Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Mystery of a Plum

Sure, many kinds of fruits and vegetables come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. It's hard to go to the Greenmarket and not marvel at the variety of peppers, for example. But I think I know what to expect with peppers: small peppers are generally hot (how hot, of course can vary enormously) and green peppers taste more vegetal than red ones.

Plums, on the other hand, continue to stump me.

I understand a few varieties, especially the Empress and Prune - the oval ones with purple skins and greenish-brown flesh. When I was young, the sightings of prune plums always made me sad, since they signified the end of summer and the imminent return to school. Nowadays they appear in July, breaking the poignant end-of-summer-freedom association. I'm not a big fan of these plums, but I appreciate their intelligible code: hard plums will be tart, soft ones sweeter, and their flesh predictable along the green-brown spectrum.

But "black" or "red" plums are another story. Will their flesh be pink-red -- or beige? Plums with similar purple-black skin can look nothing alike when cut.

Markets that meticulously describe their produce often still use these crude color terms to identify their plums.

I turned to the International Federation for Produce Standards PLU (Produce Look Up) Codes on the plums' stickers for salvation.

Not much help! The code 4040, for example, just signifies "Large Black Plum."
This "includes Ambra, Black Beaut, Prima Black, Blackamber, Black Torch, Catalina, Challenger, Black Diamond, Friar, Royal Diamond, Black Knight, Freedom, Black Flame, Howard Sun and Angeleno." This range means that the plums labeled #4040, the most common number I've seen, can vary from squat to heart-shaped and can have interior flesh of pretty much any possible plum color: dark magenta, beige, pale pink. More importantly, #4040 plums can have any degree of flavor. Likewise, Code 4042 indicates "Large Red Plum," with another wide range of varieties (including ones I actually am familiar with, like Santa Rosa and Fortune).

Three of the stickers featured a cute dinosaur, which is a trademark of Dinosaur Brand pluots. A few years ago NPR claimed that pluots, the plum-apricot hybrids, "now make up a majority of the plum market. In fact, you might be eating a pluot or an aprium [another plum-apricot hybrid] and not even know it." Based upon my sticker survey, with many more #4040s than any other number, that isn't true. Using the International Federation for Produce Standards PLU website tells you about as little about the pluots as it does for plums: PLU 3278 is "Mottled Pluot" whereas 3609 is "CA Red Pluot." But since pluots and plumcots, pluots' plummier cousins, are relatively recent hybrids, breeders are interested in their distinctions. I wouldn't mind a chart for plums as comprehensive as this handy-dandy one for pluots!

Of course, many markets sell farm fresh plums, free from any PLU sticker adornment. The Union Square Greenmarket leans heavily toward plums round and small, like Shiro and Methley, which they sometimes call Sugar Plums. Of course, "sugar plums" usually refers to a confection of dried fruit, ground almonds and lots of sugar -- adding to the confusion that surrounds plums.

So what to do with the mystery of the plum? I'd say relax and enjoy its unpredictability. And with that, I'll salute the plum, in all of its diverse beauty and mystery.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What the heck is that? Pumpkin scapes

It was the word "scapes" that first lured me.

To me, the word "scapes" refers to garlic scapes, the stalks and flower buds of a
garlic plant. I have very positive feelings about these scapes.

Farmers used to cut off garlic scapes to direct the plant's energy toward its bulb. (Then one day a farmer realized that the scapes tasted good, really good, and a new vegetable was born.) These pumpkin greens probably had a different path - they were the edible vines of a pumpkin plant, so why not use them? After all, pumpkins are the vegetable equivalent of tail-to-snout pigs, with everything usable from fruit to seeds to decoration

Still, I had never heard of eating pumpkin scapes/greens, so I directed a few questions to the seller at the farmers' market.

"Why are these called scapes, and not pumpkin greens?" I asked. "Good question," he said.

