Friday, December 2, 2016

What the heck is that? Apple pear

Apple pears: the first step in a project to breed interesting hybrids of popular fruit? A project that could include the easy-peel, not-too-acidic banana pineapple (not to be confused with banana potatoes ) and one-step-ratatouille tomato eggplant?

The truth is a bit less exciting.

Apple pears are a type of pear, as some of the fruit's other names, Asian pear (and its geographic subsets, Chinese pear, Korean pear, Taiwanese pear, Japanese pear, etc.) and nashi (Japanese for "pear") indicate. Apple pears have been enjoyed in Asia for thousands of years and in California since the Gold Rush days, when Chinese immigrant miners planted trees. 

The "apple" part of "apple pear" refers to the fruit's appearance and texture - round and crisp like an apple. In other ways, the apple pear definitely tows the pear line. Apple pears ripen on the tree, not the kitchen counter. They are sweet, with a flavor in the pear family. Apple pears' skins can range from golden yellow to greenish yellow to paper bag brown, with a corresponding texture than can range from delicate to a bosc pear level of coarseness.

Here you can see the outward similarity of the two apple pears to the apple on the left. The apple pears' grainy texture, not quite revealed in the photo, differs from the apple's. Unlike a regular pear, the seed pod is dead center, rather than located in the lower portion of the fruit. 

The more delicate apple pears sometimes earn dog in a winter vest protective gear. 
th -- they're both members of the rose family, or pomes -- but the "apple pear," or Asian pear, blurs the line between the two fruits. Their flavor packs the unmistakeable honeyed sweetness of a pear, but Asian pears have the crisp texture, size and roundness of a superlative eating apple. To scientists they're unquestionably pears, but they're a distinctive and quirky branch of the family. You can use them in tarts, pies and other baked confections, but aficionados recommend eating them out of hand.

Distinctive Characteristics

  • Apple pears differ significantly from the familiar Eurasian varieties that fill your grocer's produce section. Ordinary pears don't ripen on the tree, but must be harvested while still hard and encouraged to ripen in storage. Asian pears, like apples, can be left on the tree and picked while ripe. Conventional pears have textures ranging from meltingly soft to grainy and sand-like, but always relatively dense. Apple pears have a distinctively crisp texture, apple-like but even lighter and juicier than most apples.

Pick a Good One

  • Asian pears are packaged carefully to minimize bruising, their major flaw from the retailer's perspective. Avoid fruit with visible bruising or other damage. Apple pears range from pale yellow to russet to green in color, but this is a question of cultivar rather than ripeness. Rather than color, use your nose to judge the ripest fruit. The best-tasting pears have the sweetest fragrance.

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But they are surprisingly hardy in other important ways: they don't turn brown or mealy when exposed to air, making them a good choice for salads and cheese platters, and their shelf life is noticeably longer than that of either apples or regular pears.                                                                                                          
My friend Thom sent me a picture from a Japanese supermarket in Hong Kong of this gift box of giant apple pears grown in a greenhouse in Japan. 

The price (using the conversion of Hong Kong dollars to U.S. dollars at the time of the picture) is over $22 per apple pear. Yes, $22 each! A box of six makes a nice gift for the right person. 

How can you do justice to a fruit this expensive? Chomping down wouldn't seem right. Perhaps you could only cut it thinly and curate on a platter with some equally fancy tidbit.

Fortunately, when I buy apple pears, whether at the Union Square Greenmarket, a fruit stand or in Chinatown, I don't have such constraints. At $1 each, and sometimes half that cost, apple pears are free to be simply enjoyed.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A New Thanksgiving Tradition: Riced Cauliflower With Mushrooms

I first heard of riced cauliflower from my brother. He avoids carbs, shunning even bagels from Ess-a-Bagel, whose re-opening is one of the high points of 2016. He described riced cauliflower as a strange but wonderful product, made entirely of ground cauliflower but used as a rice substitute.

Whn I paid his family a visit, he presented me with riced cauliflower sauteed with a mix of onions and peppers. The dish was tasty enough for me to want to play with this new ingredient myself.

