Cooking can be intimidating and when you add to that the liability of using an ingredient you have never tried before, well, it could be a recipe for disaster. As part of my practice, I encourage my clients to cook for themselves because it can be empowering and rewarding in many ways. After they overcome their basic kitchen fears, we tackle the obstacle of trying new foods. Nowadays, many obscure ingredients are becoming mainstream and a lot of them — like millet and dandelion greens — are teaming with health benefits. As CSA shares and farmers markets continue to trend, new-to-you ingredients will surface regularly. Take the risk and purchase that unknown piece of produce. The adventure alone might be worth it. Here's the how-to:
Experiment. When experimenting (I use that word purposefully) with a new food have realistic expectations. Think of it as a science project and be open to the idea that your recipe could flop. It might be a good idea to cook up a new-to-you food outside of mealtime so that you don't end up hungry if it fails. But if all goes well, you benefit by having an extra dish on hand. Include a friend in your adventure to take the pressure off the outcome and make the experience more about having a good time.
Taste. This may sound obvious but you can learn a lot about a new ingredient by simply giving it a try. Take a kohlrabi for example. It may look unfamiliar and odd, yet when you taste it raw the flavor will likely remind you of cabbage or cauliflower. By tasting the item you gain valuable information on how to use it. If it tastes like cabbage try using it like cabbage – shred it into a slaw or add it to a stew. Millet, for example, may seem mysterious but it's a blank canvas — just like rice — so you can use it in the same manner.
Compare. Similar to the taste-test trick, you can simply look at a new ingredient and liken it to a more familiar ingredient. For example, a parsnip looks like a carrot and even has a similar texture and flavor. So, you might use the parsnip as you would cook a carrot.
Cook. When in doubt, try one of the following options with unfamiliar produce: roast, sauté or enjoy it raw. If you like the flavor of the ingredient in its raw form then, by all means eat it! You can shred it, chop it or even spirilize it and add it to a salad or crudité platter. When it comes to cooking new ingredients, below are the basic beginner rules. If the vegetable is hearty and dense (think: root vegetables, cauliflower and squash), roast it. I love roasting vegetables (and fruits) as it really brings out the natural flavors. If the vegetable is leafy or more delicate (think: greens and beans), sauté it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.
Incorporate. New ingredients do not have to be used as stand-alone dishes. Instead, incorporate them into a dish you already know and love. You can sauté dandelion greens with a more familiar green like spinach, or toss a few turnips and rutabagas into your everyday potato recipe.
Discover. You can learn a lot about an ingredient and ways to prepare it by searching the web. If you feel flustered about the idea of cooking something new on the fly then go ahead and do your homework. Choose a recipe that incorporates your favorite flavor profiles and utilizes cooking techniques that feel comfortable to you. For many cooks, having a recipe to follow makes all the difference.
Katie Cavuto MS, RD is a registered dietitian and trained chef. She is the president of Healthy Bites, a company offering local and national culinary nutrition services. Katie is also the consulting dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies and Flyers, and a regular contributor on local and national TV as an expert in her field. Visit her website at nourishbreathethrive.com and follow her on facebook, instagram and twitter @katiecavutoRD.