"What do they taste like?" I asked. "Ha!" He replied. "Another good question! Someone told me they taste like pumpkins, like beet greens taste like beets. But I really don't know. You should buy them and tell me."

"What should I do with them?" I asked. He smiled and shook his head, then said, "I really don't know, but you can't go wrong-" I joined in here, " chopping them up sautéing them with garlic."

The seller might not have been a master salesman, but he had a point about the preparation. What the heck: I bought them.

The pumpkin scapes had something going for them besides their name. I'm a sucker for the tendrils that vines shoot out as friendship-feelers to anchor themselves. I'm always entertained when I see a vine plant lasso in another plant, a piece of patio furniture or anything else in its path - a gate, a broom handle - to support its own stability. Sometimes the shoots are long and aimless, the bid for "friendship" unsuccessful; other ones are kinked and doubled upon themselves for extra strength.

Won't you be my neighbor?

The bunch of pumpkin scapes had no shortage of charming shoots. Some reminded me of old style telephone cords.

It turns out that pumpkin greens are popular throughout Africa, South Asia and the South Pacific. In Kenya, a traditional mashed potato dish called mukimo can feature chopped pumpkin greens. The Malaysian dish masak lemak labu uses both pumpkin flesh and pumpkin greens cooked in coconut milk. Guam, Bangladesh, India, Zimbabwe - all have cuisines that make good use of pumpkin shoots, sometimes simply boiled with salt, but more often seasoned with locally celebrated ingredients such as peanut butter (Africa) or mustard seeds and turmeric (South Asia) - and, of course, onions and garlic. A test nibble on some leaves revealed why no one seemed to advocate for use in salads: many of the pumpkin scapes had a weird, prickly texture. Their taste was mild, unlike the bitterness of many greens, and I suspected I could get away with a quick cooking time.

I planned a garlic saute, but I decided to celebrate the full "scapeness" of these pumpkin greens by enlisting garlic scapes rather than garlic bulbs in the dish.

I gently sauteed some finely chopped garlic scapes in a large skillet, then added the pumpkin scapes, which I had chopped very coarsely.

The cooking time was indeed brief - 5 minutes or so. The resulting dish wasn't photogenic or fit for company - dig those long stems! - but it wasn't intended to be. This experience was a getting-to-know you, focused mainly on taste. 

And taste was in rather short supply. The pumpkin scapes had a vegetal, mild flavor. They lacked the bitterness of greens like broccoli rape and collards, which some might see as a plus, but they also lacked the oomph and personality of these greens. There was nothing to highlight or temper. I definitely did not discern any pumpkin flavor. 

The pumpkin scapes' flavor void was filled by the garlic scapes' ebullient personality. This was not at all an unhappy outcome, but I could have enjoyed the rich, garlicky flavor without the pumpkin scapes as well.

So by all means use the pumpkin greens if you have a pumpkin patch growing anyway. Add the greens to soups and stews for added nutrition and color. Just don't expect this supporting player to become a star.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Black Velvet

Give that person a raise! 

Whoever came up with the name "Black Velvet apricots" is a marketing genius. 

The name alone makes me never want to eat a humdrum regular ol' apricot again.

Even the more mundane shortened name of "black apricot" can work some marketing magic on me --  but then again, I am a New Yorker, with the black wardrobe to prove it. "Black velvet apricot" sets the stage for the velvety smooth skin, and a smooth jazz vibe from the fruit, a very different vibe from the sunshiney, "Have a nice day" orange-yellow of regular apricots. Granted BV apricots aren't actually black, but red cabbage isn't red, either. 

It turns out - perhaps even more impressively - black velvet apricots are also not actually apricots. They're a hybrid of apricots and plums. See what I mean about marketing?