Like most people who have enjoyed riced cauliflower, my brother bought his from Trader Joe's, which offers packages of riced cauliflower in both refrigerated and frozen versions. I asked one worker which she one she recommended, and she said she preferred the refrigerated for its "fresher taste"; a co-worker overheard our conversation and said he liked the convenience of the frozen. In practice, both products are frequently out of stock, so I buy whatever is available.

You could also rice your own cauliflower, but this taste test gave higher marks to the Trader Joe's riced cauliflower than homemade - true for both the hand grated and grated by food processor. If you do go the homemade route, testing by Epicurious suggests that both hand grating and food processing work, with machine grating winning the battle of convenience. 

I tried both kinds of Trader Joe's riced cauliflower on their own the first couple of times - when I get my hands on a nice head of cauliflower I'm more likely to think roasting than pulverizing - before my mind wander to my favorite seasoning ingredient, soy sauce. If riced cauliflower was good, riced cauliflower with soy sauce was better. And if riced cauliflower with soy sauce was better, the addition of garlic or onion, the category I call "some kind of allium" (with members such as chives and garlic scapes alongside the heads-of-clan) would be better still. The additions were as tasty as I thought they'd be.

And then my gaze fell upon a package of mushrooms.

These were regular supermarket button mushrooms, full of both umami and water, not porcini dust. I loved the idea of infusing the bland rice with the flavor of mushrooms, but getting the proportions would be important.

I could have diced the mushrooms and sauteed them with the allium, then added the rice. I opted for another route: shredding.

My food processor made very quick work of the mushrooms. In the photo above, the mushrooms are nicely quartered, but I discovered I could skip this nicety and rip the head from the stem and shove the mushroom down the feeder tube. I could pile them into a four-'shoom collision and push them along to the blade. The process was oddly amusing and over quickly. 

I also shredded the allium - whatever I had around. Garlic, onion, sometimes a combo. The recipe made good use of whatever was lying around.

I think of button mushrooms as largely white, but when shredded, the dark brown gills are revealed to be a distinctive color as well.

I dumped the mushroom-allium mixture into a large skillet and added the rice and about 2 Tablespoons soy sauce and some water  - perhaps 3 Tablespoons. 

You could work more carefully - finely diced onion first, then the mushrooms, then the rice, then the soy sauce and water - but the dish cooks very quickly so the sequence is not very important. I recommend cooking the mushroom rice over medium heat and stirring it frequently. The mushrooms and the rice will extrude water, but depending on the cooking temperature, you might have to add a little water to prevent scorching. I tend to use the threat of scorching to add another swig of soy sauce. Your mushroom rice should be ready in 5-10 minutes.

What can you do with the finished product? Serve it in a bowl, or for fancy people, in individual ramekins. If you're feeling playful, make your guests guess what the hell they're eating. I predict very few people will know.

Cauliflower rice plays nicely with real rice, too. I was content to let the brown bastmati from Kalustyan's mingle on the fork, but there's no reason (other than taste, dietary restrictions, not having both on hand, etc.) not to mix the two into a super-casserole.

Mushroom riced cauliflower also lends itself to serving as stuffing. I happened to have collard greens as a side, so Stuffed Collard Greens were born. If I had planned ahead, I could have used some of those toothpicks with colorful frills to show I meant business. Keep all of these options in mind for your fancy Thanksgiving dinner.

So this Thanksgiving, when vegetarian or no-carb camps aren't the only factions, and anecdote and media report families refusing to eat together because of political divisions, it's nice to have an unexpected base of agreement that can please all sides. And for that, we could all be thankful.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

When Mediocre Produce Happens to Good People - Zucchini

Who knew that Rob Zombie  and his wife Sherri Moon were vegans?

Once I absorbed that information, I was stuck by another odd tidbit from an interview the Zombies gave to Vegan Health & Fitness magazine. When asked for a favorite vegan dish, Sherri suggested grilled zucchini.

Zucchini? Really? This is your vegan proselytizing food? 

Well, perhaps some tender young zucchini, fresh from the market, might win some converts. 

But what about the oversize, bloated, woody and seedy zucchini baseball bats that you find this time of year?

For those less prepossessing specimens, simple grilling is not enough. You'll need a cooking method that prevents rubbery texture and waterlogged flavor. 

I recommend this one: grating the zucchini then sauteing it with mint and a representative of the garlic/onion family.

