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Cooking for One: Adventures await those with a nose for the new

Thursday, May 15, 2003

By Marlene Parrish

There are two kinds of people: them that eats the same old, same old, week in, week out, and them that jumps at the chance to try something new, unfamiliar or, sometimes, downright weird.

You can guess which one I am, but which one are you?

You solo cooks are in the best position to take on a gustatory challenge from time to time. When you see something, buy a little bit, take it home, research if necessary, do what it takes to make it eater-friendly and taste it. Hey, if it's a no-go, no big deal. At least you've taken a shot at a new experience.

Here are some first-time foods I've eaten in the past month.

Green almonds

My friend Joan has client-friends, Sue and Karl, who run Morton Almond Farms, a 40-acre family almond farm near Modesto, Calif. Last week, Sue showed up at work with a big zippered bag of green almonds, which Joan couriered back to Pittsburgh in her carry-on.

The whole fruit, about an inch long, is picked in the early stage of growth before the shell and nut have hardened, and it is covered in downy fuzz. Cut through, the outer skin is the color of wasabi, the flesh the hue of avocado and the baby nut is a pale, well, almond color. Infant almonds are in markets in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where there is a profusion of almond orchards.

In Iran, in early spring, street vendors offer salted fresh, green almonds as a popular snack. Cookbook author Paula Wolfert says they can be scattered on a salad of orange and mint or included in a tagine or stew. Chopped, they're often added to yogurt. Since this was a first for me, I was content to be minimalist. I served them chilled and dipped into coarse salt and nibbled them, velvety coating and all. The flavor is slightly acidic, slightly green-herby and not at all like the mature almonds we buy shelled.

Veal bacon

The best bacon I ever ate was served in the hospitality suite at the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Montreal. About three years ago, the meat guys at Chicago's Swissland Packing wanted to find uses for some of their lamb and veal byproducts. Let's try veal bacon, they said.

Bingo! Because a calf is butchered in a different manner from a hog, veal bacon comes from the veal breast, not the belly, as in hogs. Both types are hickory smoked, but veal bacon has twice the meat and half the fat of pork bacon. Currently, most veal bacon is marketed to upscale food service, but the product is making inroads into supermarkets -- New Jersey's King Kullen sells it on the East Coast. I'm checking on sources, and I promise to get back to you in time for BLT season.


Hudson's on the Bend restaurant is a must-go in Austin, Texas. The signature appetizer is Rattlesnake Cakes (think crab cake for size and shape) seasoned with herbs, patted with a pistachio crust, sauteed and placed atop a smoky, creamy chipotle sauce. The recipe for the snake cakes is in "Cooking Fearlessly," a cookbook by owner/chefs Jeff Blank and Jay Moore, who encourage home cooks to substitute flaked crab if necessary but caution against using copperheads (too small) or water moccasins (too muddy-tasting).

Novelty? Nope. The Comanche Indians who once lived in the Texas hill country believed that warriors derive great strength from eating rattlesnake. And in Mexico, snake is considered an enhancer of long life. Hey, if reptile is good enough for Lyle Lovett, Michael Dell, Dan Rather and Willie Nelson, all Hudson's customers, plate me up.

Organic Heirloom Black Plum Tomatoes

These dusky-skinned beauties were discovered in a basket containing many varieties of heirloom tomatoes at Austin's Central Market, Texas's supermarket extraordinaire. We ate them halved and lightly sprinkled with kosher salt to bring up their flavor.

Point of all this is, don't be a 'fraidy cat. Forget leaving well enough alone and never say never.

Penn Pilsner Smoky Mashed Potatoes

Potatoes love to party. Chefs marry them with horseradish, wasabi, roasted garlic, bacon, cheese and whatever else is at hand. At Austin's Hudson's on the Bend, the chefs add Shiner Bock Beer and ancho chilies to their signature sunset-hued mashed potatoes. To support our local brew, we substituted Penn Pilsner Dark and smoked Spanish paprika for spark. Deconstructed, the sweet potatoes balance the slight bitterness of the beer and add color. Avoid "lite" beer.

  • 1 1/2 pounds Idaho baking potatoes (2 large)

  • 1/2 pound sweet potatoes (1 small)
  • 4 tablespoons butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika, or 1 teaspoon canned chipotle puree
  • 1/2 cup dark beer at room temperature, about
  • 1 teaspoon salt, about

Peel, cube and boil potatoes (whites will take about 18 minutes, sweets about 10 minutes) until tender. Drain. Do not overcook.

With a hand-held electric mixer, whip the potatoes, adding the butter, enough beer to make a fluffy mash and seasonings to taste. Keep warm until served. Makes 4 servings.

Serving suggestions: Good with ham or a barbecued rotisserie chicken. Try adding crumbled, crisp bacon or ham bits, or serve the mash with bacon and eggs. These reheat well. Leftovers can be made into patties and browned in butter.
Adapted from "Cooking Fearlessly," by Jay Moore and Jeff Blank

Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.

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