Ingredients: Adventures in the Unfamiliar
The dirt on uncommon produce
By Janice Binkert | Aug. 11, 2018
If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that here in northwest Michigan, this is the best time of year to “veg out.” No, I don’t mean sit inside at home and vegetate in front of the TV — I mean rush out to your local farmers market and get in on the bounty of fresh vegetables that are in season on right now. All of your favorites are there: sweet corn, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, fennel, Swiss chard, Japanese eggplant …
Wait, what’s that? Fennel, Swiss chard, and Japanese eggplant aren’t your favorites? You wouldn’t even know them if they walked up and said “hello” to you (in English, no less)? Or maybe you know what they are, but you haven’t a clue what to do with them? Well, take heart — you’re not alone. Those particular vegetables, and scores of others, are strangers to many people. And we’re here to change that.
I can’t tell you the number of times that people have approached me at the farmers market (or at the produce department of the grocery store) to ask me about some type of produce I’m buying: “What is that, and what do you do with it?” Sometimes they might be sorry they asked, because if there’s anything I never tire of talking about, it’s food and cooking. Want a short — or long — lecture on how to choose a bulb of garlic? What to do with celeriac? I’m always more than happy to oblige.
So sit back and prepare to be introduced to a bunch of new friends — friends who will help you stay healthy and trim, who are known for their good taste, and who will add some new ingredients and new interest to your everyday (and special occasion) meals. Who wouldn’t want friends like that?
GET TO THE ROOT OF IT
Who doesn’t love potatoes in some form? And carrots, and beets? But what about their lesser-known cousins? Root vegetables of all kinds are generally inexpensive, tasty, versatile, nutritious (fiber, vitamins, and minerals) and play well with other vegetables.
One of my personal favorites is celery root, or celeriac. Granted, this is one vegetable that won’t win any beauty contests. A gnarly, hard-as-a rock, green-and-brown orb with Medusa-like “tentacles” for roots, it’s no wonder some people are scared off. But when its unsightly exterior is stripped away (no small task — but doable), its real attractiveness is revealed. Whether it is sautèed, roasted, pureed, added to soups or shredded raw for salads (soak in lemon water to keep it from turning brown), it’s delicious, creamy, earthy taste is irresistible. One of my favorite ways to prepare it is mashed and served with red-wine braised short ribs.
Parsnips look like big carrots, and indeed, their taste is similar, but they lack the pretty colors that carrots boast (parsnips are a dull, yellowish white). Like other root vegetables, they, too, can be used in soups and stews, roasted, or pureed. Or shred them in a food processor with potatoes and make hash browns with them! Smaller is better for these tasty tubers — relegate the really big ones to your compost pile.
Through the ages and all around the world, turnips have often been considered a lowly vegetable — only good enough for animal feed or at best, peasant dishes. Jokes are made about them, usually involving a comparison with simpletons. But turnips deserve more respect. If eaten young and at the peak of their freshness, they are sweet tasting and have a pleasant texture. Boil or steam them to make a turnip mash, julienne and use like cabbage in a slaw, roast with other vegetables for a side dish, and add to soups or stews instead of potatoes for more flavor. Turnip leaves — especially those from younger plants — are edible, often being sautéed like spinach or other greens.
THE HEAT IS ON
Ask anyone to name five different types of chile peppers, and — unless they are a chile head — I’ll bet they can’t do it. And yet there are thousands of varieties growing around the world. We could probably all come up with jalapeños and habaneros and maybe serranos, but have you ever had shishito peppers? They are sweeter than a jalapeño, and usually milder, with bright green, somewhat wrinkly looking skin. One of the best (read: most fun) ways to prepare them is to sauté or grill them to char and blister their thin skins, drizzle with some olive oil and salt, and serve as an appetizer (order me a margarita with that). But shishitos are also good for stir-fries, or tempura-battered and deep fried).
Another chili pepper you’ll find at local markets in our region is the Hungarian wax pepper, which is significantly hotter than the jalapeño. But its waxy yellow skin could fool you into thinking it is a banana pepper, which would be quite a shock if you bit into it (banana peppers are much milder). Use Hungarian wax peppers in salsas and dips; in stews, soups and marinades; or pickle it for use as a condiment with a charcuterie platter.
And then there is the cayenne pepper. This one has considerably more kick either the shishito or Hungarian (measuring between 30,000 and 50,000 heat units on the Scoville scale). It can be the basis of a homemade cayenne pepper sauce, or dried on a string for crushed pepper to sprinkle on certain dishes when you want some heat (pizza, pastas, chili, seafood bisques, salsas). Cayenne peppers are also a common ingredient in curries. Whatever your favorite chile pepper is, it’s probably wise to handle it with plastic gloves. Remove the seeds and ribs if you want the flavor but not a lot of heat.
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF (OR FROND)
You’ll probably do a double take when you first see rainbow chard at the market; it’s a wonder of nature. No, those multicolored stalks did not all come from one plant, they are bundled after they are picked, but the variety of hues chard can display is still very impressive — everything from ruby to gold, pink, orange and white. The only difference between Swiss chard and rainbow chard is the color. I love using chard in lentil soup — both the leaves and stems. (Hint: Martha Stewart has a simple but good recipe for it on her website.) Otherwise, chard can be used almost interchangeably in any recipe that calls for dark, leafy greens like spinach or kale.
