Cooking with exotic produces

When I go to the East Indian and Chinese markets near my home, I see a lot of vegetables and legumes and other things I don’t recognize by name or appearance. What is the best way to try new ingredients?

You’re what I call a Food Explorer. It sounds like sitting at your dining table is an experience of discovery – how fortunate for your family and friends. My mother insisted that I, at least, taste everything on my plate when I was a child. I believe that set the tone for my food explorations today.

Sadly, there just aren’t enough of us curious cooks around. Most people cook and eat the same ten foods over and over, which is not only boring but unhealthful. We need variety in our diet to keep dining an exciting activity and to moderate and balance our nutrition intake.

The first thing I do when a new fresh food captures my attention is categorize it. I ask what “family” of vegetable, fruit or legume could include, say, this “tuber.” Now, I know most tubers are crusty and ugly on the outside and crisp and savory on the inside. Although I’ve seen this tuber in the Hispanic market and the Asian market, there was never a name on it, only a price. (And, its pretty cheap.)

If the produce seller is friendly, I ask her questions about the tuber. What’s the name of this item? How do you cook it? Can I eat it raw? What does it taste like? At this point, I either ask for a taste or whip out my trusty Swiss Army pocket knife (nothing larger or you will scare the vendor). If she responds negatively, I put it down and walk to the next stall. If she offers a taste, I make sure she tastes it with me. (I’m hung-up on sanitation, so I usually try to control the situation by slicing a small vegetable with my knife.)

You are not just tasting a new food in this scenario. You are cultivating a new friend. A friend who will help you discover new foods time and again. I can’t imagine a novice buying fresh seafood without asking the fishmonger how to prepare the purchase

If you are too shy for this type of encounter, I suggest you purchase sample lots of unknown produce and bring it home to your kitchen. There, in comfortable privacy, examine and investigate these aliens. Turn to your cookbook collection, or, better yet, a reference book on fresh foods. Here are two I use all the time:

Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables — A Commonsense Guide, by Elizabeth Schneider, Harper & Row, (it might still be available in paperback), and

Worldwide Selection of Exotic Fruits and Vegetables, by Julia Richardson, Les Editions, Heritage Inc. (this was published in Canada in 1990).

After you learn everything you can from your kitchen reference library, taste the item raw and cooked. Wash it and examine the skin. Does it look edible? If not, peel it. Cut off a thin slice and nibble at it with your front teeth. Taste it on the front, rear and sides of your tongue. You realize sweet, sour, bitter and salty sensations are experienced in different locations on your tongue, so cover the whole geography. I found that jicama, the tuber in question, was refreshingly crispy and juicy when tasted raw.

Next, cook some thin slices in a simple way that you prefer. Blanching in boiling water will give you a true quick-cooked flavor. If you prefer a sauté, use taste-free canola oil, rather than butter or olive oil. (It turned out jicama was great in stir-fries.)

After you’ve tasted it raw and cooked, search for recipes using this produce as a main ingredient. A traditional dish is the final test. Have you, as a Food Explorer, discovered a treasure for your cooking repertoire? If so, let your family and friends in on the secret – you might create another daring soul.

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