New year, new food


POSTED: Wednesday, January 06, 2010

If the only fish you eat is salmon, if you only take your steak well done, if you always order the same dish at the same restaurants, what I'm about to suggest is not for you.

But if you are an adventurous eater, the type who says, “;What is that thing? Give me some!”; I suggest adopting the New Year's resolution I made last year: to bring home and cook with one new food every month. If you don't cook, you can amend this to simply make yourself taste one new food per month.

My list of a dozen includes some ingredients I'd eaten in restaurants but never brought home, a few new products and one that I picked at random because I had no other ideas that month (gooseberries).

It was fun, at times enlightening and often delicious.

JANUARY: Truffles
The ultimate truffles—the French black and Italian white—with their price tags of up to $1,000 per pound, are pretty much beyond the reach of rank amateurs like me. I'm not sure we should even be trusted to do the right thing with them.

But late last January, Jack Czarnecki came to town bearing bottles of his Oregon White Truffle Oil and a small bag of Oregon white truffles. Czarnecki, a fungi specialist, is in the vanguard of a movement to bring recognition to the all-American Oregon truffle.

His truffles were milder in scent and flavor than I expect those higher-end truffles would be. I took his advice and put one in a container with some semi-soft cheese, then for several days enjoyed cheese infused with a musky truffle flavor. Wish I had more.




FEBRUARY: Banana bud
A banana bud, sometimes called a banana flower, is an intimidating project: big, deep red, with layers and layers of leaves, or petals. As the layers peel away they morph to pale yellow as you get closer to the heart.

Under each layer are rows of thin blossoms, which would turn into bananas if the bud had been left attached to its tree.

In Filipino cooking, the bud is sliced and stirred into soups and stews. It also shows up in Thai and Indian cooking. A Vietnamese storekeeper I met in Chinatown told me she makes a salad with banana buds and pork skin. I turned mine into a Thai-style soup with ginger, chilies and coconut milk (for the recipe:

Find banana buds in Chinatown or a market that caters to Filipino or Southeast Asian cooks. I got mine at Waipahu Festival Marketplace, 94-340 Waipahu Depot Road, for about $1.50 per pound.

MARCH: Steel cut oats
; This is about the time I got the numbers on my cholesterol, and they weren't good. Eat more fiber, the doctor said. Oatmeal is a good solution, I was told.

But I hate oatmeal, always have. Mushy, bland stuff. Steel-cut oats, on the other hand, have a texture and flavor worlds beyond regular oatmeal. These oats come from the inner grain of the oat kernel, cut in pieces by steel blades rather than rolled into flakes.

Steel-cut oats take longer to cook that your typical Quaker Oats. I make a pot at a time, refrigerate it and microwave each morning's portion. My formula: Simmer 1 cup oats and a teaspoon cinnamon in 4 cups water for 20 minutes, partially covered, stirring occasionally. Let sit a few minutes to let all the liquid absorb.

APRIL: Greek-style yogurt
; We all need calcium, but we don't all like milk. So there's yogurt. The problem is the good stuff in yogurt often comes with bad stuff, primarily sugar in the flavorings that make it palatable.

Greek-style yogurt is creamier and thicker, generally with more protein than American-style. Flavorings are simple, usually just honey (my favorite) or vanilla, but even plain it's tasty and not so tangy as the regular. Eat it out of the carton or use it in dips or dressings. I usually scoop it into my morning oats.

Most supermarkets sell single-serving containers, or for bulk containers go to Down to Earth or Whole Foods.

MAY: Salt-packed capers
; Capers—actually buds from a caper plant—are those little green things often served with smoked salmon. You'll usually find them packed in brine, which gives them a tart, pickled taste.

Capers packed instead in sea salt are prized in Mediterranean cooking for the sharp, salty burst they give dishes, even when used in tiny amounts. Look for them in gourmet shops.

They've got to be soaked in water and rinsed, or they'll be too salty. Chop them and add to salads, pasta and pizzas or sprinkle on fish. They add a real boost to ordinary egg or tuna salads, too.

