Today’s tip is from Chef Johnny Gnall. If you have questions or suggestions for tips, email Chef Johnny.
Home cooks can get intimidated by the thought of trying new ingredients. There’s a time-and-money issue of experimenting with something that might not turn out well.
But cooking is exploration. Sometimes explorers find that the trip yields nothing exciting, other times they happen upon a game-changer. With all the information and recipes on the Internet, you‘ve got all you need to add vivid new flavors to your cooking.
Ever heard of galangal (pronounced guh-LAHNG-ull, with a broad “a,” also called galanga and blue ginger)? Native to Indonesia, it is best known in America as an herb that flavors Thai soups.
Galangal. It looks like ginger but is used in a very different way. Don’t be intimidated by it! Photo by Piano Non Troppo | Wikimedia.
A member of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, galangal is similar in appearance to ginger; but instead of ginger’s spice heat, it delivers an earthy, complex favor profile with notes of citrus, pine and cedar (and it’s usually removed prior to serving, not consumed in the same way as ginger). It’s also delicious in stews and stir-fries.
Once you know what something tastes like—kaffir lime or shrimp paste, for example—you can add it to your favorite recipes to give them new life.
DON’T BE INGREDIEN-TIMIDATED
Unleash your inner explorer and plan to try a new ingredient every month. Your supermarket may have enough to start you off—from enoki mushrooms in the produce department, quinoa with the grains, and the spice rack (check out black cardamom, cubeb pepper, fenugreek, grains of paradise, mastic, za’atar and many others).
Next, look up international markets and produce stores in your area and go browsing. If there are no local markets, search on the internet. Peruse African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern grocery sites.
Then, make yourself a list of 12 ingredients you want to try over the next year. Here are some ideas to start you off:
Kamut, an ancient, high-protein wheat with a nutty flavor. More about kamut, a whole grain.
Laver/Nori, the dried sheets of seaweed used to make sushi rolls. Roll something else in it (we’ve used it for seasoned goat cheese and tuna “rolls”) or use matchstick slices as garnishes on salads, seafood or poultry.
Mushrooms—not the ubiquitous white buttons, but some of the more flavorful varieties. You can try a “mushroom of the month.” They’re low in calories and very flavorful. Check out our Mushroom Glossary.
Nigella seeds, tiny black peppery seeds popular in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking that are just as much at home in chicken salad, omelets and other American dishes.
Nopales, prickly pear leaves with a flavor similar to green beans. Popular in Mexican cuisine, they can be added to salads, scrambled eggs and most Mexican dishes.
Quinoa, a grainlike seed that’s one the world’s great complete proteins (it contains all eight essential amino acids). More about quinoa.
Sweeteners, from demerara to jaggery, try a new type of sugar instead of refined white sugar on your cereal. Check out our Sugar Glossary for the different types of sugar worldwide; then visit an international market and pick up some.
Yuzu, a delightful Asian citrus that we use instead of lemon or lime juice in just about everything. (More about yuzu.)
Seasonal vegetables and fruits—our favorite spring dish is a combination of fava beans and ramps. We look forward to it every year, during the fleeting weeks when both are available. We feel the same about stewed rhubarb, a dessert we learned at our grandmother’s knee.