This plate of smoked-grilled pork shoulder with burnt honey-rhubarb gastrique came about through an intriguing convergence, or maybe more accurately, a collision, of trains of thought and happy (mostly) accidents that fortunately did not result in a train wreck.
I had been thinking about bitter flavors as I tasted my way around our yard, where the dandelions are having a hell of a springtime. These country dandelions often have leaves a good foot long, and through most of the spring they've been quite mild, with a rich green flavor and only a hint of bitterness. As the flower stalks begin to emerge, and the flowers to open, the bitterness becomes more pronounced, to the point where, eventually, they are unpalatably bitter. At least to me they are, and I imagine most American eaters would agree. But there are cultures, notably Asian ones, where bitter flavors are more prized. Bitter greens are common in Asian cooking, and then there's bitter melon, the apotheosis of gastronomic bitterness. I've tried bitter melon a couple of times; I do not find myself craving it.
We like bitter in a cup of espresso, in hoppy beers; and in very dark chocolate, or dark caramel, where the bitterness is tempered with sweetness. In a frisée salad we can enjoy the bitter greens when that flavor is played off fatty, salty bacon lardons and unctuous egg yolk. Bitterness can really wake up the palate, open the taste buds for other sensations. It's a matter of balance, then, of point and counterpoint. Any single flavor is likely to be either boring or offensive when tasted out of context. This point has really been brought home to me through my recent explorations with rhubarb juice. This stuff tastes absolutely awful on its own--I mean, really, you can barely stand the tiniest sip--but when added to a dressing, a marinade, or in today's example, a type of sweet and sour sauce called a gastrique, it adds a fascinating complexity and an exotic edge.
|Rhubarb juice. Pretty.|
You'd think that that extremely sour and astringent rhubarb juice would only become more intolerable when paired with a bitter flavor, but that's where the happy accident comes in. Or maybe, as some philosophers contend, there's no such thing as accidents.
I had a jar with about a half-inch of crystallized honey in the bottom. Thrifty Scot that I am, I didn't want to let it go to waste, so I set the jar in a saucepan with a couple inches of water in it, and put that on the stove on medium heat. Then I went off and became engrossed in something--I think I was reading about extreme couponers in the New York Times Magazine, weird world, that is. I started to notice, half-consciously, an appealing aroma, sweet, but with an acidic edge, and I even remember wondering where that might be coming from. But sometimes scents from last night's dinner waft out of the kitchen--maybe there was a deglazed pan sitting on the stove, whose scent molecules were mixing with those from that morning's tea and honey.
Well, the smell grew stronger, and became more and more appetizing--until there entered into that scent a sharp, harsh, edge, and that's when I got off my butt and dashed to the kitchen to find, yes, the water in the saucepan all boiled away, and the bit o' honey in the bottom of the jar bubbling and quite dark. I moved it off the burner (we've got this electric range at the new house that needs replacing, soon) and just left it to cool. I felt fortunate that the jar had not exploded and sent daggers of hot glass flying all over the house.
When I went back to look at it again, the jar was cool enough to handle, but the dark honey in it was still a bit molten. I became intrigued. I took a wooden spatula and scraped out what I could. It was black honey candy at this point, hardening as it cooled. I added a bit of water to dissolve it. I tasted this burnt honey jus. It was bitter, all right, but also sweet and complex. Something else entered my mind at that point, something a friend had mentioned in response to my first blog post on rhubarb juice. This friend (actually Bide-A-Wee Nomenclature Tsarina Lulu) used to be a pastry chef at fancy restaurants, and she recalled a caramel sauce she had made with rhubarb juice. I'd been meaning to try it, but I rarely cook desserts; now I had an inspiration on how to turn that concept to a savory use. I decided to try burning honey under more controlled conditions, then stop the cooking with rhubarb juice.
I won't drag out the drama any longer: the result was excellent, and a compelling example of how combining extreme flavors can result in something unexpected and wonderful. There was a delightful and surprising fruity quality that emerged, in spite of all the other strong flavors. And I want to be clear: This sauce is not for the timid of palate. Also, it requires a suitably forceful companion on the plate, like my smoke-grilled pork shoulder. It might be good with grilled chicken thighs, with their crisp, smoky skin and dark savory meat. Or duck, yes--it could be excellent with magret or confit. I'm also thinking it might be good tossed with ripe strawberries or other berries, à la reduced balsamic vinegar. Or it could be, as in Lulu's original, a striking sauce for panna cotta, or ice cream. It's worth exploring the possibilities. [Update: I grilled chicken paillards (that's boneless thighs bashed flat with a meat mallet, bottom of a small saucepan, or the side of a cleaver) and finished them with a glaze of the straight honey-rhubarb gastrique, and they were excellent.]
The fantastic thing about the honey in a sauce like this is that honey, while obviously among the sweetest things in the kitchen, also has a good deal of acidity (average pH 3.9, thank you Great Google!), and good honey has many complex flavors beyond the sweet and acidic. Then, when you cook it to this point, the various browning reactions and, finally, caramelization, create a whole new set of flavors and aromas. It's almost a bit psychedelic, what all those swirling scents do to your brain as it tries to sort out the good, the bad, the weird, the alluring, and the scary.
Mostly, I stay within my cooking comfort zone these days, and am happy there. I think I have a fairly wide zone. Sometimes it's fun to try pushing the boundaries. Regarding gastriques: they are sweet and sour sauces usually made with a base of caramelized sugar to which vinegar is added, then perhaps other flavors, in the form of fresh fruit, booze, herbs and spices. The addition of some stock rounds out the flavors; I finished mine with butter and the drippings from my pork as it rested. This Serious Eats post has a good rundown on this fascinating sauce.
How I made my
Burnt Honey Rhubarb Gastrique
Makes 1/2 cup
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup rhubarb juice
To make the rhubarb juice, combine one chopped stalk rhubarb and couple tablespoons of water in a blender or mini-food processor and blend until a uniform slurry is formed. Dump this into a strainer and gently press with the back of a spoon to extract the juice. You'll get about 1/3 cup from one good stalk of rhubarb.
In a small saucepan combine the honey and water. Cook over medium heat, and NEVER LEAVE THE STOVE! I have left the stove when reducing maple syrup in the past, and let me tell you, friends, you do not want to see the kind of mess that makes. The honey will start to bubble and foam. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, until the honey starts to darken. Use both your eyes and your nose to tell you when it's done. It's hard to see the color of the honey with all the foaming--take the pan off the heat and the bubbles will subside, allowing you to judge the color better. Your nose will tell you when caramelization is starting, and you want it go to the point where bitter notes emerge. When the honey has reached the color of dark maple syrup, and the bubbles look like the crema atop a nice espresso, you're there. Remove the pan from the heat and add the rhubarb juice all at once--be prepared for a good deal of foaming and sizzling. Stir in a pinch of salt. If you like, you can now reduce this sauce gently to further concentrate the flavors, but I don't think that will be necessary.
As we were getting ready to serve, I heated the gastrique, added a bit more salt, a good tablespoon of butter, grind of pepper, and the juices that accumulated near the resting pork.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw