Ten ingredients I discovered too late in life

IMG_2763As readers of this blog know, I like to eat. For me, food is a way to enter other cultures and connect with other people, to satisfy my curiosity about the world as I sate my appetite. I may roll my eyes at the pretensions of molecular gastronomy, but I’ll grant its proponents this much: discovering a new ingredient is a bit like discovering a new element. It raises questions and opens up possibilities.

Ten years ago, I had barely heard of the ingredients listed here, if I’d heard of them at all. I certainly didn’t cook with them.

A pause here to sigh for those wasted years – then on with the list.

Smoked paprika. It’s such a simple concept: instead of merely drying red peppers and grinding them to a powder, why not smoke them first? So simple, and yet I somehow made it into my 40s before smoked paprika and I crossed paths. Don’t let that happen to you. I’ve been making up for those lost decades by using smoked paprika on potatoes, short ribs, brisket, lamb shanks, cabbage, eggs (both fried and deviled) and other good, solid, rib-sticking foods that could stand a bit of spice and smoke.

Speck. It’s like prosciutto, except it’s smoked. Need I say more? No, I didn’t think so.

Freekeh. This is wheat, picked while green. Because it’s still green, it doesn’t separate from the chaff as readily as wheat does when ripe. Somewhere along the line, some genius had the brilliant idea of burning the field in order to facilitate the harvest of the unripe grain. It all sounds a little strange to me (who had the idea of eating unripe wheat in the first place? were people just impatient?), but the happy result is that the method of harvesting imparts a smoky flavor to the grain. Having lived most of my adult life in the Detroit area, I’m no stranger to Middle Eastern markets, and I was aware that freekeh existed. But it took a nudge from my cooking crushes, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, to get me to pick up a bag and make my first freekeh pilaf. There’s been no going back. (Pro-tip: the classic dish of lentil, rice and burnt onions, mujaddrah, is even more delicious when made with freekeh instead of rice.)

Moving on from smoky things to green things . . .

Avocado leaves. You can buy these, dried and packaged, in Mexican markets (or at the supermarket, if you live in a community with a large Mexican population). They look a bit like giant bay leaves, and like bay leaves, they aren’t, strictly speaking, edible – they just lend a subtle licorice flavor to other foods. What you want to do is to line the bottom of a Dutch oven with these, put some lamb shanks on top, sprinkle with salt, cover tightly, then pop everything in a low oven and forget about it for a couple of hours. When the lamb shanks are falling-off-the-bone tender, take them out. Then – and this is the most important step – bolt the door, pull the shades, and look around to make sure you’re either alone or with someone you trust completely. Remove the lamb shanks to a serving platter (they can wait), scrape the blackened avocado leaves off the bottom of the pot, and lick and suck the caramelized lamb drippings from them. Throw the sucked-on leaves in the trash to hide the evidence, and then serve the lamb shanks as though nothing untoward has happened.

I like to do this with Katie as a mother-daughter bonding exercise.

Hoja santa. That haunting flavor in some Mexican sauces – the one that seems to capture the essence of greenness? Tasting the way a freshly-mowed lawn smells, especially if the grass were mixed with tarragon and chervil? That would be hoja santa. I’m still figuring out how to use it (how about wrapping fish in it and seeing what happens?), but I think it will be hard to go wrong.

Papalo. Why do the cemitas at Brooklyn’s Red Hook ball fields taste so much better than your run-of-the-mill Mexican sandwich? Sure, there’s the slow-cooked meat, the delightfully stretchy white cheese, and the generous hand with pickled jalapeños. But there’s also papalo, sometimes called “summer cilantro” (even though it neither looks nor tastes like cilantro and is not related to it botanically). With loose sprigs of rounded, scalloped leaves, it looks a bit like watercress and tastes both green and earthy. And strong: what papalo shares with cilantro and certain political figures is a polarizing effect. I happen to love it.  According to a number of online sources, it’s also good for your digestion. My own experience in that regard is that if taken at lunchtime, it’s good for a full afternoon of flavorful burps. It’s a bit harder to find than avocado leaves and hoja santa, but a Mexican market with a well-stocked produce section should have it.

Now, on to starchy, tuberous things . . .

Jerusalem artichokes. Yes, these are daunting: small and knobby and consequently a pain in the ass to clean. Perhaps that’s why I never tried them until last year. Once again, it was Yotam and Sami (I can call you by your first names, can’t I?) who persuaded me to pick some up, scrub them, make a half-hearted attempt to scrape off the skins, and toss them in a roasting pan with some chicken thighs.

I know these tubers have nothing to do with real artichokes, which are basically giant thistles, and it could just be that I’m suggestible, but I do think they taste a bit like artichokes . . . if artichoke flavor came in a starchy package that turns gorgeously crusty when roasted to Yotam and Sami’s instructions.

Can’t forget about sweet things . . .

Chestnut honey. In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character carries on about the way her nail polish mixes something sweet with something rotten. Chestnut honey is kind of like that. It’s not rotten or garbagy (that would be durian, an ingredient I’m still working my way up to), but it combines flowery sweetness with a lingering bitter aftertaste. That bitterness can be off-putting. But in the right context – for example, drizzled over ricotta on toasted country bread, then sprinkled with sea salt – it’s delicious. I’m pretty sure it’s better than Jennifer Lawrence’s nail polish.

Finally: spicy things . . .

Korean chile paste (gochujang). I’m trying to learn more about Korean cooking, going so far as to take a half-day workshop through the League of Kitchens. But guess what? You don’t have to limit this brick-red paste of chilis and fermented soybeans to Korean dishes. In my kitchen over the past year, stews and braises have become an excuse to stir heaping spoonfuls of gochujang into the pot. It’s spicy, but not searingly spicy, and the soybeans give it a salty earthiness. (My hand with this stuff became even more liberal when I discovered I no longer had to make a special trip to a Korean market to restock; the Korean-owned fish store down the street carries it.)

Mango pickle. South Indian-style pickles are too spicy and salty for me to eat straight in any quantity (though I’ve been known to lick the tines of the fork I used to fish them out of their jar), but finely chopped mango pickles make for a tasty chicken salad (if you buy them labeled “cut,” they come pre-chopped). Just mix a healthy dollop with some mayonnaise (as a child of the U.S. Midwest, mayonnaise plays approximately the role in my life that madeleines did in Proust’s) and scraps of leftover chicken, add some cashews and golden raisins if you’re feeling fancy, and you’re in business.

. . .

So that’s my list, offered as a public service. Life is too short to put off trying new stuff.

(This blog will be on hiatus for the next two weeks as I do my running, eating, exploring, and surviving in the Czech Republic. The computer is staying home, so if I end up writing about it all, it won’t be until after I’m back in Brooklyn. )

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