Have you ever wandered through a supermarket or picked up a cookbook and stumbled across something that intrigues you?
"That looks interesting and delicious," you think. "I'll have to save that recipe for later."
I've been thinking about foods I've been meaning to try - or try more of - in the up-coming year.
What follows is a selection of 10 items, a sort of shopping list that I'll be exploring throughout the year. Some items are brand new (to me); some are tried and true.
Lentils, one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East, have been around for a long time. Because they are high in protein and carbohydrates and are a good source of iron and B vitamins - not to mention relatively inexpensive - these seeds from plants in the legume family have become a staple in pantries worldwide.
Versatile in cooking method and variety, lentils can be prepared vegetarian style or combined with pork and chicken.
Types of lentils include Spanish Pardina (brown), Puy (French green), Beluga (black), Masoor (brown skin/red interior) and Macachiados (Mexican yellow). Because of their similar cooking methods, lentils and rice (known as "mujaddara" in the Middle East, "khichdi" in India) are a popular combination.
Lentils also can be used in soups, porridge, salads or in side dishes such as dal, sambar and rasam.
Farro. Ever heard of this?
Farro is an ancient wheat grain dating back at least 9,000 years. Always popular in Italy, one variety, gran farro, was standard rations for the Roman Legions.
I'm interested in farro piccolo, the smallest grain to fall under the farro classification.
I first tasted farro in a dish at Terra and recently picked up a bag at the All Local Farmers Market. Did you know that Anson Mills grows farro piccolo in fields in Lower Richland and St. Matthews?
The nutty taste of this grain makes a great addition to soups, salads, pastas and baked breads. It is naturally high in fiber and contains more protein than wheat. Some gluten-sensitive people have been able to include farro-based products in their diets.
Learn more about farro and find a wide variety of recipes at the Anson Mills Web site (ansonmills.com). I've re-created the recipe for creamed pearl onions and farro with bacon.
Olives. They say that a trend may be near its end when you find evidence of it everywhere. When olive bars went from gourmet groceries to big chains (such as Piggly Wiggly and some Food Lions), I, for one, hoped it just meant more people had learned to love olives.
They're delicious and eaten in moderation because of a high sodium content, a good source of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. Popular olive varieties include the kalamata (Greek black), manzanilla (Spanish green), nicoise (French black), picholine (French green) and liguria (Italian black).
You'll find olives tossed in salads, used as a base for sauces and as toppings for pizza and pasta, worked into bread dough, stuffed with any number of cheeses, cured in salt, flavored with spices, served alone in tastings (cruise the olive bars) and serving as garnishes for deviled eggs and martinis.
Peanuts. Another South Carolina favorite that just screams for a closer look.
Growing up, one of my favorite snacks was boiled peanuts. Every road trip involved a bag of the salty legumes, and it seemed they were available at just about every country crossroad. I think Grandpa even grew them in the garden one year.
Fresh peanuts are high in protein and a good source of niacin, fiber and vitamin E.
The harvested legume is usually dried or roasted before being used in recipes. Peanut sauces are popular in some Asian cuisines, and ground nuts and nut pastes have been used to flavor rice dishes and stews throughout the Middle East. A versatile ingredient, the peanut can either be the sublime finish to a noodle dish or a good ol' girl's fizzy combo when salted nuts are added to an ice-cold bottle of Coca Cola.
Taro root. Another head-scratcher, but there it was, in a bin next to gingerroot and potatoes at the Pig.
Taro root, also known as dasheen, is prepared similarly to potatoes and is a staple in many Asian-Pacific diets. High in protein, calcium and fiber, it can be braised with pork or beef, made as a curry, steamed and mashed, or sliced thin and fried crisp like a potato. In the Maldives (an island country in the Indian Ocean), it is steamed with salt and eaten with grated coconut with chili paste and fish soup. Hawaiians mash steamed taro roots with water to create poi.
Be careful when handling taro. Some people develop a skin irritation from juices secreted by the root when the outer skin is removed. It's best to use rubber gloves when slicing into the root.
Also, taro root can be toxic in its raw state, so always cook it before eating it.
Curry. There is no real definition as to what a curry is.
The word traditionally refers to the distinctive flavors of a dish (usually originating from Indian or Asian cuisine) that can include a mixture of spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper and fenugreek. But the mix also can include cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger, chili powder, lemon grass and garlic. And it can be made with or without coconut milk, with meat or fish or strictly vegetarian.
Get the idea?
Just be aware that every cook has a different idea about what the finished dish may (or may not) include.
A basic descriptive list goes like this, from mild to spicy hot: korma (mild yellow curry with almond and coconut powder), biryani (mild vegetable curry sauce over a form of cooked rice and meat), sambar (medium, sour with lemon and lentils), roghan josh (medium heat with tomato and paprika), madras (hot with chili powder), jalfrezi (hot with green chili) and vindaloo (hot with vinegar and garlic).
Real butter. You cook with it, bake with it, create sauces, pour it melted over popcorn and spread it thick over hot-from-the-oven biscuits and cornbread. Nothing else in the world tastes like fresh butter.
Now there are European butters on the market that are made from unpasteurized cream. They are different from commercial sweet cream butters that are pasteurized (treat the fresh cream in order to slow microbial growth).
The European butters also have a higher fat content (around 85 percent) versus American varieties (81 percent). For me, and I know my doctor is cringing if he's reading this, life's too short not to use real butter. There is no substitute.
FROM THE MEAT AISLE
Pork. It can either be the most expensive or the cheapest cut of meat in the supermarket.
From fatback, bacon and smoked or baked hams to barbecue, prosciutto and tenderloin, pork is the most versatile of meats.
Pork flavors just about everything in the South - soups, stews, vegetables. There's even bacon-flavored chocolate and vodka.
Speaking of bacon ... Just in that one word, there are so many varieties: thin cut, thick slab, smoked, sugar cured, peppered, juniper- and apple-flavored, inexpensive grocery store brand or locally grown farm-raised (Caw Caw Creek and Wil-Moore, for example).
I'll be trying recipes featuring pork: bellies, homemade sausages, maybe even another confit.
Speaking of confit ...
Duck and goose. These are the decadent items on my list.
As far as poultry goes, there's the basic chicken and turkey. Some of you may have tried quail. To me, nothing is more satisfying than a roasted duck or goose. Maybe it's that irresistible crispy, crackling skin or the rendered fat - or rather what you can do with the rendered fat.
Ducks and geese have a much fattier layer of skin than chickens and turkeys. Duck and goose meat is actually ever-so-slightly leaner. But slowly roasting the birds gives you the "liquid gold" fat that can be used in confits (a process of pre-serving meat in fat) or to create the best-tasting fried potatoes on the planet.
I also like to saute uncooked kernels of white or wild rice in duck fat before adding water and continuing the cooking process. It gives an extra depth of flavor to the finished rice that will be served with the bird.
You'll find whole birds frozen in supermarkets.
Or you can start small: Occasionally, you can get single duck breasts at meat counters. Simply season the meat with salt and pepper, score the skin and place it, skin-side down, on a hot grill. Be careful not to stand directly over the grill when you place the duck breasts on it (hot grill plus duck fat equals big flames).
Goat. Some folks are tired of me singing the goat's praises, so I promise to keep this short and sweet.
Goat may be a healthy option for those who might not be able to eat beef due to allergies. It has 50 percent to 65 percent lower fat than similarly prepared beef but similar protein, more iron and less cholesterol.
And you can buy it locally (Wil-Moore Farms and Billy's Boer Meat Goat Farm in Westminster).
Try it; you'll like it.