Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Midwestern Visitor to the Big Apple

Enough with the New York apple-centrism! Time to give the Midwest some love.

Recently I noticed Samascott Orchards  selling a new apple at the Union Square Greenmarket. The apple was a rosy red beauty with a focus-grouped name, EverCrisp. A handwritten sign claimed a parentage of Fuji and Honeycrisp. Was this new apple destined for greatness? Despite my dubious record of produce prognistication, I had to investigate.



The EverCrisp is a strikingly attractive apple, but apples can't get by on looks alone. (The Red Delicious apple, for example, the prototypical childhood illustration of an apple, isn't spared ridicule because of its looks; one apple preservationist denounced "this disgusting, red, beautiful fruit" in an article celebrating the end of its "evil reign.") The name "EverCrisp" suggested a commitment to marketing that some apples haven't earned yet. Samascott, for example, sells plenty of apples with names like NY 428, NY 460, NY 543 and NY 652, but it's hard to cross over into the big time with a New York State Agricultural Experiment Station robo-name.

The "Crisp" in EverCrisp's name not only piggybacks off of Honeycrisp apple - an extremely popular and profitable apple variety - but also emphasizes the attribute that makes the Honeycrisp so popular: its texture. Crispness is king! The goal is to have cells that shatter, noisily and juicily. As a New Yorker article called Building a Better Apple noted,
Although a crisp texture is the single most prized quality in an apple - even more desirable than taste, according to one study - crispness is more a matter of acoustics than of mouthfeel. Vibrations pass along the lower jaw and set the cochlea trembling. Biting into a really crisp apple, one feels, in the words of Edward Bunyard, the author of "The Anatomy of Dessert," "a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days."

Some additional research helped me understand the appeal of the "Ever" portion of the name. As one Midwestern seller touts, "Sweet and ultra-firm EverCrisp can sit on your counter for weeks without losing crispness!"



Hardiness is the foundation of EverCrisp, which was developed by a fairly unlikely breeder, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, a collective of apple growers grappling with the unique climate challenges of their region, whose late frosts kill off apples. [Washington and New York, the "powerhouse apple states" have breeding programs that focus on late blooming apples that benefit from proximity to large bodies of water (the Pacific Ocean and Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes) that warm up slowly in the spring; ditto New Jersey, which similarly benefits from the Atlantic Ocean. The University of Minnesota's apple breeding program, creator of Honeycrisp and other successful apples like the Zestar! and SweeTango, was designed to address brutal winter weather. The Ohio State agricultural program that developed the Melrose apple no longer develops apples.] With no formal university program for landlocked Ohio/Indiana apple farmers, the growers dedicated themselves to breeding and promoting disease-resistant, late blooming apples that, in their own words, "naturally escape fire blight, scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust and late spring freezes thus reducing the use of fungicides, antibiotics, and orchard heating."

I appreciated the irony of this modest Midwesterner, bred to overcome the obstacle of not having New York's maritime apple advantage, being grown in New York. So far I've only seen EverCrisps at Samascott's stand, but if all goes well other farmers will follow, as will Whole Foods and other grocers. 

EverCrisp is a very welcome addition to Samscott's arsenal, especially this winter, when some of my other favorites (Macoun, Ashmead's Kernel, Golden Russet) seem to be having a difficult or truncated season. The EverCrisp is as crisp and juicy as billed, with a good apple flavor (for those of us, however unusually, prize flavor over texture), reminiscent of Fuji but without Fuji's occasional powdery and metallic notes. Its attendance at the Samascott stand has been very iffy, showing up sporadically. Twice I've been told the EverCrisp season was over, then been pleasantly surprised by a repeat appearance.

Nevertheless, Samascott demonstrated its commitment to the EverCrisp by investing in a new, formal sign.


Can the EverCrisp "remain crisp for many months"? I'm not planning any testing at my house. That's not the fate of produce (not even longevity champs like red cabbage) in my clutches. But I am encouraged by the sentiment.

Equally encouraging: EverCrisp's modest price. For fans of the notoriously expensive Honeycrisp, and similarly expensive (albeit less popular) SweeTango, EverCrisp offers a similarly tasty, crunchy apple but without the price bite.

That's another Midwestern approach that is always welcome in the Big Apple.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Greetings from Cartagena de Indias, Columbia!

Brrr....baby, it's cold out! You know what that means: time for some virtual Southern Hemisphere travel!

These sunny produce photos come to us from my friend Bethanne, who needed some beach time and sun. She headed to Cartagena, on Columbia's Caribbean coast.

Cartagena comes highly recommended. Here's a description from Lonely Planet
Catagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13 km of centuries-old colonial stone walls.
What could be better? Oh yeah, some great produce! An Epicurious article, 12 Things to Eat in Cartagena, had this to say:
We're only slightly exaggerating when we say you can spend all your time in Cartagena sampling the mind-blowing selection of sweet, sour, acidic and just plain fascinating found-only-in-Columbia fruits. Try as much fruit as you can, whether it be a salad from one for the brightly dressed Palenqueras setting up shop in the shady Plaza de la Inquisicion; a street-vendor-sold fruit like uchiva or anon, with its pineconey exterior and sweet and custardy interior; or a morning juice of nispero or maracuya (passion fruit).


What are these fruits? My Brazilian friends introduced me to South American sweet-tart and best-for-juices sour fruits, and Columbia seems to have plenty of them too. Thanks to two helpful guides, Columbian Fruit: My Mission to Try Them All and Fruits in Colombia, I learned more about the Columbia's produce offerings. Uchiva, for example, is also known as the Cape Gooseberry and looks like a cherry tomato covered by a husk. Yes, very similar to the husk cherries I've bought at farmers' markets in New York! Anon is another member of the lizardy and delicious armored band of fruits that include the cherimoya and guanabana.  Maracuya is one of a zillion kinds of passion fruit found in Columbia. Some other kinds are granadilla, gulupa and curuba. 

