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Don’t get spooked: How to work with intimidating ingredients in the kitchen

By Michelle Stark
STEVE MADDEN | Times

Itís easy to get spooked in the kitchen. In the spirit of this time of year, we have assembled five ingredients that may strike fear into the heart of home cooks ó and offer some tips for how best to combat the potential horrors.

Ash-infused cheese

What it is: In France over the summer, I stopped at a cheese shop in Strasbourg. LíEpicier Grand Cru, a boutique cheese shop on the Grande Rue, offers specialty cheeses from all over Europe, and I got to go into the freezer and help choose cheeses for a cheese board our group was sharing. Naturally, I went for cheeses with which I was familiar: a cranberry goat cheese, Gorgonzola, Parmesan. Then, tucked back in a corner, I saw a cheese covered in a dark, powdery substance.

"What is that?" I asked.

The cheesemonger answered, "Ash," in a very thick accent, and for a moment I thought I misheard her.

Wait, ash?

The raw-milk goat cheese, called Cathare, was from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Covered in charcoal ash and stamped with the Occitan cross, it looked ominous, and I couldnít help but ask for it. The monger then pointed me to something I was a bit more familiar with: Morbier, another French cheese more immediately recognizable for the line of ash running through its center. From the village of Morbier in the Franche-Comtť region, the cheese is known for its pungent and strong smell.

The stark black-on-white contrast may look scary ó and that name ups the creepy factor a bit ó but ash has traditionally been used in cheesemaking to protect the cheese and preserve its surface. While the ash used in these cheeses used to come from the remains of fires, particularly of burned vines in the Loire Valley, it is now mainly just salt or vegetable ash.

HOW to buy it: Cathare cheese is hard to find in the United States ó made harder by the fact that France just changed its export guidelines. According to Christopher Covert, head cheesemonger at Mazzaroís Italian Market in St. Petersburg, most French cheeses are made by monks and small-town farmers who probably donít want to go through a certification process to make sure the cheese meets new export standards, which is going to make it harder to find specialty French cheeses here. But Mazzaroís does carry Morbier, which is much easier to find locally.

How to COOK it: Though the smell may be off-putting (it does stink quite a bit), Morbier tastes relatively mild and is delicious with a German Gewurtstraminer or red Beaujolais wine. Serve it on a cheese plate with other varieties like a sharp cheddar and a creamy Brie, or melt it down and work it into the simple quiche recipe featured here. The pungency of Morbier gives the dish a little something extra.

Carlynn Crosby, Times correspondent

Octopus

What it is: I still remember vividly the first time I ate octopus, a couple of years ago at a local restaurant where the preparation was pristine. I was sure I was going to be freaked out by its texture, but I decided to woman up. The result was way better than expected, tender and charred, served alongside a smoky sauce and tomatoes. It was good, if not a little weird to look at. It wasnít until I saw that a friendís Italian family regularly cooked it at home that I began to wonder what it would be like to prepare the tentacles in my kitchen. Turns out, itís not as daunting as it seems.

How to buy it: Frozen octopus can be found at certain grocery stores, locally at places like Whole Foods. Itís mostly sold as the tentacles, so you donít have to worry about chopping off any of the eight legs. And you donít need to prioritize getting the fresh stuff over a frozen package; the thawing process can actually help an octopus tenderize. Buy more than you think youíll need if youíre planning to serve a group of people; octopus tends to shrink down when you cook it.

How to cook it: There are a lot of ways to cook octopus (braising, roasting), but grilling brings out some of its best characteristics. Before this step, though, youíll want to boil it in some hot water to tenderize and clean it. And those little round things dotting the skin? They are called suckers, and itís important to keep those on throughout the cooking process. They lend lots of texture to the final product.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

Celery root

What it is: One of the gnarliest looking vegetables out there, celery root lives up to its name with a whole mass of tangles on the bottom of the white-ish bulb. Itís not exactly just the roots of celery; itís a slightly different variety bred for its hearty roots. It tastes like celery but more robust, with a slight peppery, bitter flavor similar to parsley. Itís also called celeriac.

