It’s not unusual for amateur cooks—or pro chefs, for that matter—to default to a small batch of tried and true ingredients each time they plan their shopping lists. You likely have your favorites—quinoa, avocado, and kale, for example—that you can whip into dinner in a flash. And although the more “exotic” produce and products at the grocery store may look enticing, if you’re not sure how to use them, it’s likely you stick to your basics when shopping no matter how loud a siren song the other ingredients sing.
Blue Apron, one of the OG meal-kit-delivery companies, has made it part of its mission to expose chefs of all stripes to just such items. They’re called “wildcard ingredients,” says Senior Culinary Manager John Adler, who adds that they’re often used to help customers put a new spin on familiar dishes. “Braised chicken is a great example because it’s a ubiquitous dish in a lot of the world,” he says. “We take this familiar technique and add a wildcard ingredient like lemongrass or curry paste to mix it up for customers.”
The newly-released Blue Apron Cookbook includes a recipe for braised chicken with lemongrass, ginger, and coconut milk, as a matter of fact (included, for your cooking pleasure, below), along with 164 other meal blueprints. And below, Adler’s selected a handful of ingredients you can use to spice up your weekly meal prep.
Keep reading for the lowdown on 7 wildcard ingredients and a full recipe from the new Blue Apron cookbook.
“Crème Fraîche is a slightly-elevated version of a more common ingredient: sour cream,” says Adler. “Put it into mashed potatoes or drizzle on your tacos” to put a gourmet spin on traditional crowd-pleasers.
“We use a lot of lemongrass in our recipes,” Adler says. “It’s something that seems intimidating, but you can actually go on our website and watch a video on how to prepare it.” It can be incorporated into broths, used to braise greens, and mixed it into hamburger meat, for starters.
Fairy tale eggplant
“We definitely have customers who’ve said, ‘I didn’t know I loved eggplant and then I tried this kind,'” says Adler of the miniature purple-and-white-striped eggplant varietal that peaks in summer. His prep tip: “Fairy tale eggplant cut in half and thrown on the grill with some balsamic vinegar or soy sauce on it is so creamy and delicious,” he says. “You can find them in a lot of farmers markets, and we get them through online grocers, too.” Off the grill, fairy tale eggplants work well in stir fries, sautés, rice bowls, and more.
“People get really jazzed about finger limes because you see them at Michelin 3-starred restaurants—they seem very exotic,” Adler says. “We see finger limes as a garnish for tacos or for curry.” They are currently in season, so look for them at local farmer’s markets or try ordering them online.
“Saffron feels very polarizing to people,” Adler says. But many customers find they come around to the colorful spice once they’re introduced to a high-quality version (Blue Apron sources from Rumi Spice) and taught to use it in the right amount (i.e. sparingly). “They become converts—which is why we send it out with most Blue Apron salmon dishes and risottos.”
Braised Chicken with Lemongrass, Ginger and Coconut Milk
1 whole chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds) cut into 8 pieces (breasts split, thighs and legs separated)
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
3 Tbsp canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped lemongrass (3 to 4 stalks)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
8 scallions (about 1 bunch), thinly sliced (keep the green tops and white bottoms separate)
2 to 3 Tbsp red curry paste (depending on how spicy you’d like the dish to be)
2 (14-ounce) cans full-fat coconut milk, shaken well before opening
1. Brown the chicken: Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels. Season on all sides with 1 Tbsp kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. In a large, high-sided sauté pan or Dutch oven, heat the oil on medium until hot. Working in batches if necessary, add the chicken, skin side down. Cook, flipping once halfway through, for 10 to 12 minutes per batch, until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate, leaving any browned bits (fond) in the pan.
2. Cook the aromatic: Reduce the heat to low. Add the lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and white bottoms of the scallions to the fond and season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the curry paste and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until darkened and fragrant.
3. Braise the chicken: Return the chicken to the pan, along with accumulated juices. Add the coconut milk and 1 cup of water and stir and combine. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for 45 to 50 minutes, turning the chicken halfway through until the thighs are very tender.
4. Cook the rice and serve: While the chicken cooks, combine the rice, the remaining 4 cups water, and a big pinch of kosher salt in a saucepan. Heat to boiling on high. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 12 to 14 minutes, until the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and fluff the cooked rice with a fork; top with the green tops of the scallions. Transfer the chicken and braising liquid to a serving dish and top with the cilantro and a sprinkle of sea salt. Serve with the rice and lime wedges on the side.
If your interest in unusual ingredients has been piqued by these wildcards, try experimenting with ginger’s lesser-known cousin galangal or moringa, a super green which has more anti-inflammatory benefits than turmeric, the next time you cook.