My spiritual guru once told me that I can’t think my way into “right acting” – but I can act my way into “right thinking.” I’ve employed that philosophy often in my life, but probably never more than with my approach to food. Or, more specifically, getting over my fear of foods that freaked me out only because I didn’t know enough about them.
In the produce section, have you ever stared in wonderment at exotic-looking giant mushrooms, strange bumpy fruits or weird greens – and then walked on because you didn’t have the first clue about what to do with them? I can relate, believe me. But why let a little doubt or fear keep you from expanding your palate? Cooking foods you don’t know much about not only keeps your diet from getting boring, it can also teach you some valuable life lessons.
My eye-opening experience with “fearful food” came at the Reluctant Panther Inn in Manchester, Vt., when I tried a vegetable called salsify (pronounced sol-se-fee) for the first time. It was served as a side dish, and I was taken aback by its unique buttery texture and earthy flavor. Weeks later my father pointed it out to me in its raw form in the supermarket. I was shocked: long, flat brown branches that looked like bundles of fat grape cuttings. Not very appetizing. If I hadn’t experienced salsify firsthand, I never would have given it a second glance, let alone brought it home to cook.
Fast-forward 15 years. Working in a small New York City kitchen as a vegetable washer and prep cook, I got the opportunity to prepare some salsify for my boss. Since I had already seen salsify’s softer side, I was able to confidently prepare a 25-pound box of the stuff with no trouble: peel, steam, slice, sauté. I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t already gotten past salsify’s unique weirdness. That experience taught me that if you just keep cooking the same old things over and over, you gain nothing. Walk through the fear, and cook something different, and you can grow in new and exciting ways.
You can overcome anxiety about certain foods by getting to know them better. Here are a few great examples of fresh produce that are not as challenging as they appear. Trust me, you have nothing to fear – and everything to gain.
Why they scare you: Because mushrooms like shiitake, trumpet, enoki, chanterelle, cremini, morel, etc., tend to be expensive, strange looking, have unpronounceable names and smell “woodsy.” They may also look dirty.
Don’t be afraid: These mushrooms are delicious and provide a rich, complex, signature flavor to all types of foods. A quick wipe with a damp cloth removes particulate matter from fresh mushrooms. Soaking dried mushrooms restores their shape and flavor.
How to buy: Look for firm, evenly colored, pristine-looking mushrooms that don’t feel wet or greasy.
How to serve: Sautéed as a side dish, sauce or garnish, grilled, roasted, broiled, pickled, made into sauce or soup or served fresh in salads.
Mushroom Soup: Sauté 2 pounds of trimmed mushrooms (try mixing shiitake and cremini) in olive oil or a smidge of butter with some minced shallots and a sprig of fresh thyme. When colored nicely, add 3 cups of homemade stock and a finely diced baking potato and simmer for 25 minutes. Season with sea salt and a splash of sherry; purée and serve.
Why they scare you: Flashbacks to Mom’s overcooked, smelly, bitter sprouts.
Don’t be afraid: It’s one of the best green “super foods,” loaded with vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Small, fresh Brussels sprouts are also sweet, delicate, inexpensive and available year-round.
How to buy: Look for smooth, bright green, firm bulbs with minimal scarring and no brown spots. Store in a paper bag in the fridge, never in plastic. If you are buying loose sprouts, look for evenly sized bulbs to ensure uniform cooking times.
Ways to serve: Steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled, sautéed, pickled.
Twice-Cooked Brussels Sprouts: Steam, cool and grill; or boil, cool and sauté; or pan sauté and finish in the oven.
Why it scares you: It has a licorice aroma and somewhat resembles bland celery.
Don’t be afraid: Crunchy and sweet when served fresh, fennel has a luscious texture when cooked and makes a great stand-in for potatoes, rice and other starchy carbs. It’s almost impossible to overcook or undercook and can be paired with just about any type of food.
How to buy: Avoid bulbs with damaged, tired-looking fronds, browned ends, cracked stems or wet spots. Smaller bulbs tend to be more tender than large ones.
Ways to serve: Steamed, raw, grilled, poached, sautéed, roasted. Try fresh-shaved fennel in salads.
Fennel Delights: Poach fennel whole in water and some white wine, seasoned with a few tablespoons of honey and butter. Let cool in the liquid and then drain and serve. Or slice lengthwise, leaving the stem end attached to hold the pieces together, and then sauté or grill as a side dish or for a warm salad.
Why it scares you: Its sharp leaves and burrs make it intimidating to handle.
Don’t be afraid: Once you lop off the tops, pineapples actually aren’t that difficult to cut up (see below). Plus, fresh is always better than canned, which is often pasteurized and packaged with sugar or syrup.
How to buy: They should have bright green leaves and golden aromatic skins. Avoid soft, fleshy, spongy fruits and ones that have a faint ammonia smell, which means the flesh is overripe and beginning to decay.
Ways to serve: Raw, grilled, broiled, roasted, sautéed. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut away the top, then the bottom, then the sides, to reveal a cylinder-shape of flesh. Don’t worry about cutting around the “eyes.” Just slice deep enough to remove the tough stuff and reveal the smooth flesh. If eating raw, use an apple corer or melon baller to extract the 1/2-inch core. Otherwise, cooking tenderizes it.
Pineapple Salsa: Grill five or six pineapple slices brushed with olive oil. When cool, dice finely and combine with fresh basil, 2 tablespoons of chipotle chilies, a splash of Thai fish sauce and fresh lime juice. Use with grilled or roasted fish, poultry or other meat.
Why they scare you: Bok choy, on choy, choy sum, gai lan and dai gai choi are still unfamiliar to most Western consumers. Plus, they don’t look like “regular” greens, such as spinach and lettuce.
Don’t be afraid: They’re mild in flavor, cook quickly and make an appetizing, nutritious addition to stir-fries, soups and salads. They are an easy way for novice cooks to vary their repertoire – and their diets.
How to buy: Choose younger plants (the ones that look less fibrous, stringy and tough). Avoid the spotting or browning ones. Wash well, as plants often collect dirt at their bases and leaves. Dry well and store wrapped in paper towels in the fridge.
Ways to serve: Stir-fry, sauté, steam, toss into soups and stews shortly before serving.
Wok-Fried Greens: Preheat a wok at a high temperature for 10 minutes or until it’s smoky-hot. Add 1 teaspoon of peanut oil and 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 2 dried chili peppers and 1/4-cup minced scallion. Swirl the pan and add 4 cups of greens, tossing until tender. Add 2 tablespoons rice wine and 1 tablespoon soy sauce to the wok right before serving. Use as a side dish or main course.