What are you afraid of?

She's baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack! Sorry for all for the skipped weeks. Life blah blah blah ... you know.

Zesty Pickled OkraSpurred by a conversation I was part of on Chowhound (which is an excellent resource for all things food, if you're not familiar), my thoughts this week have veered toward some of those foods many among us avoid. Some of us may even be a bit fearful of them, whether that be how to prepare them or pondering actually eating them. They're foods which have kinda gotten short shrift in the culinary landscape.

Yes, we can all admit, some of us didn't exactly have the best role models growing up where food is concerned. Hell, even in my food-friendly house, where lots of exotic and funky stuff made its delicious way to our plates, there were gaps where a few of my new favorites probably ought to have been. It seems nobody is immune to a bit of avoidance of those ingredients we're not so familiar or comfortable with cooking or eating.

But, the good news is, that can easily change!

Overcoming discomfort or unfamiliarity with a food is just a mere matter of actually bringing some home, using it, experimenting with it, determining how you like it prepared best. Really, that's it. In some cases, you may not like the taste or texture but, one thing to remember, it may be the preparation rather than the ingredient itself. If you're game, try it again another way and see how that works. There are plenty of foods which are fairly nasty if prepared outside their comfort zone, which are best only when done in particular methods or with the flavors of their origin cuisine. 

I'll give you a few good examples. When Jim and I first started living together, he thought he didn't like asparagus. He had a rather dubious expression when I pulled it out for one night's dinner but, to his credit, gave a it the old college try. Well, what do you know? Now it's one of his favorite veggie sides.

What made the difference? Turns out, his Mom had a bad habit of cooking vegetables, especially asparagus, far past their optimum, often covering them in cheese, sauces, etc. Granted, some veggies (like spinach) hold up very well to a long cooking process breaking down their fibrous structure, but these are few and far between. And, of course, asparagus is meant to be lightly seasoned with no conflicting or overwhelming flavors to cover its light, fresh taste. Like the cuisines from which it mainly stems, asparagus is all about freshness and straightforward simplicity. Once he had some very lightly steamed or roasted asparagus with just a touch of salt and lemon (maybe a sprinkle of garlic) the man loved it. Score one for the veggies!

Bowl o' BorschtIn my house, growing up, okra was pretty much just a crunchy pickled inclusion on the relish tray, picked up in our brief sojourn to Oklahoma. That was it. And there were no brussel sprouts, since Mom (like me) thought she didn't like them, believed they had a funky taste. There was no kale either, possibly due to lack of familiarity or the clever hiding place among the greens most supermarkets put stuff they think white people don't want to eat. Speaking of, though it saddens me to say it, no greens either. I KNOW! I get a frowny face just thinking about it.

I suspect lots of us have similar food fears, food avoidances, assumed dislikes, bred almost exclusively from a combination of bad preparation or flat out absence from our diets. This, I think, is very sad. Not only are some of these oft-avoided foods amazingly healthy, they're also incredibly delicious additions to a varied diet.

So, here are a few suggestions to get you over the food-fear hump.

Okra:
Spiced Okra Fried with a Dusting of Corn MealBesides the wealth of nutrients, including Vitamins A, B, C, and K along with iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium, and dietary fiber, okra is a great mildly-flavored pairing for your more exotic or spicy dishes. If you've not had okra before, you might find the viscuous stuff inside the pods a tad, shall we say, gross. Fortunately, most ways of preparing okra either mitigate the sliminess or use it cleverly. WIN!

There are three main ways I like to use my okra. The first, which will come as no surprise to those who know me, is pickling. There are few veggies which take to pickling as well as the usual cukes. But, just like cukes, the very thing which gives some people the huuuhhs, the bit of gelatinous mouth-feel middle, is what really helps make okra a great medium for pickling. They're crunchy, zesty, and a little touch of the exotic on your relish tray.

