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Cranking Up Savory Sorbet

The ice cream machine sat unused in the cupboard, an artifact of our wedding a few years before. Like many engaged couples, my wife and I had been overzealous filling our gift registry at the kitchen store. We aimed our infrared gun at every cool gadget in sight. Pow! The ice cream machine was one of our first targets.

But once we had the machine, the prenuptial novelty of homemade ice cream quickly wore off. Why go through the hassle of making ice cream yourself when Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Dazs offer prepackaged pints of perfection?

Then I discovered sorbets — not just any sorbets, but savory sorbets made of vegetables and herbs — and things changed. The ice cream machine made its way to the front of the cupboard.

Savory sorbets have a refreshing, cool texture and a piquant zing that make your taste buds dance. They are a thinking person's dish, conjuring up old food memories such as tomatoes, lemon and basil, or red peppers, but delivering them in a surprising, new package.

The icy chill of sorbet wakes up your mouth. Your mind anticipates something sweet, but your tongue registers something unexpected, something savory. The effect is like seeing a favorite actor in a surprise movie cameo: first confusion, then surprise and finally enjoyment.

Savory sorbet works because of its consistency. It glides easily on the tongue and dissolves quickly on the mouth's roof, allowing the flavors to linger a while. This sorbet contains no cream, so it's not as decadent as ice cream. Nor is it as granulated or icy as granite, the Italian, semi-frozen flavored ice that can be made without an ice cream machine.

The key to savory sorbet is moderation — no more than a few bites served alone as a starter or added to an appetizer or main course. The effect should be fleeting, enough to warm up the brain's food neurons, kick-start the taste buds, and crank open the saliva glands.

Savory sorbets, unlike their sweet cousins, work better as a beginning to a meal or a complement to a dish than as a palate cleanser. Think of them, as Rick Tramonto of Tru Restaurant in Chicago refers to them in his cookbook Amuse-Bouche, as a "palate starter."

There are endless options for savory sorbets: golden beet, green pea, red pepper. But the simplest and most satisfying to start with at home may be tomato sorbet. And what better time of year to break out the ice cream machine than now, during peak tomato season?

In The French Laundry Cookbook, culinary lion Thomas Keller offers a tomato sorbet recipe served with a tomato tartare.

In typical Keller fashion, it's an involved procedure. He reduces peeled and seeded tomatoes, adds sauteed onions, then blends and strains the mixture. After adding the remaining ingredients, he strains again. All for one or two bites.

Chef Tetsuya Wakuda, who dazzles eaters Down Under with creative Asian dishes, has a surprisingly simple tomato sorbet that calls for throwing tomato — skins, seeds and all — into a blender with a few other ingredients. The recipe may be dumbed down for cookbook readers, yet it is served atop a complex dish of marinated giant scampi.

After fiddling with both recipes, I've come up with a compromise. Experiment with heirloom tomatoes — yellow, green or red — if you can find them. They pack a more intense tomato flavor than any of the pink waxy hybrids you find at the supermarket.

If you can't find heirlooms, buy vine-ripe tomatoes. A sorbet should convey the essence of an ingredient, so flavor matters.

Keller recommends serving sorbet the day it is made, when it tastes best. I've found sorbet can stay in the freezer a few days more than the maximum two Keller recommends.

But if you're like me, the sorbet probably won't last that long. Before you know it, you'll find yourself reaching back into the cupboard to pull out the ice cream machine for another batch.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Yoon