10 Strange Cooking Ingredients, Demystified

Chef Michelle McKenzie is obsessed with the outliers of the fruit and vegetable world. Here, we share the oddball produce you should try now.

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Michelle McKenzie: Part-time chef and teacher, full-time ugly produce enthusiast.
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As the chef and program director at 18 Reasons, a nonprofit community cooking school in San Francisco, Michelle McKenzie is a pro when it comes to getting people excited about food and cooking. And one of her favorite tactics is to lure students into unknown kitchen territory, where their initial apprehensions turn to curiosity, which quickly leads to culinary creativity at its purest.

Does your salad look like that? We didn't think so.
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Another of McKenzie's passions is championing the world of imperfect, sometimes ugly, and often intimidatingly unusual vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In her new book, Dandelion & Quince (Roost Books), she explores 36 of the most unique and undervalued edibles out there. (Once farmers can't keep up with the world's kale demands, you'll be glad you learned how to use dandelion greens.)

Below, McKenzie schools us on 10 amazing, unsung ingredients we should all be cooking with. But first, enjoy the unfiltered reactions by Sweet staffers when asked for their thoughts on each unknown piece of produce.

Buddha's Hand

First Impression: "Nope, nope, nope. That's a scary vegetable hand. It makes me feel weird things."

McKenzie's Tip: "Don't ignore that crazy looking, lumpy, thick-skinned, winter citrus in the shape of clustered fingers. It's intensely flavorful and more versatile than you may think. It may be all peel and pith, but unlike the rind of the common Eureka lemon, it's barely bitter. So shave it thinly and add it to green or grain salads, marinated olives, or a pan of roasting chicken. Then you'll understand why it's the Chinese symbol of happiness!"

Celeriac

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First Impression: "Is that a rotten potato? It looks dirty and hairy. I really hate this one. It looks like it could have worms in it!"

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McKenzie's Tip: "Possibly the most unsung of all vegetables, celeriac's gnarly, dirty facade tends to turn people off. This is a shame, considering that the elegant white flesh underneath that brown, creviced skin is dense with satisfying texture—crisp, juicy, barely starchy—with a lovable, sweet, earthy, celery-like flavor. Although this root is firm, it can be sliced or shredded thin and eaten raw, preferably well dressed in a strong vinaigrette. It also yields a phenomenally silky soup when finished with creme fraiche, black pepper, and chive, an addictive mash—add horseradish, please—and a show-stealing roast."

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Fig Leaves

First Impression: "What am I supposed to do with that? Is it for salad? It has so much surface area. Maybe I would use it as a wrap."

McKenzie's Tip: "Fig leaves smell of coconut, peat, vanilla, and green walnuts—and they can impart these qualities to any dish. Consider using them as you would a bay leaf: add them to a pot of simmering white beans, wrap them in a bouquet garni for your braised lamb or favorite soup, or steep them in cream destined for a panna cotta or semifreddo. You'll become instantly enamored."

Nettles

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First Impression: "Cilantro?"

McKenzie's Tip: "Yes, the little hairs of nettle leaves will send an electric shock-like sting across every cell they touch. Be brave and glove up! Blanching them in boiling water vanquishes their evil powers and turns them into a lovable green that can be used in any recipe calling for cooked or frozen spinach, while promising a deeper flavor and more vitamins and minerals than just about any other food."

Purslane

First Impression: "It looks like a succulent. I feel like I would be eating out of my terrarium."

McKenzie's Tip: "Purslane is a weed valued around the world as a delicious ingredient and medicinal herb. Its addictive crisp and juicy texture, along with its succulent-like beauty, make it a crowd-pleaser, as does its flavor of lemon, almonds, chlorophyll, and black pepper. Most cuisines include it in some sort of meat stew, such as Mexico's rebocado, which includes pork neck and chiles, or it can also be eaten raw, pickled, or stir-fried."

Horseradish

First Impression: "That just looks like a tree branch. It looks so hard, how would you even eat that? It looks like it would make a great Harry Potter wand, though."

McKenzie's Tips: "This root's essential oil is toxic in large quantities, yet I actually look forward to the tingling sensation and slight buzz it offers when used in small doses. If you don't have a microplane, this is an ingredient that should motivate you to get one. Peel your horseradish and then grate it finely onto a platter of sautéed broccoli or green beans, into a vinaigrette for an endive salad with apples and walnuts, or across your buttered bagel."

Dandelion

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First Impression: "Isn't that just a weed?"

McKenzie's Tips: "Dandelion greens are certainly bitter, and therefore have an affinity for sweet, salty, fatty things. In other words, they give you an excuse to eat more dried fruit, salted nuts, cream, crispy pork, aged cheese, and olive oil. If that's not a convincing sell, consider this: together, the roots and leaves are reputed to heal most common ailments—viruses, acne, high blood sugar, bloating, inflammation—and are an excellent source of calcium, potassium, and vitamins A and C."

Kohlrabi

First Impression: "Scary alien head! It also looks like it could be the baby of a green apple and a beet."

McKenzie's Tips: "Alien-like with its bright purple skin, circumferential ridges, and antennae-like leaves, kohlrabi has a flavor reminiscent of sweet earth and mild mustard. Unlike its leafy relatives in the cabbage family, kohlrabi's texture is somewhere between starchy potato and water chestnut: firm, crisp, and juicy. It's perfect for shaving and serving raw in a salad with baby greens, herbs, lemon vinaigrette; caramelizing in a hot oven with olive oil, butter, maple, black pepper; stir-frying until tender with coconut oil, chili, mustard seed; or simmering into a silky soup along with leek, apple, and chicken stock."

Sunchokes

First Impression: "I don't even know where to start with these. They almost look like chicken drumsticks."

McKenzie's Tips: "Sunchokes are dirty and knotty. Yet their sweet, subtle, earthy flavor and crisp, starchless flesh make these tubers suitable for a wide range of cooking techniques. Use them as you would baby turnips or carrots."

Rose Petals

First Impression: "Are you even allowed to eat those?"

McKenzie's Tips: "Cooking with flowers may seem like whimsy gone awry, but roses appear in many old, modest recipes, sweet and savory alike. In Moroccan cuisine, for instance, rose water might anoint a salad of citrus and black olives, a hot pepper and cumin relish, spiced lamb kebabs, a dessert of ground nuts and dates, or a brew of spiced coffee. In my house, I welcome the subtle floral quality of powdered, dried petals in herb and chickpea pilaf, almond picada, strawberry sorbet, shortbread cookies, chocolate ganache, and a savory yogurt dip."

Dandelion & Quince by Michelle McKenzie (Roost Books) is out today, $35, barnesandnoble.com.

Reprinted with permission from Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., Boulder, CO., and Dandelion & Quince by Michelle McKenzie © 2016 by Michelle McKenzie. Photographs © 2016 by Rick Poon.

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