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Off the Beaten Aisle: How to use hoisin, fig jam, mint, miso and almond butter

Staff Writer
Austin 360

J.M. Hirsch, who is the national food editor for The Associated Press and author of ‘High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking," has embarked on a yearlong mission to rediscover ingredients that are widely available but not in heavy rotation on most of our grocery lists. This is a collection of his most recent Off the Beaten Aisle columns. Is there an ingredient you see at the store that you'd like to know more about and how to use in your own cooking? Email me at, and I'll try to find new ways to use easily overlooked ingredients for an upcoming Ask Addie Q&A.

— Addie Broyles

Fig jam

A jam would seem an unlikely ingredient to be overlooked.

After all, legions of parents rely on the many offerings of the grocer's PB&J aisle to maintain peace with the lunchbox crowd.

Except that when you peer past the usual suspects — strawberry, raspberry, grape, apricot — you find some seriously wonderful hidden jam gems that belong as much at the dinner table as they do slathered between slices of bread.

My favorite? Fig.

Fig jam has a thick, almost dense consistency and a rich, full sweetness that isn't cloying the way many preserves are. My theory on that? Much of the sweetness comes from natural sugars; figs have one of the highest sugar contents among fruits.

Except they aren't technically a fruit. Figs actually are flowers folded in on themselves. The tiny, crunchy seeds inside are the fruit. But I digress.

Fig jam loves to be paired with Mediterranean flavors, from oregano and feta cheese to almonds and just about anything lemony.

And it's great with meat, in part because it's loaded with an enzyme that is a potent (and delicious) tenderizer.

Which means you should consider adding a bit to your next beef stew. Or rub it under the skin of a chicken or turkey before roasting. Or substitute it for the apricot jam called for in many sweet-and-sour chicken recipes.

Tomato, Avocado and Feta Salad With Fig Vinaigrette

6 thick slices sourdough bread, cut into

1-inch cubes (about 4 cups)

2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus 1/4 cup

1 tsp. garlic powder

Salt and ground black pepper

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 clove garlic

3 Tbsp. fig jam

1 Tbsp. white wine or water

3 large tomatoes, cut into wedges

2 avocados, pitted, peeled and cubed

1 bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped

6 oz. crumbled feta cheese

3 cups arugula

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss the bread with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Arrange the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for 15 minutes, or until golden.

Meanwhile, in a blender, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil, the red wine vinegar, garlic, fig jam and white wine. Blend until smooth, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, gently toss together the tomatoes, avocados, fennel and feta. When the bread is done, add that. Drizzle the dressing over the tomato-bread mixture, tossing gently to coat. Place 1/2 cup of the arugula on each of 6 serving plates. Top each with the salad mixture. Serves 6.


Fermented bean paste? Doesn't exactly scream party in your mouth. And yet we happily slurp in that salty, savory soup doled out every time we sit down for sushi. And that's because miso really is a flavor bomb worth knowing.

So let's start there. Miso is a broad term for pastes made from fermented cooked soybeans that are aged, sometimes for years.

Miso has origins in China, but is best known for its role in Japanese cooking, where it is used in soups, sauces, marinades, glazes and dressings.

There are many varieties of miso, which can vary widely in color and flavor intensity based on how long it is aged and which ingredients are added. Sweet white miso, for example, is made from fermented soybeans and rice, then aged for just a few months. The result is a smooth paste with a sweet, salty, savory flavor and a light golden color. Move up to red miso — usually made with barley instead of rice and aged for up to three years — and both color and flavor get more intense.

Your best bet is to stick with sweet white miso. Its mellow savory-sweet flavor is versatile and pleasant; the stronger miso can be an acquired taste.

Misos are widely available at most grocers, usually refrigerated in the produce section alongside other Asian ingredients. There are less expensive options, but try to get an organic brand. Many cheaper varieties are poorly made and use flavor and color additives to compensate.