First, the grating & sauteing. This is the best way to deal with the soggy mess that autumn zucchinis can become. Break down those cell walls! Liberate that liquid (to destroy it). The one-two punch of grating and sauteing really concentrates the zucchini's flavor.

Next, the seasoning. Any kind of allium could work - finely chopped onions, garlic, scallions, red onion, chives, garlic scapes, etc. 

Just make sure it's very finely diced. And I finally found something worthwhile to do with the fresh mint I've been growing in my garden, much more dignified work than serving as a soon-to-be-discarded garnish. You'll need a handful of mint, coarsely chopped. Also key, and omitted at your own peril: a pinch or two of salt.

The recipe is simple, with just a few ingredients, but omit any and you will be denied the glory of the dish. The recipe is also very forgiving. The zucchini can be limp and none too fresh. Spare only the rotten and moldy. The allium can be a stray clove or two of garlic, or the leftover quarter of an onion you used for sandwiches. We should all be so tolerant!

Zucchini with Some-Kind-of-Allium & Mint:


2 or 3 zucchini or summer squash, blossom and stem ends removed, grated

Garlic cloves, garlic scape blossoms, onion, chives, shallot or other member of the allium family, very finely diced to yield 1 Tablespoon (garlic family) - 2 Tablespoons (onion family), or more to taste 

Handful of fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried mint
1/4 teaspoon salt


Spray a cast iron skillet or other frying pan with a film of oil, or more oil if desired. Saute onions or garlic for 30-50 seconds over medium heat, then add the grated zucchini and salt. Mix thoroughly to avoid scorching, adding a small amount of water if necessary.

Continue stirring, pressing down on zucchini mixture to release liquid. If using dried mint, add it now.

After a few minutes, zucchini will extrude liquid. If using fresh mint, add it now. Raise the flame under the pan to encourage the released liquid to evaporate. (You may be astonished by just how much liquid escapes - I know I was - but you'll be glad you let that flavor-dilutor go.) The whole cooking time should take you around 5 minutes.

Once the zucchini mixture appears dry, give it a final stir and serve.

Use the zucchini as a side dish or as a topping for bruschetta. I also find that the combination of flavorful zucchini and crunchy radish, sliced thin, brings out the best in both components. 

I've become fond enough of this dish to think of it as the best way to serve zucchini -- even when it isn't mediocre.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Happy Halloween!

Here is this year's selection of Halloween produce art! 

I can't help but notice some trends. Spooky non-pumpkin squashes are getting in on the action as snakes and goblins.  Some artists seem less inspired by Halloween than by the novel medium of pumpkin. And it turns out carving isn't even essential if the setting is eerie enough.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Long live the new fig tree

I have seldom been accused of excess optimism, but how else could you explain my purchase of another fig tree?

To recap: when I was a lass growing up in the Rockaways, my next-door neighbors had a lush fig tree whose bounty spread to our side of the fence. They were happy -- and we were even happier -- to share. As an adult with an apartment and a balcony, I succumbed to a somewhat improbable hope to grow a fig tree on my balcony. I bought a sapling from the Union Square Greenmarket, kept my hopes up and watched the tree grow taller and sprout more leaves. My little tree didn't bear fruit, but that was fine. I still harbored hope. At the end of the season, I carefully wrapped it in the loving manner of New York's Italian and Greek immigrants who tended to their fig trees in Williamsburg and Astoria circa 1920.

But no matter, Fig Tree I bit the dust, a victim of a frost that massacred many other tender young fig trees. My little guy seemed more vulnerable as a balcony baby, but my sister's fig trees, one a native Brooklynite and the other a companion to mine from the Greenmarket. both planted in in an actual garden, also died.

In a recent column that featured fig recipes, the New York Times food writer Melissa Clark wrote that her figs were store-bought, because her own fig tree had been felled by frost. Oh no! I remember an earlier description of an enviably hardy and fecund tree, which she had raised from its beginnings as a scrawny specimen.

And if the legendary Clark fig tree had succumbed, shouldn't I pull the plug on my own fig tree dreams?

