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off-the-beaten-path ingredients.. for a beginner.

I'm starting an 'adventures in cooking' blog for one of my writing classes. Yeah, another food blog. But mine is focused on being a cheapo college student with a tiny kitchen.. and fostering a new exciting sense of adventure with my cooking.

I plan to hit the farmer's market once (maybe twice) a week to buy an ingredient I know nothing about, and cook with it, recording the results. Something I've never tried cooking with. I guess it's like my own Iron Chef. My knowledge of food is still pretty limited, so anything you can come up with to help me out would be more than appreciated (and suggested preparations would be great too). For example, so far, I'm planning on trying out quail eggs, morels, chocolate in a savory dish, calamari, lemongrass, jackfruit, skate wing, et. al., depending on what I can find at the market.

Any suggestions for some off-the-wall ingredients that aren't too terribly pricey?

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  1. Off the wall to some is ordinary fare to others. A number of things on your list are in my fridge right now ; )

    But... Jumping off from your list... I'd put in (much will depend on where you live and what you can get):

    Chicken Feet
    Offal of any kind
    Nopales Cactus
    Dandelion Greens
    Japanese Natto
    Pigs Feet

    3 Replies
    1. re: Jennalynn

      Pigs feet and pigs snout - I've never been able to figure that out!

      1. re: JerryMe

        And don't forget ears!

        I watched Anthony Bourdain in Harbin China eat a fabulous looking ear this week ; )

        And I grew up with nice Jewish Deli Tongue.

        Oh add tongue to my list!

        I think I'd be game to try almost anything. I'm still a little iffy about insects, but after that I'm good. It's all learned behavior!

    2. Fruits & Vegetables - Jicama, rutabaga, fennel (you said lemongrass was different so...), durian,

      Meats - Pig jowls/guanciale, foie gras, sweetbreads, bone marrow, scrapple/liverwurst

      Grains/pastas/etc - couscous, arborio rice for risotto, gnocchi, gnudi, crepes

      1. Somewhat depends on where you are, what kind of markets you can access, your budget and what you have available for equipment.

        Jennalynn's already hit a few interesting ones, and she's right about personal perception (e.g. your current list looks mainstream to me) but you can add:

        the other parts of a pig (e.g. snout, ears, tail, blood)
        balut (try and make one tasty)
        alternative proteins (horse is somewhat common but what about grey squirrel? or seitan?)
        ingredients that is maybe predominant in only one cuisine (e.g. huitalcoche)
        ingredients you've never seen before (e.g. visit an Asian, Latin or African market)

        Since it's supposed to be an adventure in cooking, using someone else's prep sort of takes away from the adventure. Another alternative might be to explore the role of a common ingredient among cultures, to see which of the 600+ ways to cook a potato you like best, your try at foraging, your try at making a wild yeast starter, fun with taro etc etc.

        By the way, the main adventure with eel is at step one - trying to kill one. The hard part afterwards is to not screw up when cooking it.

        9 Replies
        1. re: wattacetti

          Thanks, all. I realize my list so far isn't terribly exciting (well, to me it is)... but then again, I'm literally just now learning to cook. Like, this year. So, while morels may be standard fare for some, it's exciting and new and special (and a splurge) for me. Going to the farmer's market is pretty much like being a kid in a candy store for me, which is what inspired this project (looking at a case of a dozen quail eggs and wondering, what on earth can I make with that?)

          My equipment is quite limited. My cookware is pretty bare-bones. But, as this project is supposed to be directed to my fellow budget-conscious, dishwasher-less college students, I suppose that's kind of the point. Makes it more of a challenge, too.

          Wattacetti, very good suggestions too. I'd love to try foraging. I'm in Atlanta, and I'd have to do a lot of research but I think it'd be a really interesting project. Good point with exploring the zillion different ways to prepare one ingredient, too. Though, as far as alternative proteins go, I used to breed showhorses... so I don't think that would be up my alley :)

          I just love perusing these forums and reading about people cooking with things I've never even heard of before. I'm at that level of cooking amateurity where simply standing in front of the fresh herbs section of the market can totally paralyze me with the possibilities.

          1. re: collegekitchen

            I think it's a fabulous idea!

            Atlanta is a big city... you should find most of the things I listed. Especially pigs feet and offal. Chitlins and pigs feet are in the great southern tradition.

            If you blog about it, please post your URL here. I'd love to follow your adventures.

            1. re: collegekitchen

              I've been cooking for years yet I haven't tried everything so everytime I grocery shop, I pick up something new to "play" with.

              That said, I'll add rabbit, tripe, turtle meat, hogs head, calf fries, and cow feet. It's hard to suggest much more without knowing what you've already tried. I agree with wattacetti in that ordinary ingredients can be used hundreds of ways in different combinations so don't discount other ways to use that potato, banana etc.

