Kitchen Confidence column: Try new foods |

Kitchen Confidence column: Try new foods

Escarole brings an often missing flavor to the table. Americans eat very little bitter foods. Sautéed with garlic and a dash of crushed red pepper, it makes and authentic Italian side dish.
Courtesy Tom Castrigno |

It is said that variety is the spice of life. No truer words could apply in the kitchen. As few as 75 years ago, the average American ate over 100 different varieties of foods over the course of a year. Today that number has dwindled. Can you guess what it is? Guess again. Try 35 — that’s less than half!

Oddly enough, grocery stores are filled with more variety than ever. There’s stuff on the shelf many people have never even heard of. Are you familiar with radicchio, diakon radish, or kohlrabi? So what gives? How, faced with more choices than ever, are Americans eating fewer varieties of foods?

Traditionally, we ate food that was in season. This meant strawberries only in spring and cantaloupe only in late summer. Winter time meant crops that could be grown in colder conditions or that were suited to long-term storage like potatoes and other root vegetables. The transportation range of fresh food was limited. We were forced to eat what could be grown nearby at any given time of year. This meant a wider variety of foods over the course of the year by default.

Enter the modern miracle of artificial cold. That’s right, refrigeration. Fast forward from “The Ice Man Cometh” to refrigerated freight trains and cargo containers. Beginning in the 1930s, suddenly food could be shipped longer distances without spoiling. Today, combined with faster modes of travel, refrigeration allows food to travel the world regardless of season.

Notice the blueberries in stores during February. Where are they grown? Product de Chili. What this means is that everything is available at every time of year. Human nature being what it is, many people tend to eat familiar foods simply because they can. Look, strawberries in January. One of the simplest ways to expand the variety of foods you eat is to learn what foods are truly in season and enjoy them at their peak.

In the last column that I wrote about improving your eating habits, we talked about knowing what foods you want to begin to include. Since vegetables are the focus of this conversation, I’ll give some suggestions in the produce department. Let’s dig in with four foods often overlooked in the grocery store.

Door number 1 – butternut squash. This powerhouse is a great wintertime pick. Simply bake it for a colorful side dish or go a little further and stew chunks in coconut milk spiked with green curry paste.

Door number 2 – cauliflower. Steamed, roasted or stir fried, you will get a lot of mileage out of one head of this snowy white cruciferous veggie. I love to lightly steam it then stir fry together with zucchini, onion and some Thai red chili paste. Add a splash of fish sauce and let the Asian adventure begin.

Door number 3 – diakon radish. At its simplest, grate some up and add it to your salad. Intermediate level, slice into a large Julianne cut and add it to soups or stir fry for a crunchy element. Double diamond? Grate it together with carrot and fresh ginger and make your own fermented food (In fact, fermentation was used to preserve food for centuries).

Door number 4 – escarole. This leafy green brings an often missing flavor to the table. Americans eat very little bitter foods. Sautéed with garlic and a dash of crushed red pepper, it makes and authentic Italian side dish. Stir into soups, especially with white beans or grilled sausage.

Ready to go for 100? Varieties of foods that is? Start by learning what foods truly are in season when you see them in the store. Make a commitment to try two new foods each month. You just might discover some new treats to look forward to at specific times of year and add a little spice to your life!

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