Like sriracha? Then you gotta try gochujang

Like many of you out there, I’ve long been a fan of sriracha. The bright red sauce made of ground chilies and garlic is a staple in Asian cuisine, yet like so many other condiments it’s a multicultural star that enlivens everything from eggs to hamburgers.

On a recent trip to South Korea, I found something even better: gochujang. Like sriracha, gochujang is a condiment made from red chilies. And as with sriracha, it pairs well with a variety of foods. It’s also absolutely addicting. Gochujang is a regular at the tables in Korea (it goes great with barbecue, as seen below in Seoul), but like sriracha it deserves a place at yours.

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Last-minute Thanksgiving 2013 survival guide

The countdown is on. We’re just days away from Thanksgiving 2013, and you’re probably busy planning your holiday feast.

By now you have hopefully purchased your turkey. And if you bought it frozen like most home cooks, remember to thaw it in the refrigerator.

Things can move pretty fast this time of year, and I’m not just talking about the onward rush of the holidays. Now more than ever is the time to take a deep breath and enjoy the moments rather than stress about them. This advice is also relevant in the kitchen.

As the holiday cooking season moves into high gear, it’s good to slow down and remember to enjoy the process. If you can think of what you are doing as an expression of love instead of a bunch of work, it will make the day that much more enjoyable.

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Yes, you can cook with cactus

There are some things that one can’t help but bristle at upon the notion of eating. Sure, we’ve all heard about the “delicacies” involving insects and offal in other countries, but what I bring to the table here is much simpler in nature yet can be just as confounding for the uninitiated: Cactus.

That’s right — those desert-loving plants known for their sharp spines can actually be eaten.

Two of the most popular edible portions of cacti are the pads, called “nopals,” and the pears, cactus fruit that in Spanish is known as “tuna.” The former are the flat, broad portions that look like paddles. Once their needles are removed, they can be grilled, baked or simmered.  The latter can be peeled and eaten as is. Their delicious fruit is surprisingly sweet, with a texture that’s a cross between a kiwi and a pear.  Fresh cactus pads and cactus pears can be found at Hispanic markets such as Northgate, as well as some well-stocked mainstream grocers. Thankfully, the work of removing the needles has usually already been done.

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Recipe: Grilled radicchio won’t leave you bitter

Envision your next summer barbecue and you’ll probably picture a grill sizzling with burgers, chicken, and perhaps a juicy rib-eye. Likely the last thing to come to mind on those grates is what appears to be a purple head of lettuce.

But sometimes the most unexpected things thrown on a grill turn out to be the best. Enter radicchio, our purple-headed friend. Though radicchio (say, “rad-dee-kyoh”) might appear to be the offspring of a head of romaine lettuce and a cabbage, it tastes like neither. Radicchio is actually part of the chicory family, and its leaves are known for their bitterness. Radicchio is found in the fresh produce section in larger markets, and you might just mistake it for the aforementioned cabbage. If you don’t see it in your regular mainstream store, try an ethnic one. I get mine at H Mart, an Asian grocer, for about a dollar per head.

While radicchio leaves can be eaten raw, they may leave too much of the proverbial – and literal – bitter taste in your mouth. Best to use them sparingly and mixed with tamer greens.

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What are tomatillos? Introduction and recipe

Glance at the spelling of a tomatillo and you may think someone flubbed “tomato.” See one in the market and you may think it’s a very unripe version thereof. But rest assured, their name is legit and while they’re related to the tomato, tomatillos are not to be mistaken for green tomatoes, those Southern fried favorites.

Native to Mexico and part of the nightshade family, tomatillos come in colors such as yellow, red and purple, but most commonly are green. They can be a harder to find in mass market stores than the ubiquitous tomato, but are readily available – and very inexpensive – at Hispanic grocers such as Northgate. I also regularly see them at local Food 4 Less stores and even H Mart, a wonderful Asian grocer. Wherever you find them, tomatillos are worth seeking out.

Like tomatoes, tomatillos are technically a fruit, and here that fact is easier to believe. Tomatillos can be eaten raw or cooked, but before using in any manner require some undressing. That’s because tomatillos are protected by an outer husk that is easily peeled off. Once disrobed, you should find a plump-yet-firm, glossy green globe. The husk can leave a slightly sticky residue, so rinse well and pat dry before using. Tomatillos will stay fresh in a refrigerator for about two weeks, so making them easy to keep on hand.

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Recipe: Get keen on quinoa

Peer closely at quinoa, and you may think you’re looking at something aliens would ingest. Tiny spheres with what appear to be pale tails, the granules of quinoa are mysterious. They’re also delicious.

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is also an oddity when explaining what exactly it is. Though quinoa cooks in less than 20 minutes by simmering it in liquid like rice, it’s not a true cereal grain. The quinoa that you can find on grocery shelves near the rice section are actually the seeds of a crop plant that, believe it or not, are related to beets and tumbleweeds, of all things.

Humans have been eating the stuff for thousands of years, and more recently I’ve seen it landing on the menus of upscale restaurants. Quinoa is a nutrition powerhouse. Hailed by the Incas as the “mother grain,” it is low in fat and high in protein and fiber. It’s also gluten-free.