Apricots and plums have a long and complicated history of crossing. Luther Burbank, the great 19th century botanist who, like Helen Keller and Florence Nightingale, was a regular star of 5th grade book reports back in my day, developed a 50/50 plum/apricot hybrid, later known as a plumcot.  Plumcots, in turn, have been crossed with plums to give birth to the pluot. (Pluots have become so ubiquitous that according to one account, "Pluots make up the majority of the plum market." And the pluot's place in the national consciousness has been certified with this New Yorker cartoon, which declared the pluot to be "an apricot that self-identifies as a plum.")

But unlike these half-plum and mostly-plum hybrids, black velvet apricots are apriums, an apricot/plum offspring that is mostly apricot.

As we saw with apple hybrids, the goal of breeding programs is to harness the best qualities of each parent - especially those qualities that yielded the holy trinity of a sweeter, juicier and hardier fruit. BV apricots are definitely juicier and sweeter. From what I've experienced, they're also less likely than standard apricots to be mushy or mealy.  I liked these traits, and I could see why shippers and vendors would like them too. I did notice that the the regular apricot had a pit that released much more easily, whereas the black velvet apricot's flesh clung to the pit, just like a plum. 

Not a big deal, but I'm sure a breeder is working on this "problem" right now.

But I'm not ready to write apricots off entirely. A day after buying a bunch of BV apricots, my head was turned by this display of the old-fashioned kind.

Look at that blush, I thought. The apricots were practically glowing with health. We don't need fancy tinkering, they seemed to say. We're fine the way we are.

I bought a couple. The apricot was firm and tasted both sweet and tangy. It wasn't as juicy as the black velvet apricot, but neither are a lot of fruits I enjoy. I enjoyed the indentation left behind when the pit easily slipped away. Liking one fruit doesn't mean forsaking all others, I thought. Sometimes a tweak gives you an appreciation of both the new thing and the original.

Besides, soon enough busy breeding programs will make the pluot old hat. Personally, I'm waiting for a cherry-plum hybrid.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Herbal Essence

If you have a windowsill, you can have a produce garden. If you have a balcony or a backyard, there's no excuse not to. Just do it. Plant an herb garden. Plant it now.

It might be too late to plant from seeds, but it's not too late to plant seedlings. This pot of basil, as it happens, is a mixture: new seedlings from the Union Square Greenmarket; old, nearly dead little plants I bought last season from the Greenmarket; and plants that I raised from a bag of basil seeds. But never mind the basil's origins; think instead about the convenience of having such a bumper crop. Basil for sauce, salads and garnish on demand, minus the hassle of shopping. Even better, you take only what you need from the plant, so you're spared the guilt pangs of watching the leftover half of a too-big bunch turn to slime in the fridge.

I'm growing dill, too. The dill is a bit less prolific, so I've been using it for garnishes or tiny bursts of flavor. I still need to buy dill when I want to make pickles or cucumber salad. Still, the dill justifies its keep with its lovely, lacy yellow seed head, a fireworks version of Queen Anne's Lace. 

I'm getting full mileage from the cilantro, oregano and chives below. I particularly love the earthy oregano, especially with luscious summer tomatoes. I've also just planted parsley and mint, two other workhorses.

I find a few yanks of fresh herbs add incalculable flavor - and class! - to salads and other dishes. 

I'll be thinking about this simple chopped salad in the winter doldrums.

I grow my herbs for their flavor punch, but they are also part of the world of alternative medicine. I was dimly aware that many favorite herbs are nutritional powerhouses but hadn't pondered why. As the food journalist Jo Robinson observed in her important essay, "Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food," herbs are powerful because they - unlike many popular fruits and vegetables - have largely been ignored by the formal and informal breeding programs that try to make our produce sweeter and hardier, and consequently their nutritional composition has largely stayed intact. 

As she writes, 
Herbs are wild plants incognito. We’ve long valued them for their intense flavors and aroma, which is why they’ve not been given a flavor makeover. Because we’ve left them well enough alone, their phytonutrient content has remained intact...Herbs bring back missing phytonutrients and a touch of wild flavor as well.