Now that you have it, what do you do with it? Soup is an obvious choice. Bring some water to a simmer and add thinly sliced veggies – carrots, shiitake mushrooms, cauliflower – and some cubed tofu.

Simmer briefly, then mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of miso with 1/4 cup of water in a small cup. Add the diluted miso to the soup (this helps it dissolve better than adding miso directly to the soup). Simmer briefly, then slurp.

Miso also makes a great glaze for salmon. Mix 1/3 cup miso with 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 tablespoon water, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 teaspoon wasabi powder and 1 teaspoon soy sauce. Spread over salmon, then broil for 3 minutes uncovered, then another 5 minutes covered with foil.

Miso Mac and Cheese

1 lb. elbow pasta

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Two 3 1/2-oz. containers (2 cups) shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

8-oz. container crème fraîche

3 Tbsp. sweet white miso

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. hot sauce

Salt and ground black pepper

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water, then drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the mushrooms and saute until well browned, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Move the skillet off the heat. In a small bowl, mix together the creme fraîche and miso, then stir that and the Parmesan, cheddar, garlic powder and hot sauce into the mushrooms.

Once the cheese has melted, add the drained pasta. Mix, drizzling in some of the reserved pasta cooking water to get desired consistency, until the pasta is coated. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 6.


It's time to move mint beyond juleps and mojitos.

In the U.S., mint has struggled to land on the dinner table. We tend to associate it with sweets (after all, it does pair nicely with chocolate) and breath mints.

But elsewhere in the world, especially North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mint is used to lend a crisp, almost peppery contrast to savory dishes, especially fatty ones (think lamb with mint sauce).

First, the basics.

You'll find fresh mint sold with the other herbs in the produce section, often in large bunches that you'll never manage to entirely use. No worries; it's cheap.

Most of the mint sold at American grocers is spearmint or peppermint, just two of the many varieties (that grow like weeds) available. It should have a mix of large and small leaves that are bright green and firm.

When you get the mint home, give it a good wash in cold water, then snip off the bottoms of the stems. You can prolong its life — sometimes by weeks — if you stand the stems upright in a glass of water and refrigerate.

And be prepared for a minty fresh refrigerator. Mint is as aromatic as it is flavorful (handy since we tend to taste with our snouts as much as our tongues). But that also means you'll want to go easy with it to avoid overpowering other flavors in your dish.

Mint loves vegetables, cooked and raw (it's key to the flavor of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, for example). It also goes well with roasted poultry and pork, and helps cut through assertive cheeses, such as feta.

Feta-Mint Penne with Tomatoes and Capers

1 lb. penne pasta

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1 Tbsp. capers, drained

1/2 cup crumbled feta

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh mint

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and saute for 4 minutes.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook until just softened, about 2 minutes. Add the capers and cook for another minute.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the feta and mint. Season with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon the sauce over the pasta. Serves 4.

Hoisin sauce

Mmmm ... Nothing says good eats like soy residue.

Except that in Chinese cooking, it really can. And you very likely have enjoyed that soy residue. Many times and in many ways.

We're talking about hoisin sauce, a classic ingredient for sauces — both for dipping at the table and basting during cooking — in China.

Hoisin is a thick, dark red-to-brown sauce that blends sweet-spicy-savory flavors, a profile not all that different from ketchup. It is made from the leftover mash of fermented soy beans produced when making traditional soy sauces. That mash is combined with sugar, chiles, garlic, vinegar, salt, sometimes five-spice powder and either flour or cornstarch (to thicken).

Though hoisin is widely used on grilled meats (as a barbecue sauce) and in dipping sauces, it's best known for a starring role in Peking duck and moo shu pork.

The trick with hoisin is to use it sparingly. Unlike ketchup (which I firmly believe should be served by the gallon), a little hoisin goes a long way. To make a dipping sauce, thin a teaspoon or so with sesame oil and soy sauce. Thin it with soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame or canola oil, then use as a marinade for thinly sliced steaks for a stir-fry. You can also rub hoisin under and over the skin of a whole chicken for roasting. The same technique works for skin-on chicken thighs.

