How to cook (and love!) unusual proteins

Joey Skladany is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

Despite Americans’ seemingly innate desire to say crazy things and seek thrilling experiences, we’re pretty damn bland when it comes to diet. If it doesn’t “taste like chicken” or come from a bag, can or drive-thru window, then it’s a “no” for many of the country’s pickiest eaters. 

This is an unfortunate reality, because there are plenty of wonderful proteins, both in the U.S. and abroad, that get dismissed for seeming a bit too unusual, but have been used and celebrated in cooking for thousands of years. 

I consulted one of the best meat chefs I know, Joseph Leonardi (Certified Master Chef and founder of Leonardi Apiary & Gardens), for his take on how to not only prepare exotic dishes, but convince skeptics to take part in eating them to begin with. 

“People are willing to try different food items if they’re educated [about them],” he says. “I do this often with guests when they dine with us. If I tell the ‘story’ behind the dish, I notice they are more willing to try it. If they can understand where the product is coming from and how it is grown or raised, then they feel better about eating it.”

At the very least, it’s important for all of us to keep an open mind — what makes your stomach turn may be considered a delicacy in other countries, and for good reason. 

So, if you’re feeling adventurous or even the slightest bit intrigued, check out a few of Leonardi’s top tips below, as well as a list of how to cook some of the trendiest proteins you can find. You may just stumble across something that has the potential to be your new favorite meal (or at least something to consider on special occasions). 

Quick Tips for Cooking with Unusual Proteins

While not all meats taste the same, they surely can be prepared using the same methods. 

“Pan-frying or deep-frying is a great way to cosmetically change the appearance of an item,” says Leonardi, who claims that camouflaging a food to resemble something familiar is an easy first step in convincing someone to try something new. 

“Place the protein on a skewer, dip it in a tempura or cornmeal batter, and it will give the impression of a chicken nugget or hush puppy,” he says. “Add a great sauce to dip into, as well.” 

To make new meats more approachable, Leonardi also suggests incorporating familiar flavors (i.e. Asian, cajun, barbecue, Mediterranean, etc.) into your seasonings. “Your palate will be familiar with these and will alter your thinking while eating.” 

You can prepare most unusual proteins the same way you cook poultry, beef, pork and fish. “There are only a few ways to cook, saute, fry, grill, roast or bake,” he says. “Once you understand the product, it is easy to cook it. If it is a working muscle, you need to slow roast it or braise it. If it is a non-working muscle, sautéing or grilling will work. When in doubt, slice it thin so it won’t be chewy.” 

Lastly, be sure to bring balance to any plate so that the meat isn’t necessarily the focal point. 

“If you know something is going to be lean, serve it with something that has moisture, such as stewed beans or caramelized vegetables,” says Leonardi. 

Below are seven proteins that are having a moment, are available in many specialty grocery stores and can be prepared quickly using Leonardi’s expertise: 

Frog Legs

“If you can get past the fact that they’re frog legs, the meat is actually really good. It’s best to dredge them in seasoned flour and pan-fry them. Once cooked, remove from the pan. Add shallots and capers and cook for a couple minutes. Deglaze with white wine and reduce. Remove from heat and swirl in unsalted butter (at room temperature) to make a butter sauce. Add chopped parsley and return the frog legs back to the sauce. Heat through over low heat and serve.”


“The meat can be fishy due to what they eat, but if prepared properly, can be a great protein alternative on a menu. I typically would soak this in a flavorful brine, dredge in seasoned flour, then dip in a batter, deep-fry and toss in a glaze, like chili honey or a dip.” 


“The taste is very similar to lamb. Simply incorporate Mediterranean flavors like olives, garlic, fresh rosemary and thyme, and olive oil to a marinade, grill and then serve it with roasted tomatoes, feta cheese and spinach. It’s so good!”


“Many people forget that ostrich tastes like beef! Get some steaks, salt and pepper them and then pan-sear. When you flip the steaks in the pan, drop in some whole butter, large pieces of garlic, shallots and thyme, and baste with the brown butter and herbs. Throw in the oven to finish and cook to medium-rare.”


“With organs like the liver and heart, it’s all about simplicity. For calves’ liver, you can always soak it in milk to try and pull out some of the iron taste. From there, pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Place some clarified butter in a hot pan and gently lay the liver on top. Depending on the thickness, it should take no more than a couple minutes on each side. You might need to place the pan in the oven to get it to medium doneness.”


“It’s one of my favorite ingredients! Cut the tentacles close to the head and marinate with olive oil, garlic, black pepper and parsley. In a braising pan, add olive oil and heat. Add sliced garlic, shallots and sauté.  Add black and green olives and chopped tomatoes. Deglaze with white wine and add fish stock… just enough to cover the octopus. Cook until tender in an oven.” 


“The taste is very similar to squid and octopus. My opinion is that it actually has more flavor than squid but is more subtle than octopus. I don’t eat it raw, but you can in moderation. Cut it into thin strips, bread and fry it. You can even use it as a garnish to give texture to dishes.”

If you enjoyed this article, check out this complete guide to eggs!

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