How To Cook With An Unfamiliar Ingredient

by | Apr 27, 2009

Amaranth Leaves

Last week a new farmers market started up at the UCSF Mission Bay campus where I work. As someone who makes it my business to know what’s happening at our local markets, I was very interested to check out what they were offering. To my surprise and delight, there was a tremendous variety of interesting, high-quality goods and produce. But I already had a bunch of fresh groceries at home from my Saturday market trip, so I only purchased a few special things I just couldn’t resist.

The first thing that caught my eye were the beautiful Asian greens I spotted at the beginning of my exploration (sorry, I’m not familiar with these farms yet so I do not remember the name). I had never seen okra or bitter melon leaves for sale before, though I am familiar with these vegetables. What really grabbed my attention though were these beautiful amaranth leaves.

I had always considered amaranth a grain, and did not know it was also a leafy vegetable. But apparently amaranth greens are incredibly popular in India, Africa, China, Vietnam and Greece. The leaves are fairly delicate and I would describe the taste as similar to spinach if spinach were Indian. In other words, the leaves have earthy and spicy undertones reminiscent of chai tea. Needless to say I was very excited to see what I could make with them.

When I got home with my greens I did a quick Google search for amaranth leaves recipes and virtually everything that came up on the first search page was for Indian dishes–perfect! I read through a few of them and realized that the most common use for amaranth leaves is in a lentil dish with spices and tamarind.

Since I had most of the required ingredients in the house, I decided to give it a try. Not too long ago I purchased an assortment of red and yellow Indian lentils from a specialty store in my neighborhood. Usually I have concentrated tamarind in my refrigerator for those occasional Thai food cravings. I didn’t have the fresh tomato most recipes called for, so I used half a can of diced tomatoes from my pantry (I used the rest in my roasted fava beans dish). I also keep standard Indian spices in the house such as cumin seeds, garam marsala (a traditional Indian spice blend), curry powder, tumeric and ghee (clarified butter).

See how easy it is to be creative when you have a well-stocked pantry?

The dish turned out amazing, and the batch I made was so large I have been eating it for days (not bad for a $2 ingredient). But I am not going to give you the recipe, because that is not the purpose of this post. Instead I wanted to give you an idea about how I approach shopping and cooking. If something is unique or catches my eye at the market, I inquire to the vendor about what it tastes like and how it is used. When I get home I look up recipes online until I find one or two that look yummy and are not too hard to make. Sometimes this involves changing the recipe slightly to match the ingredients I have available, or combining two or more recipes together to accommodate my own modest cooking skills or time allowance.

You do not have to be a brilliant chef to explore cooking this way, and you will certainly get better at it the more you practice. The key is digging through Google until you find a recipe that doesn’t scare you too much. You can also try services such as Recipe Puppy that allow you to type in an ingredient and receive a collection of recipes from around the internet. Recipe Puppy didn’t work particularly well for amaranth (no results), but it is useful for most ingredients and can be a terrific source of inspiration.

Next time you shop, go out of your way to find something you haven’t cooked before and see what you can come up with. Who knows, you may actually find a new favorite food and upgrade your healthstyle in the process!

Don’t forget to come back and let us know what you learned. Tell us your favorite accidental ingredient discovery!

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13 Responses to “How To Cook With An Unfamiliar Ingredient”

  1. Healthyliving says:

    I love how you make things so accesible by explaining your thought processes; sometimes its easy to understand what you do, but how you get there is a whole different story. I would love to see a picture of your final dish!

  2. arvind says:

    One common recipe for these leaves (I’m typing from memory – Google may have turned up something similar for you already):

    1) Boil toor daal or masoor daal (two common Indian lentils) & set aside.
    2) Chop the amaranth leaves
    3) In wok, add a few spoons oil (enough for frying spices)
    4) Once oil is hot, add mustard seeds, cumin seeds and 1 dry red pepper (broken) and allow to sizzle for a few seconds
    5) Add chopped amaranth and stir fry for a couple of mins
    6) Add the boiled daal to the wok (either scoop out and add or add with the remaining water – depends on how watery you want it. Some people even mix the daal and water thoroughly before adding to wok)
    7) Add salt to taste and a couple pinches of turmeric and mix everything in wok while on low flame for another couple of mins.
    8) Voila! Bon appetit!

    Takes less than 10 mins to make! 🙂

  3. arvind says:

    well, i wasn’t counting the time to boil the daal though.

  4. Mike says:

    Great post, I love how you approach new stuff!

  5. Amaranth greens, fantastic! I think I did something similar the first time I thought to cook beet greens. Everything you ever wanted to know is a Google search away. How did we ever live without the Interweb…?

  6. Karin says:

    Hi Darya. I decided to take your advice and try something new, and I started with gnocci. Lets just say things didn’t turn out so well. What do you do when you try something new and it turns out, well, not so good?

    • Darya Pino says:

      D’oh! Sorry to hear that Karin. Good job on trying something new, although I was hoping to encourage people to eat different vegetables and fruits 😉 The nice thing about produce is it is usually so cheap, the money doesn’t matter much. Also, if your pantry is well stocked there are probably other options you can dig out. Another thing you can try is to always make extra side dishes when a substantial part of your meal might not workout. This way you have leftovers or enough other things on your plate to make up the difference. Hope this helps!

  7. Hi Darya – Happy to find your site through the 31DBB. I’m writing just because here in frigid Boston, I was on a hunt for amaranth leaves. I had set our family an eat-more-vegtables projects of cooking every food in Alice Waters, Vegetables, in order. Got stumped by about half that were unavailable here… even people in high end grocery stores didn’t know about amaranth. sounds good… and different. And Karin, failure is good… if you never fail, it just means you aren’t trying. I have a friend who says you have to cook something three times before it’s yours… first time, it’s good, second time you mess it up somehow, third time you’ve got it. cheers,
    bill lattanzi

  8. Beautiful amaranth leaves! I wish I could find those at my market. The lentil dish sounds great.

  9. I just love the way you explain things, you’ve got amazing writing skill also. Thanks for sharing

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