JUNE: Bamboo rice
; The raw rice is an intriguing pastel green, drawn from the bamboo extract that flavors it. Cooked, the color pales somewhat, but it's still obvious you're eating something very different. The scent and flavor are very much like green tea.

Don Quixote carries the BamBOOM! brand from Golden Basin, which does its processing in China but has a marketing and development division on Oahu. The company devotes a portion of its profits to people living in “;nutritional poverty.”;

JULY: Gooseberries
; These were a purely blind choice, made when I was wandering around Whole Foods looking for something I'd never tried before. They were pretty little green, almost translucent, bulbs. They looked like grapes, but they were the most sour substance I have ever tasted.

Turns out you never eat these raw. They are generally cooked with loads of sugar and made into a crumble or a fool (a mixture with whipped cream). A gooseberry sauce, much like cranberry sauce, can be served like a chutney with meats or curries.

Gooseberries are a summer treat in parts of the mainland, available only in June and July.

AUGUST: White asparagus
; This rather ghostly vegetable is the same as green asparagus, but grown with dirt piled around the stalk so it gets no light, which would develop chlorophyll, which would turn it green. Some chefs like it for its delicate looks and flavor.

White asparagus is available for a short time in the summer—I got mine on sale at Safeway one week. I found it more fibrous than green asparagus, and actually kinda creepy looking. You're supposed to peel the stalk to make it more tender, something I never have to do with green, so I don't think I'll be bothering with it again.

SEPTEMBER: Banana sauce
; Discovered this one while standing in line at Pacific Supermarket in Waipahu behind a woman buying eight bottles. I asked her what she did with it and she said she makes Filipino spaghetti, which her kids love.

I have no Filipino genes, or it wouldn't have taken me so long to discover this very popular condiment made with mashed bananas, vinegar and spices. It's very much like ketchup and used by many of my friends' families for that purpose. It's just a little sweeter and really doesn't taste like bananas.

I found many recipes for Filipino spaghetti sauce with an online search. The dish is made with ground beef with a jar of prepared spaghetti sauce, a bottle of banana sauce, hot dog slices and lots of pasteurized cheese (like Velveeta).

Jufran is the common brand of sauce, and it was the bargain find of my year at 85 cents for 12 ounces.

OCTOBER: Flax seed
; This substance is one of the easiest ways to add a nutritional boost to your daily dining. Many studies have found ground flax seed to lower both bad cholesterol and blood pressure. It's also an antioxidant and a good source of fiber and those beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

All you do is sprinkle it on your food—salads, cereals or even in drinks—and its flavor will go almost unnoticed. Flax can also be used as a replacement for eggs: 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds blended with 3 tablespoons water replaces one egg in baking, acting as a binder for other ingredients. Buy ground flax or buy whole seeds and grind them yourself. Natural foods stores are the best source.

; Like truffles, saffron is something I've tasted in restaurant dishes but never thought to buy myself because it's so expensive. Saffron is often called the most precious spice in the world, as it is harvested from the stigmas of a particular crocus and it takes thousands of flowers to yield a pound of spice.

My cousin returned from a trip to Europe with a gift of Turkish saffron, which I tried out in a paella. It gave the dish a subtle yellow tone but not much noticeable flavor, which leads me to believe I need more practice with this item. An adventure for 2010.

DECEMBER: Spam macadamia nuts
; This discovery was just plain frightening. Hamakua Plantations Macadamia Nuts with Spam came on the market about three weeks ago, and they are just what they claim to be—mac nuts with the unmistakable taste of Hawaii's favorite canned meat.

Richard Schnitzler, president of Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co., said a consultant for Hormel Foods came to him with the concept. “;We discussed the potential and his eyes lit up and my eyes lit up,”; he said. Hormel, the maker of Spam, developed a dry seasoning mix that is mixed with the nuts.

They were a big hit at a food licensing show in New York, he said, although, “;A lot of people thought I'd lost it when I started working on it.”;

Find them at Don Quixote, Longs and Hilo Hattie stores for about $5 per 4.5-ounce can and about $10 for a 12-ounce bag. I've only gotten as far as a taste of one nut, but I could imagine them ground and sprinkled into rice or salads. Maybe.