So capture that wildness - at least just enough to fit enough in a small pot or two, in the smiling face of the sun.

Monday, July 13, 2015

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Cherries

 You'll just have to take my word for it. These cherries are disgusting.

Sure they look dank, but perhaps you've mistakenly concluded that they are simply moist, or simply freshly washed. In fact they are bruised, rubbery and taste like mud.

Cherries are my favorite fruit, and their season is so fleeting. Maybe that's why I keep buying bags of them - and so often get disappointed. This season's crop so far has been mostly a dud. Huge, glossy Washington State imports and local Union Square Greenmarket crops have been equally tasteless.

No offense, you had no taste. 
My irrational optimism causes me to buy a pound of cherries, even after sampling a not-so-goody -- hey, at least it's better than yesterday's sample! -- leaving me with a pile of cherries that I am loathe to toss out but also reluctant to eat.

Today I found two separate bags in my fridge of has-been cherries. No, make them never-was cherries. But what to do with them?

After sampling one test-case cherry from each bag, I was ready to toss the whole lot. But fate intervened: I had some grapes to roast. Why not try roasting the cherries as well?

Roasting cherries is a bit more taxing than roasting grapes, mainly because cherries have pits, rather tenaciously attached pits. I've never had much call for cherry pitters (my typical pitting method consists of eating the cherry and spitting out the pit) so I don't have a cherry pitter on hand. I pitted these cherries the old-fashioned way: by clawing out the pits with well-scrubbed fingernails. This process left my fingernails a lovely blue-magenta and gave me a second round in which to screen the cherries. Not everyone graduated. 

I preheat the oven to 400 degrees and put foil on a cookie sheet. I spread the pitted cherries on the sheet and let them roast for about 25 minutes.

The roasting softened the cherries and let their juices caramelize.

I removed the cherries from the oven and let them cool until they were ready to use.

Use for what? you may ask. They looked just like frozen cherries that have been defrosted, and they tasted like them too. So I would suggest using them however you might use frozen Bing cherries: in fruit smoothies, cooked with oatmeal, or baked in desserts. Cherry sauce. Cherry clafouti. Sweet cherry pie. Cherry frozen yogurt. Frozen cherry daiquiris.  Any Bing cherry recipe, basically, other than raw and eaten out of hand. 

These cherries were simply too far gone for that: I'm a savant, not a miracle worker. But some days, transforming trash-worthy produce into something usable seems like miracle enough.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What the heck is that? Jicama

Not every fruit or vegetable is a showstopper. Not every kind of produce is gorgeous or dramatic or just plain weird.

Some produce items have a quiet kind of charm. Jicama is in that camp.

It's hard to image a less attention-grabbing look than jicama's. Jicamas are squat and dun-colored, and like potatoes, jicamas are tubers. Native to Mexico, the jicama was brought by Spanish colonialism to the Philippines and from there, elsewhere in Asia.

What accounts for the multi-continental spread of this modest root vegetable? Perhaps this very modesty is the secret source of the jicama's popularity.

First, as a root vegetable, jicama keeps very well. Dry, temperate storage (not refrigeration) can keep the jicama usable for months - the essence of low maintenance.

In taste, too, the jicama is modest. It tastes like a very mild, starchy apple, with a light, refreshing quality that lends well to many uses. It can be eaten raw or included in a stir-fry -- with never a fear that it will overpower a star ingredient, spice or condiment.

Jicamas are often found showcasing the great Mexican flavors of lime and hot peppers (or its kissing cousin, hot sauce). Sounds good to me!

To make a modest and refreshing Mexican snack, peel the jicama. Rid of its tough outer skin, the jicama bears a striking resemblance to a water chestnut - albeit an extraordinarily large water chestnut.

"Preparation" thereafter is extremely simple: just cut into thick matchsticks.

Some salt, some lime and your choice: hot sauce or finely diced jalapeno.

