Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Learning to Love Foods You Hate: A How-to Guide for Frugal Eaters

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Up until a few years ago, the list of foods I loathed was a long one. It included, but wasn’t limited to: spaghetti squash, broccoli, asparagus, red cabbage, ginger ale, cauliflower, radishes, lentils, beans, Brussels sprouts, fennel, eggplant, anise, scallops, figs, and of course, the dreaded mayonnaise. The list goes on (and on), but you get the idea: growing up, I wasn’t exactly a daring eater.

I still hate mayo. I will ALWAYS hate mayo. George Clooney could serve me mayo wrapped in chocolate bacon on a gold-plated re-issue of Who’s Next, and I would throw it back in his face. But my opinion’s changed on most of those other foods. These days, I’ll gladly scarf a floret of cauliflower. Brussels sprouts hold a special place on my dinner table. And eggplant? Well, eggplant is my favorite thing ever, aside from the panda song from Sifl and Olly. (In fact, you could say I’m drunk on eggplant mystery.)

Granted, part of it is just me aging. At 31-years-old, my palate’s matured a little, and my tastes now lean more toward savory than sweet. The other part, though, can be directly attributed to recent changes in my lifestyle.

See, a few years ago, I resolved to learn to cook, to eat healthier, and to better manage my money. As it turned out, vegetables and legumes were vital to making this work, since they’re exponentially cheaper than meat and much more nutritious than most starches. So, I had to confront my fears. I had to expand my produce repertoire beyond corn, carrots, corn, and carrots.

These strategies helped. I learned to tolerate, and even love, a lot of foods I had longstanding issues with. Try ‘em for yourself, and please add your own suggestions to the comment section.

Make it unrecognizable.
Case study: Eggplant
Seedy, mushy, and horrifically purple, eggplant appealed to me about as much as a drug-free colonoscopy. Then, in 1997, my friend H hid it in her homemade tomato sauce. And … revelation. Soon, I was on to eggplant dips, eggplant pastas, and finally, plain ol’ broiled eggplant. The trick was getting the image of the vegetable out of my head, and forcing me to associate it with otherwise good food. I suspect it would work beautifully with any vegetable that could be pureed or furtively included in a sauce (butternut squash, bell peppers, etc.).

Use it in a recipe with foods you love.
Case study: Brussels sprouts
As far as I was concerned, Brussels sprouts were tiny, bitter cabbages that masochists ate when they ran out of bigger bitter cabbages. Little did I know that slathering them in Parmesan would provide a delicious gateway into healthier, simpler preparations. See also: Red Cabbage (ew) with Honey (nice), Apples (yay!), and Bacon (king of cured meats). It's actually quite scrumptious.

Try it in an ethnic dish.
Case study: Broccoli
Broccoli: looks like trees, tastes like butt, right? Yeah, I used to think like that, too. But in high school, Ma ordered Chicken and Broccoli from our local Chinese joint, Da How. Suddenly, it was broccoli: looks like trees, tastes like HEAVEN (with garlic and brown sauce). Sometimes, a food is more appealing when its paired with flavors you’re not necessarily accustomed to. Like bean sprouts on top of Pad Thai. Or peas stuffed in a samosa. Or tomatillo sauce spread across an enchilada. Pick a cuisine and start experimenting.

Cook the best-reviewed recipe you can find featuring that food.
Case study: Cauliflower
Most aggregate recipe sites like Epicurious, Food Network, and All Recipes have sophisticated rating systems with which home cooks can evaluate any dish. If you’re feeling ambitious, plug an ingredient into one of their search engines. Then, prep the recipe with the best overall reviews. For example, Ina Garten has a Cauliflower Gratin that’s received an average of five stars from 132 people (which is outstanding). I’ve tried it myself, and without exaggeration, it changed the way I felt about cauliflower. I just … I just didn’t know it could taste that good. Now, stuff like Roasted Garlic Cauliflower and Curried Cauliflower Soup with Honey are making regular appearances in my mouth.