The other two ways are also inspired by memories of my brief stay in the neighboring outlands of the south. The easiest and quickest is a quick trip around a hot skillet, with a light coating of spice and perhaps a dusting of corn meal. Here, once again, the hated "slime" works for you by allowing the spicy flavors to adhere to the cut edges of the pods. The thinner you slice (the sooner before cooking), the more robust your spicy, savory flavors. When I'm feeling like a bit more of a slow simmer, I use my okra to thicken quickie gumbos (though I vastly prefer gumbo started with roux when time allows) and African cuisine inspired vegetable stews (which is a natural, since okra's main origins in cooking stem from Africa ... gumbo is actually a loose translation of okra). In this form, yet again, the very thing most people state as the reason they dislike okra is the very thing which makes it the centerpiece and most critical ingredient in the dish. Without the viscuous inner stuff, you wouldn't have that luxurious thickening without having to liberally douse your dish with flour (altering the taste significantly) or giving yourself a 45 minute or longer arduous chore of stirring a roux until it's the right nutty brown.

By the way, okra is readily available pretty much everywhere right now, so get it while it's fresh and tasty!

Kale:

Kale with 5-hour PorkYes, I know it's a little weird looking and unwieldy. It tastes rather unpleasantly bitter straight off the stem. Unlike many of the avoided foods, kale doesn't seem to suffer from poor preparation as much as lack of familiarity. Many of us just don't seem to know what to do with this poor red-headed stepchild of the leafy greens family. But we really should try kale, even if only for the nutritional power punch of Vitamins K, A, C and a host of minerals. The good news is, kale is actually also quite delicious when cooked with even fairly haphazard care. It is, honestly, very hard to fuck up.

The easiest way to use kale is to just tear the leaves from the hard stems and into mouth-sized bits and give a spin in a pan or pot until just wilted, which takes a bit longer than spinach or other more familiar greens, but is worth the time in additional heartiness and flavor. It takes beautifully to virtually any combination of acid + savory, from lime, soy, and sesame (maybe a touch of ginger or red pepper flake) to wine, lemon, shallots and/or garlic. If you just remember to just add a touch of salt at the start and season after it's wilted and always include an element of acidic zing (wine, vinegar, citrus, lemon grass, etc ... even tomato) with an element of savory or aromatic sexiness (garlic, shallots, ginger, sesame, chili paste, soy, etc), you'll have yourself a delicious and über-nutritious side.

Kale can also be a great supporting player. I toss huge handfuls into vegetable stews, especially African or Italian inspired ones, to add a little extra somethin'-somethin' and more tasty substance. It's a great addition to soups, from the beef vegetable you'll find here in the margins, to minestrone and red or white chicken soup ... hell, the possibilities are pretty endless. If you want to add a savory/sweet bite (yes, kale actually does get a touch sweet when cooked) to virtually anything, just add a handful or three of kale about 15 minutes or so before the end of the cooking process. Once it's a bit wilted and the raw, bitter taste is gone, you're ready to go.

Brussel Sprouts:
This is a tough one for a lot of people, I know, since for much of my life, until just a few years ago, I avoided them, too. Funny, many of these very same people (myself included) like cabbage, yet turn their nose up at its diminutive cousin. Yet, that's practically what brussel sprouts are, a little cabbage ... only vastly more deliciously flavorful. Like kale, sprouts are quite bitter in their raw form. Also, like kale, their flavor mellows and grows more sweet/savory complex in the cooking process.

Being a convert and huge fan of the sprout, I must admit, I don't really fuss around much with them. Like asparagus, I like the natural flavor to shine through rather than be hidden by other stronger ingredients. Much of the time, I merely lightly steam halved or quartered sprouts (depending on size) and give them a quick toss with butter, kosher salt, granulated garlic, and ground black pepper. Other times, instead of the basic, I'll toss with butter, salt, and a touch of Madras curry (YUMMM!). Otherwise, I might toss raw sprouts in a bit of olive oil, kosher salt, and a touch of garlic and/or herbs and roast in a 400º oven for 45-60 minutes (until they get a touch brown and caramelized on the edges), with a little splash of lemon before serving. Super-easy yet fabulously foodgasmic ... damn, I love that!

