With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh on the tongues of all of us San Francisco 49er fans, it seemed only appropriate to talk about tongues and bitter foods. So with a painful acknowledgement to my few but victorious Baltimore Ravens friends, congratulations and here we go!
Tongues are a rather amazing organ. Not only do they allow us to phonetically articulate, they are the taste factory by which we enjoy the flavor of foods. Tongues also serve as a tool to maneuver and manipulate foods as we chew, then usher that macerated food down our throats on its way to our stomachs. Tongues act as a natural toothbrush to clean our teeth and are critical when it comes to the all important art of smooching! However, I will reserve any further discussion in regard to that function for the after-hours column.
On average, the human tongue has 2,000 to 8,000 taste buds, where receptors for taste detect the five known tastes: salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami. As the foods mix with saliva, the receptors receive the data and send that information to our brain.
It is the bitter that I want to focus on for this column. Bitterness is the most sensitive of the known tastes and is often perceived as astringent, sharp and even unpleasant. Children and their supertaster receptors (highly sensitive taste buds) will find many bitter foods yucky and disagreeable.
But as we get older our taste buds tire, showing signs of wear and tear and abuse, allowing us to better assimilate the flavors we taste. So we find bitter flavors like coffee, Kalamata olives, marmalade, radicchio, even bittering agents like angostura bitters, fish sauce and unsweetened cocoa as pleasant and enjoyable flavors. In fact we crave the bitter to awaken our senses and stimulate our palates and balance other salty and sweet flavors on our tongues.
That ability to taste bitter is said to have been partly responsible for the longevity of the human race. Many plants are bitter and loaded with toxins that are poisonous and fatal if ingested. It is the ability to taste bitter and decide we do not want to eat certain death plants that has kept us alive. It is those same receptors that allow us to pick up hardwood smoke flavors like pine, hickory and mesquite or discern the nuances of red wines.
Often bitter and sour are confused or misinterpreted by olfactories and we phonetically articulate inaccurate information to others about a dish or a recipe. Lemons are sour while vinegar is bitter; they can cause similar reactions but are intrinsically different. The bitter taste comes from those foods with stronger, more earthy flavors, such as leafy green vegetables, coffees, teas and spices. Bitter foods in general have a host of benefits such as detoxifying the body and aiding weight reduction while providing antibiotic, anti-parasitic and antiseptic qualities.
The bitter taste alone may not be particularly appealing to some without being enhanced by other flavors. The bitter also aides in the balance of the complete dish by cutting through fats, enhancing sour and tart while contrasting sweets. The sour taste comes from higher acidic foods such as citrus, which includes lemons or limes. Some of the benefits of this particular taste include cleansing tissues in the body and increasing your body’s ability to absorb minerals. The sour taste is caused by a hydrogen atom, or ions. The more atoms present in a food, the more sour it will taste. Some sour foods, including fermented foods and certain dairy products like yogurt and sour cream can aid in digestion, circulation and waste elimination and are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to vitamins and minerals one should remember that the tongues of some animals are consumed and sometimes considered delicacies. These delicacies are loaded with good-for-you vitamins and minerals not to mention great flavor. Hot tongue sandwiches are found on menus across New York City’s kosher delicatessens. Tongue tacos (Taco de lengua) can be found at almost every taco stand in these parts and is exactly that, a taco filled with beef tongue. Pig and beef tongue are consumed in Chinese cuisine. Duck tongues are served as a delicacy in Szechuan dishes, while lamb’s tongue is very popular in French and modern American cooking. Fried cod tongue is a common part of fish meals in Newfoundland.
It is incredibly common to find simple boiled, sliced cow tongues served with horseradish and bittersweet jellies in many countries.
And for a parting shot to the poor officiating of the Super Bowl, let’s not forget the tongue has one other all important act. Sticking one’s tongue out at someone and blowing a good ole fashioned raspberry.
Tacos de Lengua with Bitter Greens Salsa
1 medium-sized beef tongue, about 3 lbs.
3 garlic cloves
1 medium onion, whole
3 bay leaves
2 T. cider vinegar
warm corn tortillas
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped cilantro
Bitter salsa verde
Sliced red radishes
Steps: Prepare tongue by rinsing well. Place in Dutch oven or large pot (with a lid) and cover with water. Add in garlic, onion, bay leaves vinegar and salt and bring to a boil. Gently simmer for 2½ to 3 hours, checking occasionally for water level. Add water as needed to keep tongue covered. When done, remove from heat and allow meat to cool in its broth.
Once cool enough to handle, remove from broth. Prepare tongue by carefully peeling away rubbery outer skin and removing any excess fatty tissue. What should remain is a tender portion of meat that is similar to a fine-textured pot roast, but with a slightly higher fat content. Slice and season with salt. I like to re-warm the sliced tongue in a small amount of the broth and allow it to reduce and then serve on warmed corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice and top with the bitter greens salsa and radishes.
Bitter Greens Salsa
½ cup baby arugula (washed)
½ cup dandelion greens
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 each serrano pepper
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
½ cup olive oil
Steps: In Cuisinart, place all ingredients and pulse to chop down mixture. Add olive oil and run till smooth. Adjust seasoning.