Food for Thought: Broadening Your Culinary Horizons

Jessica Harlan by Jessica Harlan | October 28th, 2009 | No Comments
topic: Healthy Eating

One of the suggestions I always hear for maintaining a healthy diet is to eat a wide range of foods. Some experts even advocate eating a “rainbow” of food, the theory being that the range of pigments that make these foods so colorful are also what give them a variety of vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients.

But as for me, the health attributes of eating a variety of uncommon fruits and vegetables are a side benefit to an even more important perk: they keep me from getting bored, both in the kitchen and at the dinner table. When I get in a culinary rut, I just wander through the produce department of my local Whole Foods or a great international grocery store in my area to find fruits and vegetables that I haven’t tried before. Heck, even my local supermarket is getting a little more exotic in its offerings. I’ll bring it home, sift through my recipe books or do some online research, and incorporate my new discovery into a meal. It’s been really nice to find some interesting and unexpected alternatives to my usual vegetable side dishes (which often become a dull rotation of steamed broccoli, green beans or green salad), and it’s fun to introduce my daughter tosome unusual varieties. After all, today you see toddlers everywhere snacking on edamame beans, but I don’t think I tried edamame til I was in my early 20s! The foods I’m experimenting with today might well become mainstream ingredients
in tomorrow’s kitchen.

Keep an eye out in your own produce department for some of these unusual fruits and veggies—and get yourself
out of a dinnertime rut.

Chayote Squash:

Pear-shaped and pale green, this Mexican squash should be bought when it is firm to the touch and unwrinkled. It has a bland flavor, but lends itself to many cooking methods, including mashing, roasting, stewing and steaming. Just make sure that you season it well or it won’t taste like much.

Custard Apple (Cherimoya):

This heart-shaped fruit is ripe when it’s soft to the touch, and the greenish flesh darkens to brown. It can be cut open and the flesh can be scooped with a spoon, avoiding the inedible seeds. As the name suggests, the fruit has a custardy consistency, and has a tropical, banana-pineapple flavor to it.

Fiddlehead Ferns:

In season only in the early spring (and found in the Pacific Northwest as well as the Northeast), these beautiful vegetables are tightly coiled and dark green. Because they contain some mild toxins, they should be blanched first in boiling water, and then they can be stir-fried or sautéed. They have a woodsy flavor similar to asparagus.

Sea Beans:

These twiggy green vegetables are so named because they are grown in salt marshes, which gives them a naturally salty tang. They can be eaten raw, or stir-fried or sautéed, but because of their already high salt content, they probably will need very little seasoning.


Also called Jerusalem Artichokes, sunchokes are knobbly and brown, resembling little pieces of ginger. Their flavor is like a cross between an artichoke and a potato. They’re delicious lightly steamed or sautéed, and can also be eaten raw. But proceed with caution—sunchokes have been known to give some people a bad case of gas!

Since I began experimenting with uncommon produce, I eagerly await fiddlehead fern season every spring, and I occasionally prepare sunchokes in place of potatoes. What are your favorite unusual fruit or vegetable discoveries?


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