Many people are hesitant to try fennel because they have heard that it tastes like licorice, but for its fans — and I am one of them — that distinctive anise flavor is the very thing that is prized about it. I’ll admit, I was suspicious at first, too, but then a friend of mine made a fennel gratin — fennel loves cheese, especially gorgonzola, goat, Gruyere, parmesan, or pecorino — and I was hooked. Then I found out how well it complements the taste of fish and seafood. Now one of my go-to meals when we have dinner guests is fennel and leek risotto (see recipe), which I serve with seared salmon or scallops. During the winter holidays, raw, thinly shaved fennel makes a festive salad when combined with blood oranges and a blood orange vinaigrette, and then garnished with its own fronds. Oh, and you can make tummy-soothing fennel tea with the fronds and/or stalks.
Leeks are truly one of my favorite vegetables, and for good reason. There is hardly a savory dish that couldn’t benefit from the addition of some leeks. It pairs well with so many other vegetables — carrots, celery, cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes (Bien sûr, vichyssoise!), garlic, fennel, as well as bacon, any kind of white meat, eggs, fish, mussels… Chef extraordinaire, food writer and cookbook author David Tanis nailed it when he wrote in an article for Fine Cooking: “The flavor of a leek is like onion but more herbaceous, though not like any herb in particular, and in fact it marries well with nearly all herbs. But while onions add a single-edged sweetness, leeks add both sweetness and vegetable flavor.”
Although radicchio is in a category called bitter greens, it is actually not green at all, but an attractive reddish-purple and white. Originally from Italy, where it is hugely popular, the most common varieties of radicchio found in our area are the round Chioggia and the elongated Treviso, which taste quite similar. A refreshing salad combining three bitter greens with a fruity dressing is an almost surefire way to convert skeptics to radicchio lovers (see recipe). Trust me, I’ve seen it happen! Grilling radicchio mellows its bitterness somewhat and gives it an appealing smoky flavor.
SHINY OBJECTS ATTRACT
Patty pan squash is easy to love. Its gracefully scalloped edges and brightly contrasting, shiny yellow and green color make it almost too pretty to eat. You just want to put a bunch of them in a bowl on your table for a centerpiece so you (and others) can admire it. And that’s just what many people do at this time of year. But eat it you should — because it looks equally attractive on a plate, whether it’s sliced in half horizontally and sauteéd, cut vertically like little wedges of pie for roasting, or used whole (the smallest ones) and slid onto wooden skewers with onions, zucchini and eggplant for grilling. Patty pans, like other summer squashes, are also a key ingredient in ratatouille, vegetable lasagna, and pasta primavera.
Another shiny object is eggplant, especially the large dark purple variety that is most familiar in the U.S. The origin of its strange name can be traced back to the egg-like shape and white color of the type of it that was first brought to England from India via France in the 1800s. The Brits eventually took to calling it by its French name, aubergine. Many varieties look nothing like an egg, however, either in color or shape. There’s the long, slender Japanese eggplant (also dark purple); the rosa bianca Italian eggplant, and many others. What to do with it? Grill it, roast it, stew it, make Italian eggplant parmigiana or caponata, Middle Eastern baba ghanoush, Greek moussaka, or French aubergine gratin. For a vegetable with such an unsophisticated moniker, it sure has a worldly background.
There are so many other wonderful, but underappreciated vegetables (and fruits and herbs, by the way) out there — kohlrabi comes to mind, as well as cipollini onions, jicama, several varieties of garlic, crazy looking garlic scapes, and the list goes on. So the next new friends you want to make are the vendors at your local farmers’ market. They love telling you about what they have grown and harvested with hard work and care, and you can bet they will have lots of suggestions on what you can do it!
GOING TO THE SOURCE
Besides the Internet, which has an almost limitless supply of information on both familiar and unfamiliar vegetables, including how to choose them, store them, clean them, prep them and cook them, there are many extremely useful cookbooks and reference books on the subject. Here are a few of my favorites:
"The Flavor Bible," by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. The ultimate guide to hundreds of ingredients, as well as herbs, spices and other seasonings, included detailed lists of what goes well with what, all alphabetized for easy referencing. I reach for this book almost daily.
"Chez Panisse" – Vegetables, by Alice Waters. Over 250 recipes from the kitchens of this iconic Berkeley, California restaurant. Hey, if you can’t go there in person, this is a nice consolation prize.
"Vegetable Literacy," by Deborah Madison. An indispensable reference cum recipe treasure by a Chez Panisse alumna, food writer, cookbook author, teacher and sustainable agriculture advocate.
"Simple Green Suppers: A Fresh Strategy for One-Dish Vegetarian Meals," by Susie Middleton. The fourth cookbook by this nationally recognized vegetable expert and editor at large for Fine Cooking magazine, whose website (sixburnersue.com) is also worth checking out.