Quinoa is a snap to cook. If you can boil water, you can make it. Once cooked, it has a hearty, grain-like flavor. It’s also extremely versatile. Quinoa can be served warm or cold, and mixed with everything from peppers to pears. The recipe below brings cranberries, red onion, celery and pecans to the party for extra flavor and crunch. Oh, and those tails? They’re actually the seed’s germ. Once the disc-like granules are cooked, they expand and the germ separates from the seed. Looks odd, tastes great.

Let’s make a quinoa salad that acts as a super snack or side dish.

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Parsnips have something to prove

Countless times you’ve reached for the lettuce, grabbed some carrots and inspected the asparagus, all the while ignoring a far more interesting item. This other vegetable was there the whole time in the produce section also hoping for some attention, but too often it gets lost among the staples. On a slow day it might get a quizzical look before you move on to fetch the milk.

It’s the parsnip, and it deserves some respect. Parsnips are a root vegetable, and though they’re available year round, winter is their time to shine. If they were orange, you might mistake them for carrots. Similar in shape and related to that other veggie, parsnips are a pale tan in color. Taste-wise, they are a bit sweeter, and texturally not quite as crisp.

They’re also delicious. Parsnips can be eaten raw, but with a woody center they don’t offer the satisfying crunch of a carrot. Impart some heat, though, and things get far more interesting. Because of their soft, almost creamy texture when cooked, parsnips can deftly be inserted into a batch of mashed potatoes, boiled along with the spuds. They can also be simmered in soups.

I prefer to roast them, either alone or with carrots and onions. The dry heat of the oven helps intensify parsnips’ flavor and adds visual appeal via the browning effect that culinarians and “Jeopardy” contestants know as the Maillard reaction.

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Last-minute Super Bowl recipe ideas

The big game is right around the corner, as the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 47.

If there is ever a day for indulgence in front of the TV, this is it. Many viewers will be chomping down on chips, wings, hot dogs and pizza, but these are just of a few of the treats that can be enjoyed on the big day. And they’re admittedly not the healthiest.

This year, either in supplement or substitution to those standards, here are some other easy food ideas for party noshing.

  • Ranchero beans — Think of this as a Spanish version of chili. It’s delicious, filling, and awesome with chips and tortillas.
  • Tzatziki — This yogurt-based dip and spread is a great alternative to the usual fat-laden dips.
  • Bruschetta — Sounds fancy, but this hearty tomato and basil mixture atop crostini is light, satisfying, and a cinch to make.
  • Blue cheese wedge — This version is spiced up with buffalo sauce. Perfect to go with those wings!
  • Shishito peppers — These addicting Asian peppers are relatively mild and are perfect finger foods.
  • Homemade salsa — What would Super Bowl be without chips and guacamole? Spice things up with this easy dip that complements them both.
  • Homemade hummus (picture above) — Forget the expensive store-bought stuff. Hummus is ridiculously easy to make at home and serves as a delicious dip.
  • Oven-baked potato fries — Another healthier alternative to frying, this version of a classic is just as satisfying.
  • Pasta salad — Add some color with the carbs in this multi-hued take on a classic side dish.

Whatever the outcome of the game, I hope you enjoy it and those wacky commercials alongside friends, family, and good food!

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Warm your tummy with non-alcoholic toddy

This time of year brings no shortage of baked treats, cold nights, and good times with family and friends. One thing that goes well with all of them? A hot beverage that warms the tummy.

While coffee and tea are the most popular choices, I tend to avoid caffeine after a certain hour of the evening. And because of the headaches they induced, I found myself having to avoid libations with spirits in them. Yet I still craved the kick that comes from a hot toddy.

This led to experimenting with various infusions that would warm my soul but wouldn’t hurt my head, not to mention also be appropriate for those of all ages.

The result is my Teetotaler’s Toddy, a hot, non-alcoholic drink that provides plenty of kick thanks to fresh ginger and a pinch of cayenne, yet sweetness and depth from honey and cinnamon. Like a traditional toddy, it’s a snap to make. If you can boil water, you’re halfway there. Here’s how to finish it:

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Recipe: Pumpkin Pecan Pancakes

So the day of thanks has come and gone, and you’re probably still recovering from the celebratory meal. Welcome to the holidays and the bounty of leftovers that come with it.

Many recipes at this time of year have to do with leftover turkey but overlook the supporting cast from that Thanksgiving meal. Yet those pantry extras deserve just as much respect and can allow for even greater culinary creativity.

Take that canned pumpkin purée, for example. While most people will use it to make pie, canned pumpkin adds a delicious sense of the fall season to other foods such as breads, cookies, and soup. Or even pancakes.

Pumpkin and pancakes may seem unlikely partners at first, but the purée blends seamlessly into the batter. When cooked, you get orange-hued pancakes that are autumn on a plate. I like to add pecans, another staple of the season easily found in markets, for a bit of crunch and extra flavor.

With this recipe, you can quickly and easily use that extra can of pumpkin purée (or have a reason to try the stuff in the first place) and load up on some breakfast carbs ahead of the holiday madness.

Let’s make some pumpkin pecan pancakes.

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