              For the past two years, I've found so many ways to use the humble sweet potato that I didn't know I could, and I didn't even really like sweet potatoes that much before except in pie and the once a year candied dish at Thanksgiving. Now I eat them more and always look for ways to use them. Have fun with your experimenting!

              1. re: Cherylptw

                Yes! Rabbit and turtle are both on my list! My family's from New Orleans and turtle soup was a staple of childhood visits to NOLA. I've tried barbequed rabbit once and it was delicious. Never cooked with either, though. Thanks for those, Cherylptw.

                Jennalynn -- thanks so much. I'll definitely post the link once I get the design worked out and maybe my first post up.

                1. re: collegekitchen

                  Atlanta's a great city to be in and you should have access to lots of things. Rabbit constitutes an alternative protein to most, so that's a start (FWIW, el Bulli served an interesting dish from the ears).

                  1. re: collegekitchen

                    If you're looking to experiment with meat, you might join a meat CSA -- that would be an adventure for sure, since you often don't know what you're getting from week to week! :)

                2. re: collegekitchen

                  If you're just starting out, in addition to trying new things, I recommend seeking out a spice vendor. I'm guessing in Atlanta, you should be able to find one pretty easily... maybe even at your farmer's market. I started cooking in earnest last year, and was able to expand my spice collection through a vendor at a MUCH lower cost than buying spices at the grocery store! Instead of $4+ per jar, I paid $1-2 per large scoop. I made my own magnetic spice rack to store them as well.

                  As for things to explore, I would suggest bitter melon and various asian greens... will require some cooking practice, but are moderately adventurous for someone just starting out!

                  I'd also check out Cooks Illustrated for recommendations on various implements of cooking destruction. They have excellent recommendations for affordable items. Their recommended dutch oven has revolutionized my cooking this year!

                  Good luck, and have fun!!!

                  1. re: collegekitchen

                    There are lots of foraging guidebooks on Amazon.com. If you like any particular ethnic cuisines, go to a mom&pop type restaurant for a meal (try not to time it during peak hours), explain your prokect, and ask for suggestions.

                    1. re: collegekitchen

                      Are you at Emory? I hope you have a car...having studied there myself, it's slim grocery pickings if you don't and you live close to campus!

                      Add garlic scapes to your list of new ingredients to try! I always see those at the farmer's market in spring/summer.

                  2. play with ingredients and preparations... some of these might not be *way* off the beaten path, but at least definitely off the path for most college students!

                    broccoli rabe
                    zucchini blossoms
                    wild mushrooms
                    fish or oyster sauce
                    scallops -- not so off-the-beaten path, but takes a delicate hand to prepare correctly
                    make an herb-centric menu -- play with tarragon, thyme, chervil, cumin, coriander, turmeric, curry, etc.
                    master hand-made pasta, home-made bread including croissants, sauces like hollandaise, bernaise, etc.

                    1. One ingredient I found at the farmer's market last year and loved was zucchini blossoms. I stuffed the delicate flowers with cheese and herbs (ricotta and goat work well). Then I pan fried them. They're also often deep-fried, but I think this takes away from the taste and the color. I also tried some new varieties of beets and squash.

                      For meat, try some game meats like boar or ostrich. Some farmer's markets may have them. In my area (NJ) Kings supermarkets carry both.

                      I also like experimenting with different types of sausage. D'Artagnan has a great line: Merguez, Andouille, Chorizo and more...

                      Enjoy your adventure. Share your blog link too!


                      1. How about ramps and fiddlehead ferns?

                        And, for something a little less exotic but something that many students may not have tried themselves -- rhubarb.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: karykat

                          karykat -- Just wanted to share that I actually did try rhubarbs AND fiddlehead ferns on the blog.

                          (Wanted to try ramps, but they're $20/lb!)

                          So far have conquered yuca root, morels, fiddleheads, favas, rhubarbs... now my goal is to move on to the meats.

                          You can check it out at http://cheapolicious.tumblr.com if you want!

                        2. I have to admit the answers to your question has left me very impressed and just a little grossed out. Snouts and feet? No thank you. What about unusual ways to prepare usual foods? Or unusual combinations?
                          Bbqed peaches
                          bbqed pineapple
                          roasted pearl onions with grapes
                          chocolate in your chilli

                          I'm not much for the super adventurous so that is all I can come up with on the spot but I'll bet others here have all kinds of good suggestions....if you wanted to branch out for your project. Don't want to muddy the issue and make your project bigger than you'd planned but it might be easier to find usual ingredients but combine them or prepare them in different ways. (My mother in law loved peanut butter and banana sandwiches with lettuce and mayo - crazy but cheap for a student budget)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: julesincoq

                            With respect to the chocolate in chili, I would recommend trying a Cincinnati-style chili, if you're not familiar with them. Chili purists will have a coronary and say that it isn't really chili - but it tastes good, and that's all that matters. And if you haven't had Cincinnati-style chili, I think it qualifies as off-the-beaten-path.