Understand you don’t have to eat it the way your Ma (or Pa) prepared it.
Case study: Spaghetti Squash
Across the country, millions of Irish-Americans loathe vegetables because growing up, produce was boiled beyond recognition and then forced by threat of death into their reluctant maws. But take heart, my freckled brethren! It doesn’t have to be this way. Did you know carrots can be roasted? And broccoli rabe, sauteed? And spaghetti squash, combined with red sauce, mozzarella, and pine nuts to create something COMPLETELY DELICIOUS? It’s true. So, love your Gaelic Ma. Embrace her. Call her often. Just … try to forget her cooking. It’ll make this whole process much easier.

Try a dish with a subtler incarnation of that food.
Case study: Tarragon
This one’s a little difficult to explain, so here’s an example: I despise anise. Even thinking about its black licorice flavor makes my tongue curl. Recently though, I discovered a White Bean and Tarragon Soup that I quite like. Tarragon, like fennel, possesses traits similar to anise, but it’s much, much subtler. In the soup, it was complemented so well by the other ingredients, I didn’t even taste the hate. Maybe I'll feel the same way about anise someday. Think of this principle like salsa: you start out mild, and work your way up to medium and hot varieties.

Give it just one more shot.
Case study: Beans
For some inexplicable reason, I always assumed I hated beans. As a kid, they looked funny to me. And in my six-year-old brain, funny-looking food = bad food. It wasn’t until I grew up, sacked up, ate one and didn’t throw up, that they became a regular part of my diet. (Okay, hummus helped.)

If you truly hate it, let it go.
Case studies: scallops, figs, radishes, mayo
Scallops will never be my thing, no matter how fresh they are, how well they’ve been prepared, and how many times I try them. Figs, radishes, mayonnaise – still disgusting, as well. (Which, did I mention I hate mayonnaise? I did? Oh, good.) Sometimes, a certain food just won’t do it for you. And it’s okay. Just move on to the next one.

And that’s it. Readers? Suggestions?


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Robyn 'My Middle Name Is Awesome' said...

I have a favorite recipe that I want to share with you.

1 (15oz)can black beans
1 (15oz)can corn
1 (15oz)can tomatoes
1 (15oz)can fat free refried beans

Dump all of them in a pot (juice and all) and heat. The refried beans give it a thick stew-like texture. Then I add some hot sauce for flavor. You can use the beans, toms, etc. that come with spices in them for added flavor. The entire recipe (that makes a ton) costs less than $5. I can't tell which I like more, the taste or how cheap it is!!

BTW, I have been following your blog for a while now and I just love it ;0). Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with your suggestions. I'm another somewhat reformed picky-eater and I had a similar transformation. Now I can't tell you how much I love broccoli and spinach. I even look for ways to incorporate them into my recipes. Cheese was the cause for introducing me to both veggies (hello spinach dip!) but now I eat them in healthier. I'm still afraid of vegetables that look funny (eggplant) but I'll use some of your other suggestions now. Thanks!

DMBY said...

I have another strategy to add: buy the freshest, most farmalicious variety of that vegetable you can find. Eat it. Revelation!

I used to think that I hated all raw tomatoes. They were mushy, they were flavorless, they were wet. I would pick them out of sandwiches, avoid them in salads, etc. Then I shared an heirloom tomato salad with a friend at an organic restaurant (mainly because I wanted to eat the cheese). . .AMAZING! What I really didn't like were the sad imitations of tomatoes you have to buy in the grocery. In season tomatoes? Lovely!

Anonymous said...

My problem recently is that I learn how to cook it and learn that I like it A LOT and then learn I'm allergic. Good bye Sweet Potatoes, Rutabagas, and beets et. al. Gotta find more vegetables to eat.

Jenna said...

One suggestion I can add -

If you really really REALLY hate a particular food?

Get tested for allergies. Not every reaction is a swelling throat or hives.

After years of general not-feeling all that swift, I got the results back from a pretty complete blood test and...

I'm honestly allergic to broccoli and it cruicifer cousins. Makes my mother cringe to think back on all those nights spent staring at a cooling plate locked in a battle of wills... but sometimes your body knows when it can't handle something.

As an adult, take the time to figure out if there's a good reason you gag at the thought of Aunt Mary's eggplant (beyond her slathering it in mayo) and THEN go about learning how to trick you tastebuds into behaving when you try to incorporate new foods.

