Some foods make your knees quake because cooking them can be so tricky. One wrong move and your night’s a disaster. MF features editor Nate Millado asked Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s Chopped, to help us conquer the 11 most intimidating foods a guy can prepare. Your fears are almost over.
What’s to fear? Being a murderer. “Lobster may be the only food where the end user is expected to do the killing,” says Allen.
Get over it: If you want to punt on the “murder” thing, stock up on frozen lobster tails. But if you’re going to boil live lobsters, try massaging the critter between its antennae before you do the deed. This motion will kind of hypnotize them, causing them to coil their tail obligingly. Once the tail curls, quickly toss the animal in a stockpot filled with boiling water, put the lid on, and “don’t look back!” Allen says. If you’d rather instantly kill the lobster, take the point of your knife and insert it right behind its antennae before cooking.
What’s to fear? “Whole fish tends to gross some people out when there’s an eyeball staring at you,” says Allen. There are also bones to deal with, as well as scales and even guts, if you caught the fish yourself.
Get over it: To eliminate the “ick” factor, always buy your fresh fish the day you’re planning to serve it. It will taste better and will likely still smell like clean water so it won’t stink up your house. Cooking fish on the bone provides better flavor and helps to keep the meat tender, but if you want the easiest option, skip whole fish and reach for the fillets. As for cooking, just remember these three numbers: 8, 10, and 400. An 8-ounce portion of almost any fish will cook nicely in a 400° oven for 10 minutes. With that basic knowledge, you can cook almost anything from salmon to sea bass to red snapper, regardless of whether you’re serving one person or 20.
What’s to fear? The unknown—most Americans don’t eat lamb often. As a staple in Middle Eastern cooking, it can also seem exotic. “There’s also an inaccurate perception that lamb tastes gamey,” says Allen. “But it actually looks exactly like beef and tastes somewhat similar to it.”
Get over it: Get some ground lamb and make lamb burgers topped in a yogurt sauce with a little bit of garlic, lemon, and dill. One of the most elegant dishes you can impress a date with is rack of lamb. It’s not necessarily low fat or low calorie, but you can easily keep portions under control—four ribs make a very satisfying entrée. Season the meat with a little salt, pepper, and chopped rosemary leaves and roast in a 475° oven until medium rare (around 130°). It’s so flavorful, you don’t even need to make a sauce.
What’s to fear? They’re spiky! They’re not very “meaty.” And cutting them up is tricky. Getting to the inner heart can hurt your fingers if you’re not careful.
Get over it: To get started, rinse in between the leaves, then shake out the excess moisture. Cut the first couple inches off the top of the artichoke, then use kitchen scissors to snip the sharp tips from the leaves. Boil the cleaned ’choke for 40 to 50 minutes, then remove and scoop out the purple leaves and “hairs” that cover the artichoke heart. The heart itself will be especially creamy and tastes great on its own with a bit of salt and lemon. You can also work them into soups, toss them on a pizza, or mix a few into a large salad.
What’s to fear? The challenge. Getting to the edible part of the fruit seems daunting—but there’s a trick. “The way a pomegranate is built, it’s very hard to get inside it and pick the seeds out with your fingers,” says Allen. “It’s so painful to watch people trying to do it. It takes forever—almost like cleaning a crab.”
Get over it: Not only are poms packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants, the super-fruit’s seeds can also really accent a dish with a nice ruby color or give a salad some extra texture. You could even sprinkle some seeds over a squash or pumpkin soup. To seed a pomegranate: Press your hands on it and roll it on the counter, like you would a lime. Cut it in half, hold it over a bowl, and whack it with a spoon. The seeds (called arils) will come flying out.
What’s to fear? The slime factor of seeing people eat them raw. There’s also the whole ordeal of getting the damn things out of their shell.
Get over it: Always buy oysters the day you plan on serving them. There’s an old saying that you should buy oysters only during a month with the letter ‘R’ in it, because oysters spawn during the warm months, a process that takes a lot of energy and yields a tired, mushy mollusk. The key to shucking an oyster is having the right tool—an oyster knife with a short, stubby blade. Take the tip and push it into the hinge of the oyster shell (as opposed to the side that opens) because the shell is thicker there and is less inclined to crack. Separate the top and bottom halves, but make sure you don’t lose the flavorful liquid that’s inside. Use the curved part of the knife to separate the oyster from the shell. Serve fresh oysters over a pile of shaved ice.
What’s to fear? The color—what else do you eat that’s this purple? They’re also weirdly shaped and can be really slimy on the inside if you prepare them wrong.
Get over it: Make sure you buy the right fruit. Always pick smaller eggplants. Full-size ones may have hard seeds and can be bitter. Choose a firm, smooth-skinned eggplant that’s heavy for its size; avoid those with soft or brown spots. Gently push the middle with your thumb. If the flesh gives slightly but then bounces back, it’s ripe. If the indentation remains, it’s overripe and the insides will be mushy. The easiest way to prep an eggplant is to cut it in slices and grill it. For a quick eggplant parm, dip the slices in egg and bread crumbs, then bake with pasta sauce and cheese.
What’s to fear? The outer layer. “Acorn and butternut squash are like the ‘turtles’ of the vegetable world, with a hard shell that a lot of people don’t know what to do with,” Allen says.
Get over it: Whip out the great big cleaver that you never use. Cut the squash in half, scrape out the seeds and fibrous stuff, put it on a baking sheet, salt and pepper, and roast it for an hour, which enhances its natural sweetness. Let it cool, scoop the inside into a food processor, and purée it for a simple side. Add chicken stock and simmer, and you’ve got a really hearty soup with a sweet, silky texture.
What’s to fear? Blame moms everywhere for forcing bland beets from a can on their impressionable kids. Another major turnoff: the color. “But they’re nice to have in your playbook,” Allen says. “And they add a natural sweetness to a dish. They’re a vegetable that lasts into the winter.”
Get over it: If you don’t like the soft texture of canned beets, try cooking some fresh ones. The payoff’s worth it. Beets are high in potassium, calcium, and antioxidants. The easiest way to prepare them is roasting. Wrap whole beets in foil with a little bit of olive oil around them, just like you would a potato. Then bake for about an hour at 400°. When they come out, the skins will slip off. Eat ’em as is or dice and mix with other veggies or toss into a salad for a flavorful kick.
What’s to fear? Overcooking. Heat this delicately sweet shellfish a minute too long, and you’re left with rubber. And that’s a costly mistake, given the premium price of scallops. But they’re easy to cook and a great source for heart-healthy omega-3 acids.
Get over it: Make sure you buy “dry” scallops. If they’re not labeled dry, that means they’ve probably been soaked in a preservative that’ll give them a metallic taste once cooked. To perfectly caramelize scallops: Season them with salt and pepper. Get a sauté pan nice and hot over medium-high heat and then add olive oil. Place the scallops on the pan and don’t move them for two minutes. You want a nice sear on them. Flip ’em over and sear for another two minutes. To add smoky flavor, add a little diced bacon or chorizo on top.
What’s to fear? Start with how to pronounce it (“keen-wah”). It’s also flat-out confusing. Does it cook like rice? Or couscous? “Many people overlook this great grain,” says Allen. “And that’s a shame since quinoa is a practically perfect protein with very little fat.”
Get over it: For the easiest quinoa prep, simmer dry kernels in a low-sodium chicken stock until the crispy husks break off. Then rinse and drain. Toss ¼ cup of cooked quinoa in a green salad to add a subtle nutty crunch. For a protein-packed breakfast, mix quinoa with a little honey and some cranberries or blueberries.