Uncut, it can be brushed directly onto meats for grilling. You'll usually find hoisin in glass jars among the grocer's other Asian ingredients. Refrigerated after opening, it should last months.

Hoisin Turkey Meatball Grinders With Spicy Tomato Relish

1 egg

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh cilantro

2 scallions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

Zest of 1 lime

1/4 cup hoisin


11/3 lb. ground turkey

3/4 cup panko (Japanese-style) breadcrumbs

4 Tbsp. butter, divided

2 plum tomatoes, diced

1/2 cup crème fraîche

1 tsp. hot sauce

Four 6-inch sub rolls

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the egg, cilantro, scallions, garlic, ginger, lime zest, hoisin and 1/2 Tbsp. salt. Mix well. Add the turkey, then knead well with your hands until evenly mixed. Add the breadcrumbs and mix again. Form the mixture into about 20 balls.

In a large skillet over medium-high, melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter. Add half of the meatballs and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, then repeat with the remaining butter and meatballs.

Bake the meatballs for 7 to 8 minutes, or until cooked through and a thermometer inserted at the center of a meatball reads 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the tomatoes, crème fraîche, hot sauce and 1/2 tsp. of salt. Spread a quarter of the mixture down the center of each sub roll. When the meatballs are done, arrange 5 in each roll. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

Almond butter

Most of us have plenty of ideas for using whole almonds. Eat them whole. Bake them into treats. Scatter them over salads or green beans.

But what about almond butter — toasted (and sometimes salted) almonds that have been ground to a peanut butter-like consistency?

After cranking out a few AB&J sandwiches, most people push the jar of almond butter to the back of the refrigerator. Time to pull it forward because almond butter is easy to use in all sorts of delicious ways.

Let's start with the basics. Almond butter is what it sounds like: ground almonds, usually with a bit of oil and salt added for texture and taste.

It's not the same as almond paste or marzipan, both of which are made from finely ground almonds (but with a fair amount of sugar added) and used in baking.

The texture of almond butter is similar to peanut butter (they are jarred the same and sold alongside one another at the grocer), but differ in taste. Whereas peanut butter has a pronounced, well, peanut flavor, almond butter has a richer, creamier taste that is nutty, but (oddly) not distinctly almondy.

Nutritionally, they are similar. Two tablespoons of peanut butter have 188 calories and 16 grams of fat. Almond butter has 202 calories and 18 grams of fat.

There are numerous brands of almond butter, but it's easy to make your own. Just grind whole toasted almonds in the food processor until chunky-smooth. You may need a drizzle of canola oil to get the desired consistency. And consider using smoked or tamari almonds for an extra burst of flavor.

Whether you make it or buy it, almond butter can be substituted 1-for-1 in recipes that call for peanut butter. This opens up a lot of possibilities.

Mole-Style Pulled Pork Buns

This blend of Mexican mole sauce and pulled pork tenderloin makes for a crazy-delicious sandwich. The filling also would be good tossed with warm noodles.

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 lb. pork tenderloin, cut into 2-inch chunks

1/2 cup smooth almond butter

1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes

3 cloves garlic

1 shallot

1/2 Tbsp. cocoa powder

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1 cup water


4 sesame-seed burger buns

1 scallion, white and green parts, chopped

In a medium saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the pork and sear for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Set aside off the heat.

In a blender combine the almond butter, tomatoes, garlic, shallot, cocoa powder, cinnamon, black pepper, red pepper flakes, cloves and water. Puree until smooth, then add to the pork.

Bring the pork and sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to a large plate or cutting board, then use two forks to pull and shred it. Return the pork to the sauce and stir well. Season with salt.

Divide the pulled pork between the buns. Top with scallions. Serves 4.