During the fall and winter, interesting ingredients that most of us hardly bother with fill supermarket shelves: that holiday favorite, chestnuts; hazelnuts; fresh and dried figs; persimmons; and daikon.
Most of these items are simple to work with. But while they are popular in Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, they intimidate American home cooks. Here are some tips and ideas for using this bounty:
Chestnuts: Fresh are best. Just pierce the shells on the flat side with a small paring knife and then cut an "X." Place in a baking pan and bake in a 375-degree oven 20 minutes or until the cut edges of the shells curl up.
You can eat them by pulling the shells off after they cool. Or shell and save them in a container to make an incredible pasta dish. Chop and saute them in extra-virgin olive oil to serve with semolina or whole-wheat pasta, even gnocchi. Add butter for a richer dish.
They are also great chopped and thrown into steamed green beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts or greens, such as kale and chard.
Hazelnuts: You can chop them straight from the bag or, for an added nutty flavor, bake them 10 to 12 minutes in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned and fragrant. I leave the fine brown skin on the toasted nuts but you can remove it by rubbing the nuts in a clean kitchen towel. The skin will flake off.
These nuts also make a great crust for tofu, vegetables or any protein when finely chopped and mixed with bread crumbs.
Fresh and dried figs: The two most common fresh varieties are the black mission figs and green figs. Now, don't think Fig Newtons here. These figs are sweet and juicy. Quarter them and add them to salads. They also contain natural chemicals that moisten baked goods and keep them fresh. Dried figs liven up salads, casserole dishes and stews.
Persimmons: Bright orange and glossy, persimmons need to be very ripe to be eaten. They will be soft when ready. Peel, slice and add to salads along with walnuts, olive oil, raspberry vinegar and hazelnuts.
Daikon (white radish): These giant white radishes are sold in lengths from 6 to 12 inches and must be peeled before using. You never know what you're getting in terms of flavor. Sometimes they are very sweet; other times bitter. Overcome their bitterness by adding a bit of honey or sugar. My simplest way to prepare these is to slice them very thinly and toss them with Asian sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, sesame seeds and crushed dried red-pepper flakes. This wonderful salad can be eaten plain or served over a field green salad.