Good thing about the blood test for me - I went from feeling like utter... well, its good to GROW the veggies - to being a MUCH healthier and happier person.

Rose said...

I'd love to be able to eat canned tuna - so cheap and healthy! Sadly, it's been a bust every time I've tried it. Is there a certain brand I should look for or stay far away from? Is oil-cured tastier than the watery variety, if a little bit of a health trade off? I'd appreciate any ideas that would make it more palatable. Thanks!

Kev said...

I'm not a picky eater at all, except for tomatoes. I just can't stand the things.

Once my grandma told my wife (loud enough for me to hear) that the trick is to cut 'em up real small, mix them with other things, and spice the hell out of 'em, and that's how to trick me into eating tomatoes.

So I said, "Grandma, first of all, I'm the one who does the cooking in our house, and second, that's exactly how I prepare tomatoes so that I'll eat them."

I still know they're there. But unlike your eggplant experience, I haven't come around to liking tomatoes in their un-assimilated, unspiced form. bleh.

And on that topic, why is it that people can dislike all manner of things and everyone is fine with it; but dare to dislike tomatoes, and only tomatoes, and people rudely call you a picky eater. And the "we're gonna force you to like tomatoes" commentary from my coworkers for the past 5 years! Actually, that stopped when I said "I don't have to take this from a guy who doesn't drink coffee!"

Anonymous said...

I recently discovered your blog through Get Rich Slowly. I can relate to this article as I too was once a very picky eater. I grew up in a small town where our 'ethnic' food was Canadian Chinese (aka chicken balls, fried rice and fries...yes fries). Now I live in a large city where we have multiple cultures and I actually get to eat 'real' ethnic foods. My diet is completly different from what i ate growing up (I eat bok choy, lentils, asparagus etc...I didn't even know what they were growing up...yikes).

In addition, I must tell you that your blog is hilarious. I love your sense of humour. I have yet to try any recipe but I'm working on it.

sarah said...

Holy cow, I think we might have been separated at birth......only you were born a few years after me. Hmmm... Anyway, I've had the long list of dislikes for years! Some of the foods on there I had never even eaten, ever! My mom was uber picky so we didn't have to eat anything she wouldn't. I don't recall eating a pear until I was an adult.
Last summer was enlightening for me as far as food goes, we started trying formerly icky food and some that I thought I could never consume are my fav's now! One word, Lentils, love them! Fixing them for dinner tonight! Love your blog!

Martha said...

I love this post! It's always a relief to hear that there are other picky eaters out there struggling to improve their diets like me. My mother always treated me like a problem child because I didn't like vegetables (and believe me, it's not just Irish-American mothers who abuse veggies!), so it was sweet vindication to learn that I'm a supertaster--one of those semi-rare people with extra tastebuds that make us super-sensitive to bitter flavors and food textures. I'm slowly adding to my vegetable repertoire with the help of hot chiles to distract my tastebuds and looking for recipes that puree the vegetables so that textures are less of a problem. Growing my own veggies so they're really fresh is also a big help.

Anonymous said...

Omigosh...My list of "absolute No" foods is exactly the same--scallops & mayo being the biggies. Additionally, I'm not a fan of bell peppers.

Love this blog--check it daily and have tried at least 5 or 6 recipes in the last few months. They've all been fantastic!

eatclosetohome said...

You can also acclimate a little at a time. If you're trying to learn to like brown rice instead of white, mix the two together half-and-half (cook them separately) until you get used to the new texture.

spotter said...

Re. the brussels sprouts...I second the poster from the original brussels sprouts recipe who suggested the Veganomicon's Cornmeal Masala Roasted Brussels damn. good. No disrespect at all to Ina (and for once, her version is actually healthier), but that was the recipe that converted me.

Daisha said...

Eewwww, MAYO. I could not agree with you more about the gross factor on that one.
Worst. Food. Ever. If you can even call a congealed whip-up of raw egg and oil "food."
Although, I would personally stop short of throwing out a gold-plated "Who's Next." Some things are sacred.

Single Income Dual Kids said...

Ahh, cauliflower--my last holdout. Not-so-fondly recalling stinky mush from childhood. Will try the IG recipe; thanks.
Ditto on mayo--never ever ever. Ever.