How to buy it: I have found celery root at certain locations of general grocery stores; specialty markets like Whole Foods and Fresh Market also regularly have the veggie. Celery root isnít always sold with its plentiful green stems; sometimes itís just the white bulb. Look for bulbs that are hard to the touch, not squishy, and generally about the size of a softball.

How to cook it: The first thing you must do to celery root is clean and peel it to get to the good stuff inside. The best way to get the skin off is with a small knife; a vegetable peeler isnít quite strong enough. Cutting off the brownish outer layer will reveal a sturdy white center. Celery root works well when treated like a parsnip or turnip: Roast it, puree it, turn it into a soup. It pairs beautifully with potatoes and gives an edge to other vegetable purees or mixes. A standard recipe involves boiling celery root with potatoes, then mashing both with some butter and cream. The recipe featured here uses the cubed vegetable in a stir-fry of sorts, with lots of other celery flavor.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor

Monkfish

What it is: Itís often some kind of seafood ó something that feels foreign enough at first to a home cook that the fear of preparing and cooking with it is sometimes enough to call the whole thing off. For me, when it came to monkfish, it was more intimidation than fear. More like a thriller than a horror movie. After all, Iíd conquered cooking with squid, fish and mussels. It was an Italian cooking magazine that made a recipe for baked monkfish with lemon and rosemary seem totally approachable ó as casual as preparing chicken thighs.

I looked up a picture of the fish, a truly hideous creature with a mouth that gaped as wide as its body, and took relief in the knowledge that we only eat the tail. I shook off the image of the beast and proceeded with the recipe. Monkfish tail, sometimes referred to as poor manís lobster, is covered in a thin, gray membrane I had to remove as much of as possible. (OMG.) This step wasnít as awful as it sounds, and soon the fish was ready for the oven. The resulting dinner? Totally delicious and worth the trouble. Intimidating ingredient conquered.

How to buy it: Similar to octopus, monkfish is sold at specialty grocery stores, including Whole Foods locally. Itís typically sold as a fillet, already cleaned and prepped for cooking. Only the tail is edible.

How to cook it: Monkfish holds up to a variety of cooking methods, with a firm and meaty white flesh that is pretty lean. A hot oven is the ideal way to go, surrounded by lots of fresh herbs and bright flavors like lemon.

Ileana Morales Valentine, Times correspondent

Truffles

What it is: A truffle is a mushroom that grows underground in very specific regions of the world, mostly in European countries like Italy and France. There are black truffles and white truffles, the latter coveted for how it grows in the wild, unable to be cultivated. Youíve probably encountered the flavor in truffle oil, which is a quaint introduction to the complex flavor of the real thing.

How to buy it: Okay, hereís where the scary part comes in. Truffles are expensive. Like, really expensive, probably cost-prohibitive to most people, squarely in special occasion territory. But if youíre going to splurge, splurge on a truffle. The high price tag is because some of the best truffles in the world canít be harvested; they just grow in the wild. And since truffles donít grow in America, they have to be imported. Casa Truffle is a local vendor that sells truffles from Italy at the Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Petersburg, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (casatruffle.com)

How to cook it: Truffles are renowned for their umami flavor that is quite unlike anything else, and a powerful scent that youíll notice before you take one bite. In fact, thatís a good indication that a truffle is still on the fresh side: its pungent odor. Very little cooking needs to be done to a truffle; in fact, they are most commonly seen in (very fancy) restaurants as a thinly shaved garnish of sorts atop dishes.

Times food critic Laura Reiley talked to Chris Ponte, chef-owner of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, in 2013 about the best way to work with truffles at home. Itís simple advice that goes a long way. First, when selecting one, know that truffles should not be damp or squishy, but if they have a few holes or divots, thatís fine. Truffles are best eaten immediately, but if you need to store it, do so in a jar of dry rice, then use that rice to make risotto.

"Just fettuccine with a nice light butter sauce, and a little Parmesan and maybe a farm-fresh egg," Ponte said. "Then shave the truffle over the top. Youíre just looking for something to deliver it to your mouth. When youíre spending that kind of money, you want that truffle to shine through."

Michelle Stark, Times food editor