Despite my misgivings, a small fig tree caught my eye in the Greenmarket this summer. It had two small figlets growing at its base. "I'm guaranteed at least two figs even if this tree dies too," I thought, justifying the purchase. Once relocated in a nice big planter, the fruit promptly dried up and fell off the tree. 

The tree itself, however, continue to grow. It's now double the height and triple the width it was at the time of purchase.  I'm already planning its super-duper winter wardrobe to guard against murderous frost.

There are no signs of fruit, but I am vowing to take the long-term perspective. Once fig trees start producing fruit, they can bear fruit for decades.

Besides, succulent fruit aren't fig trees only offerings. It turns out that the leaves, with their "fruity flavor and distinct coconut aroma" have many fans too. You can find recipes for hunks of protein grilled and baked in fig leaves and Tuscan potato torta baked on fig leavesFig leaf ice cream. (And fig leaf ice cream, Hungarian style.) Fig leaves used as a seasoning ingredient for preserves or liqueurs. Fig leaf dolmas and koubebia (the dolma's Cypriot counterpart) made with fig leaves. Rice simmered with a fig leaf on top won this accolade:
Brilliant. It was one of those things that had never occurred to me. Added to a pot of simmering grains, the fig leaf imparts a subtle flavor and perfume to the entire pot. The best way I can describe it - a bit green, and a bit nutty. But more like raw pepitas than walnuts. And coconut, but green coconut. There are some of those notes as well.

And if none of these ideas inspire, Halloween is around the corner. Maybe some of my friends would want to go as Adam and Eve.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Greetings from a Parisian market!

Paris is a fantasy food destination, and its many markets are both a key source of fresh ingredients and a stamping ground for the country’s finest producers. Your shopping visit could be a lazy Sunday wander on your way to brunch, a dedicated food shopping expedition or a gastronomic tour – but no matter what, the sights and smells will make you hungry long before you’re back in the kitchen.
                               --- The Best Paris Food Markets, Time Out magazine

My lucky friend Bethanne has hit the road again, this time visiting her friends Marie and Diego in Paris. I was delighted to receive a large cache of market pictures from her. Amazingly, I didn’t even have to beseech her before her trip! (I probably have beseeched my friends enough to last several lifetimes, much less several trips, so they are now self-policing.)

Some of Paris’ markets originated over 1,000 years ago. The Saxe-Breteuil market, featured in Bethanne’s photos, offers "the city's most chic produce,” according to Time Out.  The market is held twice a week, Thursdays and Saturdays, from 7 am - 2:30 pm, on the Avenue de Saxe in the 7th arrondissement in the Left Bank. 

I chanced upon a website Paris Perfect (one of those glamorous apartment rental websites that makes you moan softly as you read about various lovely neighborhoods with cobbled streets and charming shops), which described the market in these appropriately drool-inducing terms:
Among the many markets in Paris, the Saxe-Breteuil market is often regarded as the most beautiful. There is no more lovely setting, as it is framed by the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Farmers and producers come from all over France to sell their specialties and this market is known for its high-quality organic foods.

I immediately searched for sales of the wonderful Charentais melon, which is sometimes known as "French melon" in gourmet stores. (Charentais melons are basically very fragrant and sweet cantaloupes, and apparently contain some super-duper antioxidant, superoxide dismutase, for those folks who prefer to ingest their produce in pill form.) No disappointments here! 

Also expected and found: tributes to luscious end-of-summer tomatoes.

A little more surprising: the inclusion of fruits that are obviously not locally grown – pineapples, kiwis, mangos, bananas - which wouldn’t fly at a typical US farmers’ market.

The Union Square Greenmarket, for example, touts its credentials as “producer-only market with rigorous “grow-your-own” standards… selling directly to customers means farmers, fishers and their children can keep doing what they love and feeding growing cities.” Farmers markets in Washington DC have similar rules

But upon further thought, I realized that the French covered market (marché couvert) isn’t like these Johnny-come-lately markets. The Union Square Greenmarket began in 1976, not the 10th century --- when many of the Parisian markets began. Consequently, the French markets are much more fully integrated into daily life and provide a wider range of essential range of essential foodstuffs to their customers.

And if, for whatever strange personal quirk, you’re not interested in the produce – well, it’s still Paris. Rumor has it there is other beauty to behold.