Bethanne thoughtfully included a picture of some passion fruit from the fruit vendor. Passion fruit have many seeds encased in goopy capsules, hence the appeal of using them for juices or jams. 



(My South American friends have tended to be huge passion fruit enthusiasts, but I haven't really enjoyed the passion fruit I've bought at NYC fruit stands. Fair enough: I am withholding judgment until I get closer to the source. I sure wouldn't want someone to form an opinion before trying a NYC bagel.) 

Another fruit mentioned in the Epicurious article, and included prominently in the second photo and photo below: nispero. Nispero, and the similar but larger fruit, zapote, look a bit potato-like, with a peel the color of a dirty paper bag. Zapotes are tropical fruits I first encountered in Asia, and nisperos looks like kid siblings, sized more like kiwis than spuds. Zapotes taste like sweet potatoes, albeit with an astringent kick. I assume nisperos are in the same family of taste. I wouldn't have thought to juice them, but it looks like the juicers are always running in Columbia, so every fruit has juice potential. (I am not knocking this innovation, similar to the thinking that gave the world deep fried Mars bars.)

Not everything for sale is that exotic, of course. Bananas, papayas, avocado and tamarind are prominently offered.


So are grapes, oranges, apples and pears.


Avocados!


Tomatoes, carrots, peppers, pineapples, cucumbers and limes.



I think those rosy fruits in front next to the zapotes are mangoes. I'm hoping the blackish purple fruit next to them are something exotic, but they might be plums. And where are the shoppers?


At least one shopper has found something. Well, produce isn't the only agricultural product available. 


And after all, no one can live on jugo de maracuya alone.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Bananas

New Yorkers of a certain vintage fondly remember the commercials of Crazy Eddie, a discount electronics store, whose tagline was "His prices are insaaane!" Perhaps the most memorable were those touting Christmas in August! discounts with a compelling manic energy. 

These bananas have inspired August in Christmastime.


Bananas aren’t my favorite fruit, but I am a favorite customer of many fruit vendors. How better to express appreciation for my regular $20 purchases than by throwing in a couple of maybe-not-so-saleable-in-the-first-place bananas? I'm happy to share good bananas with friends, then take the baddies home. When no banana enthusiasts spoke up, I've taken all of them all home. Transport isn't kind to bananas. Even those that start out in decent shape can acquire quite a bit of dinging en route home.


I had gotten into the habit of peeling the dubious bananas, cutting off the worst bits - braver souls probably use them too, unflinchingly - dicing what remained and putting the banana survivors in Ziplock bags.


And off to the frozen graveyard they inevitably go.


  .
For years I would freeze overripe bananas, or parts of damaged bananas, with the thought that one day I’d use them for banana bread. Truth be told, I had a somewhat spotty history as a banana bread baker: a couple of nice breads for brunches and gifts, offset by the time I agreed to make a loaf for the birthday of a much-disliked boss. (I noticed that I had 2 bananas instead of the 4 required by the recipe, but couldn't be arsed to buy another 2. I went ahead with my banana-deficient banana bread and fielded compliments for the freshly baked, “Um, is that honey cake?” the next day. Co-workers eating free, sweet food: not the most discerning diners on earth.)

The banana bags, which in time would grow brown and covered with ice crystals, piled up in the freezer. “Does this banana spark joy?” I’d ask myself would fall on me during a rummaging. Of course it didn’t – and it was competing for primo real estate in the freezer. So out it would go, to compost or garbage. To avoid playing this game in perpetuity, I’d try to rebuff the generous gifts of my vendor friends but my refusals were never successful.

Hot weather - a distant memory now in December - inspired a new idea when I pondered the banana gift conundrum: coffee smoothies. Most commercial coffee smoothies are way too sweet for my taste (for good reason - this one has 105 grams of sugar, plus 8 grams of fat and 610 calories) so I liked the idea of experimenting with making my own. Besides, I needed a use for my colony of frozen bananas.

I knew that using brewed coffee or even coffee syrup would be a problem - it'd make the smoothie too watery. I needed concentrated coffee flavor! A trip to a 99-cents store in Brighton Beach, where I spied this hitherto unsung brand, "Pampa," gave me the solution.


Instant coffee, a mainstay of my childhood utterly forgotten in my coffee-centric adulthood, would give me the flavor bomb I needed.


Coffee Smoothies


Making good smoothies is a craft, not a science. Fiddle around with proportions based upon your taste and what you have on hand. Here is my basic working recipe.

Ingredients:

2 bananas, peeled, diced and frozen (dicing before freezing makes preparation easier on the blade of your food processor)
1/2 cup milk, or more to taste (skim, lowfat, whole, nondairy = all good)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 - 2 Tablespoons instant coffee

Place the bananas, milk and cinnamon in a food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Pulse until creamy.




Add instant coffee and pulse until mixed thoroughly. (Yes, you could add the coffee at the same as the other ingredients, but I find this way more fun.)


Serve in a tall glass. Garnish with a dusting of more coffee. I can't recommend this final touch enough - the crunchy, intense coffee crystals are a great counterpoint to the creaminess of the smoothie.




I've become sufficiently enchanted with this coffee smoothie to think of it as bananas' best use, even when the bananas are perfect and in no need of rehab.


After all, a creamy and icy smoothie can be delightful - even with ice on the ground.

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.


Read more : http://www.ehow.com/facts_5769226_apple-pear_.html?ref=Track2&utm_source=ask



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:

Ingredients:

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

Directions: 

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.

Boo!