. If I hadn't talked to Thomas Keller I'd probably end here by enjoining you to try filling spray bottles with vinegars, or to try boiling orange juice with vanilla beans, or at least to try finishing your mashed potatoes with a squirt from one end of a lemon.

But since I now have permission to run rampant with mere ideas, I'll say just this: After a month of sour thoughts I have come to think that sour, or more generically, acid, is the essence to almost everything we eat. It's the essence of wine, of coffee, of dairy (with its lactic acid), of most bread (with its ferment of yeast or sourdough starter), and of almost everything. If, as the Buddhists say, life is suffering, then the rough culinary equivalent may be that food is sour. Or at least acidic. And if that doesn't rattle your bones more than a recipe, I don't know what will.

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