Saturday, 13 April 2024

Foodie Freak: Ingredients you should try in the new year

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Whether you’ve made your new year’s resolutions already or if you haven’t, I want you to think about adding one more thing to your list for the new year. I do it every year myself: Try some new foods.


You could call it your culinary “bucket list” or just a simple “There, I tried it, now leave me alone” list. Personally I try to experience as many different types of foods and flavors as I can. This is not only to be able to say that I’ve tried it but I’m looking to possibly add it to my own kitchen. After all, you are going to be eating for the rest of your life, why should you stick with the same old thing over and over again? Why not expand your culinary horizons to something that may change your way of cooking forever?


I cooked a pig’s head recently just to say I’ve done it. Unfortunately for a culinary adventurer like myself, at this point in my life there are very few things that I haven’t at least tried so things keep getting more and more exotic. This year my list of new things to try will include things like lamb’s eyeballs, canned gooseneck barnacles and Bhut Jolokia chilis.


I don’t expect everyone to be as adventurous as that. I don’t even expect my own family to try all those things (although here’s hoping they will!).


Here’s my list of things you might not have tried before but should in 2010.


Asian fish sauce


Buy a bottle, but make it a small bottle. It doesn’t spoil even at room temperature, so you will most likely own it for the rest of your life (unless you are like me and develop a taste for it and try to put it in everything).


Ignore the people who say it tastes like anchovies and armpits – although they are correct – still, ignore them and try it. It’s used as liquid salt in many Asian cuisines. It adds salt and a distinctive anchovy-like flavor to many dishes. It is the parent sauce of Worcestershire sauce.


Puy (aka green) lentils


Available at local health food stores, green lentils don’t dissolve into a paste when cooked like other lentils do. Sometimes called “caviar lentils” since they mildly resemble caviar. They take about 20 minutes to cook, and take about 10 minutes longer if you cook them in an acidic liquid. They have a firm texture and are almost impossible to overcook.


Use them as a side dish, as an addition to soups, salads, even bread. They can even be spouted. They have a fantastic unique flavor, and are high in protein.


Sake


Every time I buy sake someone asks what it tastes like and I tell them, “Wine tastes like grapes intensified a thousand times, and sake tastes like rice intensified a thousand times.” Good quality sake should be drunk cold. The practice of drinking sake warm was to hide the fact that after the war American GIs were being served cheap sake and heating it hid its bad qualities.


The thing that most people don’t know is that it is impossible to get a hangover from good quality sake. Try adding a couple of tablespoons of sake to the water in which you cook your rice.


Capers


Capers are the pickled unopened flower buds from a Mediterranean shrub. They are salty and sour, with floral overtones.


Popular in sauces like puttanesca, they add a brightness to even the heaviest sauce, especially tartar sauce. Mayonnaise, lemon juice, chopped dill pickles, and chopped capers is my favorite accompaniment for French fries.


A rarer find are caper berries, the pollinated flower “seed”; they are similar in taste but look like an olive with a stem attached and less delicate of a flavor. These are popular as a cocktail garnish. If you are really curious about them let me know – I’ve got a huge jar of them in the fridge.


Israeli couscous


Different from regular couscous in that it is larger and toasted. It is sometimes called “pearled couscous.” This is one item that my family enjoys too.


Boil in water or stock, drain, then serve with butter. You could change things up by draining the couscous and then tossing in a handful of grated cheddar while still hot and stir to combine.


If you don’t want to try Israeli couscous, orzo (in the pasta section of your grocery store) also is a great thing to play with. It’s rice-shaped pasta that's a great change from rice with dinner.


Look for Israeli couscous in the Kosher area of your grocery store. I always have this in my kitchen.


Italian-style Giardiniera


A traditional pickled Italian vegetable mix. My father-in-law used to make it at home and so my wife says the smell of Giardiniera is “the smell of summer.” It's carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, pearl onions, red bell peppers, and pepperoncini in a salty/sour brine.


Chicago has a Giardiniera sandwich spread that is nothing like the Italian-style Giardiniera (Why does Chicago have Giardiniera that isn’t Giardiniera and a pizza that isn’t a pizza, and what’s up with those hot dogs? Chicago is a culinary dichotomy).


Giardiniera is a great snack food, especially if served cold during the summer. I snack on it year-round. I always have a jar in my fridge and one or two more in my pantry.


Kava tea


Kava Kava is derived from the root of the pepper tree and contains a narcotic that is very popular with men in Micronesia where it grows. The Kava Kava drink that is popular in New Zealand tastes like muddy water and gives your mind a foggy narcotic veil for a couple minutes (I had it once while on vacation).


The Kava tea (available at many local health food and grocery stores) is much better tasting and puts a much milder narcotic veil like effect. I drink it after a stressful day just before bedtime. CAUTION: It WILL show up on a drug test, so drink it appropriately. In New Zealand, men who abuse Kava Kava develop impotence.


Palm hearts


Eaten fresh in the American South and Caribbean where they grow, Southerners call it “Cajun cabbage,” which is confusing since it is nothing like cabbage.


Commonly found in jars and cans in the canned vegetables aisle, it has a taste and texture like nothing you have ever experienced before. It looks like shiny, bulky, white sticks of chalk. I like to chop some coarsely and throw it on salads to bring to potluck dinners. It’s fun to watch the looks on people’s faces when they see them and can't quite figure out what they are.


Very mild flavored, palm hearts are a fascinating ingredient to use and even just snack on plain. My first experience with palm hearts was in the Cayman Islands and are a part of one of my greatest and fondest memories.


If you can’t see yourself eating even one of these ingredients, go ahead and make your own list. Try a new vegetable, a new fruit, a new sauce, a new deli meat, a new cheese, a new liqueur, a new flavor of ice cream, a new spice … you’re getting the idea. Just open yourself to something you have never experienced before.


I’d love to hear your comments about the new things you’ve tried and what you thought about them.


Have fun with new ingredients, and Happy New Year!


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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