Pucker Power

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

When I got together with Thomas Keller recently, that French Laundry dude, that Einstein and omega of American chefs, he told me that in his mind, an ideal cookbook would have no recipes, none, not one. Why, how lovely, I purred, because I have been working on just such a loosey-goosey thing all year, pursuing how various local chefs manipulate the most basic elements of flavor, the sweet, the salty, and such, to present the ideas to you, Dear Reader, so that you might use them yourself, without a single burdensome recipe!

And here I had felt sort of guilty at focusing on "ideas" and not "news you can use," when I shouldn't have felt guilty at all, but in fact sort of blindingly forward. I mean--ideas! Ideas are so much more convenient than recipes, not least because you can fit them into practically any head at all and carry them into airplanes without paying the excess baggage fee.

I mean, what about the idea of "sour"? It's one of the elemental tastes, but one that almost never gets top billing. Sour is considered a good thing in sauerkraut, lime curd, and certain pickles, and a bad thing in nearly everything else, from sourpusses to sour milk to sour notes.

Jane Sherman

So why is it that restaurant chefs use so much more sour than home cooks do? Go to a Thai restaurant and you might find lemon juice, lime juice, and vinegar in a single sauce, and the resulting sauce doesn't make you gag, it makes you smile and ask for more. An ingenious chef in a four-star hotel in downtown Minneapolis might top a preserved lemon with balsamic vinegar and place that doubly acidic thing in a vinaigrette-covered salad beside a fourth sort of acid, goat cheese--and the whole thing doesn't taste sour at all, but merely sweet and delicious.

Why, Seth Bixby Daugherty, head chef at Cosmos, the high-end hotel restaurant I just mentioned, why do you do it? What do you know that I don't? I phoned him up to get just that answer. "When my chefs and I get together and talk about building a dish," he said, "we want at least three of the four components of sour, sweet, salty, and bitter." For the sour part, the restaurant stocks as many as 30 different vinegars (including four sorts of sherry vinegar and seven grades of balsamic) and relies on a variety of both house-made and purchased sour stuffs, like preserved lemons, preserved tomatoes, or even vats of house-pickled yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit.

Why such an expansive pantry? "If you want a particular flavor, you need a particular acid to get there," says Daugherty. That and the fact that no one who cooks at Le Meridien ever seems to go home or get a day off--the working motto in the kitchen these days is "Breakfast, lunch, dinner, forever"--and the deep Le Meridien pantry is what the restaurant uses to motivate and inspire the various chefs who fulfill the various hotel functions (like the dawn till after-bar bar and restaurant, the bustling ballrooms and banquet halls, and the elaborate room service).

"We're incredibly lucky," says Daugherty, "Where most restaurants today are 'Cut, cut, cut,' we're 'Push, push, push.' Oh, a couple weeks ago we did the coolest thing--took the inside of a preserved lemon, took the pulp and flesh, dried it, put it through a Vita-Mix so it was pulverized and we got this nice, fine, silky powder. You could smell it when you put it on the warm plate, as a garnish, and it just tasted great."

Preserved lemon dust? How on earth did that idea come up? Daugherty couldn't quite say, but I think I can: Genius is what happens when you take some of the most talented chefs in the state and strand them, sleep deprived, in the presence of the Tyrannosaurus Rex of blenders.

Still, talking about the sour ideas at Cosmos is as nothing to experiencing them, so I zipped in for a dinner with the idea of ordering only dishes with the sourest elements layered on one another. What I found was revelatory: A duck confit salad with a poached quail egg that strikes the palate as nothing but rich, warm, wonderful and wintry, if built with a peppery structure, and yet is revealed to be made of practically nothing but layers of sour: bitter frisée, spicy watercress, acidic roasted red bell peppers, and acidic preserved tomatoes coated in a citrus vinaigrette.

How does this work? The secret is the way the acid from all of those sour things cuts through the richness of the duck meat and the egg. "If you've got the double richness of duck confit and quail yolk, you need a double tart and sour to balance it out," explained Daugherty, on the phone again, later.

Ditto for the fantastic lamb chop dish that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened. Here, two gorgeous Summerfield lamb chops loll beside a watercress salad which conceals warm shreds of lamb shoulder braised in duck fat, tossed with strips of preserved lemon, tart and creamy lumps of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, sweet currants, and puckery roasted red peppers, all of it sauced with Malpighi balsamic vinegar (which costs about $25 an ounce).

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.)

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."

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?)

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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