The other day at the market, a fellow shopper pointed to a deep orangey pink-fleshed fish resting on a bed of crushed ice, and asked the fishmonger for one pound. I chimed in that I loved that rich, oily fish with such an intense flavor, and delicate grey skin that crisps up so nicely. So glad also that it made it to these parts, as I haven’t seen it around since my trip to Canada last year. She gazed at me as if I had two heads, then informed me that wild-caught salmon is always available.
The fishmonger then informed the customer that she had just purchased Arctic Char, not salmon, and I suddenly redeemed my credibility. So easy to mistake these pair of cold-water, aquatic look-alikes. Native to the Arctic coastal waters, Char is popularly farmed (sustainably) in Canada, Iceland and Norway, and actually belongs to the Salmonidae family with some trout DNA thrown into the mix.
Like salmon, the flesh color and fat content vary depending on the diet — whether Char is wild-caught or farm-raised. Many other foods have stumped us over the years with their uncanny resemblance to one other. Some can be used interchangeably in recipes, others absolutely not.
Here’s a primer to help you sort out these culinary dead-ringers.
Please don’t confuse baking soda with baking powder although both are white powdery leavening agents. Baking soda, or pure bicarbonate soda, is a base, while baking powder — a blend of bicarbonate soda, cream of tartar and starch — is a neutral since it contains both an acid and base. Culinary Chemistry 101 teaches us that baking soda needs to be balanced with an acid like buttermilk to prevent bitterness, while baking powder should be blended with another neutral substance, like milk, to trigger the chemical reaction. Baking soda is usually the go-to leavening agent for cookies, while baking powder does the trick for cakes and quick breads.
Many gnarly roots with scraggly tails and witchy warts fill produce bins and home-delivered CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) baskets this time of year, including the quirky “triplets” — turmeric, ginger and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s difficult to tell them apart. Tantalizing turmeric, aka “Indian saffron,” is an orange-fleshed knobby rhizome, usually sold in finger-length stubs. It’s as gorgeous and flavorful as it is healthful. Turmeric adds vibrant eye candy and antioxidants to everything from soups, risottos, frittatas and mashed potatoes to cakes, shortbread cookies and smoothies.
Sassy ginger, the gnarled beige tuber with many stubby protrusions and fibrous cream-colored flesh, is turmeric’s first cousin. Another super spice, ginger is a natural remedy for many ails — from morning sickness and digestive discomfort to stuffy noses and scratchy throats. Grated or candied ginger gives a smooth warm bite to baked goods, enlivens comfort drinks, squash soups, stir-fries, roasted roots, nut breads, cream cheese frostings and preserves.
The last similar rhizome in the trio, Jerusalem artichoke, also called sunchoke that belongs to the sunflower family resembles turmeric with knobby reddish-brown skin, and ginger with pale flesh, but tends to be more rotund than both, making it ideal to roast, bake, fry or sauté much like a potato. It’s also more mild-mannered with a sweet, mushroomy umami flavor, and equally impressive in its healing properties as a powerful immune booster and prebiotic digestive aid.
Fall favorites like sweet potatoes and yams are unrelated tuber “twins.” The smaller, smooth, bronzy-skinned sweet potato belongs to the morning glory family, while the starchier, cylindrical-shaped yam with rough skin reminiscent of tree bark, is botanically a lily. Sweet potatoes typically have rich, dark orange flesh filled with beta-carotenes and anthocyanins making them more nutrient-dense than their counterpart.
Don’t forget the leafy look-alikes, especially cilantro (also called Chinese parsley or coriander), and Italian flat-leaf parsley, that are identical at a glance. Examine closely, since they do have distinct leaf formations (cilantro has curved edges; IP sharp, serrated ones), aromas (cilantro is fragrant, IP grassy), and flavor profiles that lend to different cuisines. Lemony cilantro enlivens Asian and southwestern dishes, while pungent Italian parsley amps up Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ones.
Recipe: Oven-Roasted Arctic Char
• Ingredients: 10 ounces Arctic char (halved); 1/4 cup avocado oil.
• For the sauce: 1/3 cup olive oil; juice from one lemon and one tangerine; 1 tablespoon each of chopped Italian parsley and cilantro; salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
• Method: Combine ingredients in a glass bowl. Set aside. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Season fish with salt and pepper and then brush with avocado oil. Place skillet in oven until hot. Add remaining avocado oil, and fish with its skin-side down. Roast about five minutes, until skin crisps. Drizzle with sauce.