That's it? Really? Okay, you could put it on a plate.

Or add it to a platter of crudites, for a color pop against the red bell pepper and baby carrots. Julienne it and add to salads. Serve it with creamy dip or hot refried beans. Jicama can be counted on to bring a refreshing, mild taste and satisfying crunch to whatever you have in mind.

You can cook with jicama, too. Any dish that could incorporate water chestnuts is fair game for jicama - soups, stir fry, pot stickers. Jicama is a good team player.

I'm sure jicama wouldn't mind this praise - even if it would never go out of its way to draw attention to itself.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What the heck is that? Rhubarb

The world of produce has some odd stuff. I’ve already written about some of the super-weird. This season brings a less exotic, but still-really-strange item: rhubarb.

Rhubarb’s leaves contain oxalic acid, which can be toxic. The edible bit is the stalk, like celery, but it’s most frequently used in pies. Is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable? The word “stalk” should indicate a vegetable, but a New York court  decided in 1947 that rhubarb was a fruit – at least for the purpose of regulation. (This was good news for rhubarb enthusiasts: the tariffs on imported fruits were lower than they were for vegetables.)

And rhubarb is tart. Hoo boy, is it tart. Antioxidant anthocyanins, which also give the rosy color and tart taste to sour cherries and peek-a-boo apples, are responsible. Prepare yourself to add a lot of sweetener in preparing rhubarb.

Typically, rhubarb is mostly green with a nice flush of crimson. Some varieties are also just pale green, which supposedly doesn’t affect the taste much, since even the reddest rhubarb is tart. This pile, for example, at the Union Square Greenmarket contained many stalks that were particularly green and celery-like in their appearance.


Of course, an adjoining pile of strawberries was green, too - perfect for folks with jaded palates who are tired of boring ripe strawberries.

But what to do with the rhubarb? You can make pies, cakes, sweet breads and slushies. Folks who like cutting the flavor of fatty meat with an acidic fruit love to use rhubarb in this way. Another customer at the Greenmarket bought over 7 pounds of rhubarb for this very purpose. "Use rhubarb for anything you'd use an orange or cranberry sauce," he advised.

As for me, every year when rhubarb season rolls in, I ponder ambitious plans and end up with the same thing: mess o'rhubarb. You can call it a compote, or a chunky summer soup. I find it bracing and refreshing. Do I need to add that it's really, really easy to make?

First, wash rhubarb well and trim the stalks' ends. If your rhubarb stalk has leaves, cut those killers off. (You'd need to eat about 11 pounds of leaves for a fatal result, but still.) Cut the rhubarb into a large dice. The size doesn't matter much - it's going to collapse very soon.

Next, add some sweetener - and some sweet fruit. (Raisins and dates are the most densely sweet potential additions; other fruits may vary in their contributions of sweetness.) How much sweetener? A good rule of thumb is about a tablespoon of sugar, or its equivalent, for every couple of stalks. You can always add more sweetener when you're done cooking if you think more is in order.

Here I've added strawberries and red grapes to keep the great crimson color.

Add a bit of water - a couple of tablespoons for a compote or stew consistency, more if you want soup or syrup. The rhubarb and other fruit will actually give off quite a bit of liquid. Let your pot come to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer.

And how long should you cook your rhubarb concoction? Around 5 - 6 minutes if you want the rhubarb to keep its shape.

Not what's going on here! I don't mind the disintegration.

And here it is, the mess o'rhubarb. Not the most photogenic dish I've ever made, but I enjoyed it.

I could cut back on the water and cooking time and call the final product compote.

I could add some chopped onion, vinegar and raisins to the compote recipe and call it rhubarb chutney.  

Next time I could even toss the rhubarb with a little sweetener, put it in a glass baking dish and bake it for a half hour or so at 350.

But for now I'll enjoy this odd "fruit" and the simple and messy method of cooking it that has become a tradition.