                            Another way you might want to go about learning with new ingredients would be to just pick a cuisine and start learning about it, maybe by just going through a cookbook and making all the recipes that look good. Offhand, I'd suggest picking up Everyday Mexican by Rick Bayless and just making everything in the book - it's all good, generally easy and quick to prep, and it'll get you involved with some different ingredients as well. I may never have tried jicama without that book, and jicama just isn't something you want to miss out on. :D

                          2. How about goat? There are a lot of Caribbean, Korean, Indian, uses for goat which can be a pretty inexpensive meat. Continuing the Indian and Caribbean theme, curries and dosas are ready for a thousand variations on the theme.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: WCchopper

                              Interestingly, goat is the most eaten meat in the world, outdoing pork and chicken. Whatever happened to "a chicken in every pot?"

                            2. I'm not sure how exotic your farmer's market gets (I get squid in my local market, but I live in Asia) but another good option for offbeat ingredients is an Asian market or China town.

                              On the vegetable front - bitter melon, water spinach, taro, burdock root, tororo, purple yam, pickled mustard leaves, fresh bamboo shoots, chestnuts, different types of mushrooms, kimchi, fresh garlic shoots. You can also try old ingredients in new ways - explore cooked lettuce or cucumber, or sweet potatoes as a desert. Durian, but only if you live alone, in an isolated house. ;-) Passionfruit, guava, dragon fruit.

                              For meat and seafood, offal is a good suggestion. Intestines can be very labour intensive (and stinky) but chicken gizzards, liver or hearts are easy to work with. Chicken feet are hard work and require multiple steps. Or try beef tongue or shanks, tripe, oxtail. Duck, goose or quail for poultry. For seafood, squid is an excellent choice. Try sea cucumber, frog, oysters if you haven't worked with them before, fresh or frozen seaweed.

                              For other ingredients, try broad beans (aka fava beans), chickpeas, millet or quinoa, black or red rice, soy milk, soft tofu, goats milk or almond milk.

                              For what it's worth, I've eaten everything on the above list, and cooked most of them.

                              1. One of your first experiments could be tofu chocolate pudding. It's this amazing dessert that tastes like it's full of cream, but it's really fluffy soft tofu mixed with melted chocolate. There are lots of recipes online. I've used Mark Bittman's and thought it was good, but I'd cut back on the sugar.

                                1. In Atlanta the Dekalb Farmers market has one of the best selections of international produce and other items I've seen: http://www.dekalbfarmersmarket.com Other suggestions: all the different tofu and soy products: yuba, natto, stinky tofu, egg tofu, okara, douhua

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: jadec

                                    These are all really, really fantastic suggestions. Thanks so much, everyone! I'm really looking forward to playing around with some of this stuff. I have a long long long list of ingredients to try now!

                                    jadec, I am definitely planning on using YDFM as my source for ingredients. It's so much less expensive than Whole Foods or any of the other grocers, and was actually the inspiration for this project. Their spices are so, so, so inexpensive (most less than a dollar for a small tupperware) and the produce/meat selection is fantastic.

                                    In terms of how I go about the project, I can't stray too terribly far from my original proposal (which is centered around one ingredient; buying it, exploring it, researching it, and finally eating it). These are all really helpful suggestions, though.

                                    Right now, there's not really anything up on the site (hopefully that'll change after tonight), but in case you want to pop in and see how I'm doing (commentary welcome!), the URL is:

                                    Thanks everyone, and keep 'em coming!

                                    1. re: collegekitchen

                                      It's a neat idea! I'm excited to see what you come up with. I wouldn't bother with quail eggs if it were me-- they're not that different. It would be cool to do something with whatever's in season (like you might cook with greens or squash blossoms early in the season, or winter squash late in the season). If you buy something you're completely unfamiliar with, it might be cool to post here or on the blog and ask for shoutouts, then cook your favorite idea.

                                      1. re: collegekitchen

                                        i know there is a Ranch 99 (large Asian supermarket) on Buford Hwy, which you should check out. Don't know how it stacks up to the ones on the West Coast, but it's worth a look.

                                        1. re: WCchopper

                                          I'm game for ANYTHING on buford highway. That place is the epicenter of culinary adventure, at least in the perimeter.

                                    2. I'm a mostly-vegetarian except when I'm cooking for friends (they love meat, I love trying new things too much :). I just got a load of beef marrow bones to use for this recipe:
                                      Also check out Serious Eat's column The Nasty Bits. Talk about adventuresome...