Beets:
Roasted Beet + Gorgonzola + Walnuts = Foodgasmic Salad!Beets are one of the recent darlings of the high-end culinary world but, alas, that affection is slow to winnow down to we outside the rarified borders of haute cuisine. Like the other veggies here, beets are super-healthy and, whaddaya know, also really delicious. I had never really eaten beets much until very recently, when I got an idea planted in my gulliver to try making borscht (I know ... I don't know where this shit comes from, either.). Well, the borscht worked out swimmingly, even if a bit labor-intensive, which led to thinking about other ways ... simpler ways ... of incorporating beets into our diet.

Back in the day, beets were something just my Dad and I would deign to eat ... then only on salads and *gack* from a can. Fortunately, I remembered that and, instead of going for the shortest short-cut, created some lovely salads using beets as the centerpiece, salads which revolved around the sweet and earthy flavor of freshly roasted beets. The one I'm showing here is my favorite so far. It's nothing earth-shattering or terribly unique, but most of the best dishes aren't. After millennia of cooking and eating, new and avante garde is not easy to achieve and, honestly, sometimes I just want safely delicious without too much taxing of the brain pan.

So, here's the upshot ... beets + gorgonzola + walnuts = delicious. The base here is spinach and rocket, accented with other crunchy veggies like carrots and cukes, a bit of olive, with a light toss of lemon, vinegar, oil, and herbs. Super-simple, extremely healthy, and lots of varied tastes and textures working together in harmony on the plate. That's a foodgasm WIN in my book, original and cutting-edge or not.

Then, there is the food which started this whole reverie ...
Chicken feet:
Chicken Feet ... Yes, Chicken Feet!Yes, chicken feet! Yes, I know ... I'll wait a moment for your grossed-outed-ness to subside ...

Being raised by a Hunkie used to odd bits floating in soup pots and the like,  I've fortunately never turned up my nose at the idea of nose-to-tail eating. Lots of the very things many people avoid out of some misplaced squeemishness are the very element which makes the traditional foods they love when eating out far superior to the versions they make at home. Many folks just haven't realized it yet. They've grown up with chicken soup flavored only with the seemingly-palatable cuts of meat you'd find on an average American plate, which is a huge step down from what is possible when using the whole beast.

The bottom line is, chicken feet (along with those sadly often-discarded giblets and necks) are chock full of the makings of a more flavorful and hearty soup. Why many home-made soups suffer against that awesome bowl at the deli or pho joint can be squarely laid at the feet of the aversion to feet (and other nasty bits). The feet, in particular, add lots of gelatin to chicken stock and help bring in a more intensely robust chicken flavor. And, though it's not the subject here, make sure to toss those giblets in your soup pot, too, for a much more delicious stock and, thus, soup. You will not actually taste the offal, but you can definitely taste their absence in the usual bland broths many of us consume all too regularly.

For the much more adventurous, especially you rib tip eaters and the like, chicken feet can be an interesting treat with a sexily smooth and unctuous mouth feel. You see, they are pretty much all cartilage and such, so a good slow cooking method will yield a nice tidbit for your sucky-slurpy pleasure. Give them a par-boil, then cook bathed in a spicy, savory sauce with a touch of acidic twang (the Chinese really shine at this, so look to their cuisine for the best flavors, especially Szechuan). If you can get past the wierdness of eating the foot, you'll have a delicious and exotic treat to start a traditional foods meal.

 

If you can't find them at your usual market, as we Angelenos normally can, look to ethnic markets, especially Chinese or SE Asian. You can always count on them to have all the best odd, treasured beasty-bits!

 

Well, that's enough blathering about food for the moment. See you next week with more talk of foodgasms and the lovely foods which give them to us. Until then, have a fabuously tasty week!