Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What the heck is that? Muscadine

Suddenly they are everywhere.  Well, maybe not everywhere, but at a lot of places.  

Could muscadines, aka swamp grapes, be the Next Big Produce Thing?

Here are some muscadines at a produce stand in the South Bronx. 

Surrounded by fruit stand mainstays like bananas, strawberries and oranges, and Latino neighborhood mainstays like papayas, plantains and two kinds of avocados (one of which, the large tasteless green kind, labeled "Domin" for Dominican, perhaps a slander) were the muscadines: small purplish fruit, a bit smaller and rounder than Damson or Italian Prune plums in the primo real estate of the center square. 

I have also been seeing muscadines all over Chinatown. Here they are at one stand in Chinatown, next to longans, grapes and starfruit.

 And here they are at Sarah's Fruit Stand in Union Square.

I have a poor track record of produce prognostication - that is, guessing which obscure produce items will cross over. I wouldn't have plucked muscadines off the chorus line.

Muscadines are grapes that are native to the United States, specifically its hot, swampy South, where most grape varieties would plead uncle. They are a fruit with many nicknames, including "America's first grape." Sir Walter Raleigh described muscadines in glowing terms way back in 1584 when he encountered them growing along the Outer Banks in 1584. Southerners have been making jellies, sauces and - most importantly - wine, ever since.

Muscadines grow in clusters, but the clusters are much looser than the tight bunches of other grapes. 

They are harvested one by one, not in bunches. And they are big by grape standards, so it's easy to mistake them for small plums, as you would for the fruit in the opening photo.

Photo credit: grapeseedextract.com
Muscadines, like most deeply colored fruit, have impressive antioxidant levels, and are especially high in resveratrol and ellagic acid. M.D. Journals (special Carolinas edition, natch) says, "A single 1 cup serving of muscadine grapes would more than double the average person's antioxidant intake." This could explain some of the fruit's newfound popularity. In the South, there is also a certain folk celebration of the fruit in the South, especially for old-time muscadine hull pies and wine.

On the "con" side, however, are two inescapable attributes: seeds and thick skins. In this country, seeds are generally considered a nuisance by most fruit consumers (and the corporations that predict and shape consumers' behavior). When was the last time you saw watermelon with seeds, for example?

Thick skin is a different matter: even though I have no quarrel with baked potato and kabocha peels, I am annoyed by the muscadines' thick skins. (I'm pretty tolerant of seeds). But muscadine lovers work around the problem.

Ozzy of Sarah's fruit stand is one enthusiast. "I love them!" he said. His technique is to bite into the muscadine and suck out the pulp, which he then discards. He doesn't mind the seeds, but as he says, "I'm Turkish, so I don't think fruit shouldn't have seeds."

He throws out the skins, but as muscadines grow in popularity, I imagine a secondary market for the discarded skins. Added to smoothies for the nutritional power? Harnessed for agricultural disease resistance? Organic clothing dye? Touted addition to makeup and shampoos?

Or maybe it's just time to bake up some extra muscadine hull pie.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saudações de Portugal (Greetings from Portugal)

When my jetsetting friend Bethanne told me she was planning a trip to Portugal, I naturally demanded some photos of the markets.

"What are you looking for?" she asked. "What if they don't have anything that interesting, just the familiar things we have here?"

"I still want to know what they have and how they sell it," I replied. "Maybe they have huge displays of olives, or something that expresses the essence of the Portuguese way of life.

"I love produce markets!" I added enthusiastically, maybe too enthusiastically. I hoped I wasn't spitting as I talked, though even if I had been, it was a phone call and she would have been unscathed.

Whatever her misgivings, Bethanne is a good friend and she took some photos for me. Actually she took more than photos -- she took a hit for me (and the noble cause of produce nosiness), since the supermarket, a Pingo Doce supermarket in Campo Grande, told her to stop photographing.

This photos below show a nice assortment of melons, plums, regular and donut peaches, grapes, etc. There are also some interesting curiosities above the fruit, like the inflatable banana in the above the fresh fruit in the upper part of the photographs.

I wanted to learn more about Pingo Doce, which looks like a large Portuguese supermarket chain. I enjoyed checking out the stores' weekly circular - something your can't do with a roadside fruit stand or even a central market, however wonderful they are in other ways. From what I could see, fruits and vegetables seem to play a supporting role, as they would in a US circular; I was most struck by the centrality of fish (another supporting player in the circulars I'm most familiar with), and wine, which in NYC is mostly sold in wine stores. In NYC, probably the most famous Portuguese food is very tasty Portuguese bread, originating in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood and delivered all over the metropolitan area. Bread gets a lot of love in the motherland too, judging by the respectful amount of real estate devoted to in the circular.

I also enjoyed reading about the fruta e legumes in Portuguese, which is amusingly similar-but-different than Spanish. Carrots, "zanahoria" in Spanish, are "cenoura" in Portuguese. Onions, "cebolla" in Spanish, are "cebola" in Portuguese.  Oranges, "naranja" in Spanish, are "laranja" in Portuguese. And so on. I notice too that the word "importada" (imported) shows up in a few listings, suggesting that most of the stuff isn't imported, and that the names of maçãs (apples) are in English - Gala, Royal Gala, Starking and Golden. The "translate this page" button helped me learn Pingo Doce's philosophy regarding its produce: 
We are committed to flavor and sweetness. Meaning that define levels of minimum sugar content for each variety of fruit we put on sale.Here you will not find fruit that is not sweet. Do not forget: flavor and sweetness.
Bethanne basically agreed with this sentiment. She wrote, "I found the fruit to be sweeter than in the US. Some of the homegrown stuff gets very big - melons, lettuce and oranges, larger-sized that what you see sold in the US."

Thanks, Bethanne, for the photos and reporting. And thanks Pingo Doce for a new, tattoo-worthy creed for all fruits, fruit vendors and fruit customers:
Do not forget: flavor and sweetness.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What's a nice farmers market like you doing in a place like this?

The farmers market had some good stuff. 

Wonderful peaches, both yellow and white. Nectarines. Concord grapes. Apples. Tomatoes. Berries.

The vendors spoke Russian, not that surprising, given that Brighton Beach, New York's most Russian neighborhood, was only about a mile away. But the market's wares were less noteworthy than its location: near the boardwalk of Coney Island, an area more celebrated for freaks than leeks.

(And certainly the food item most emblematic of Coney Island - especially because Coney Island Whitefish isn't actually a food item - is a Nathan's Famous hot dog, still going strong after nearly 100 years.)

I came to Coney Island to watch Minor League baseball: the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the NY Mets, were battling their cross-Narrows rivals, the Staten Island Yankees. Wholesome, carefully arranged produce was just about the last thing I expected to encounter in front of the Cyclones' MCU Stadium.

Despite the typical stadium rules against bringing in food, the guard let me bring in my newly purchased produce. "We say no snacks, but I gotta admit you're not going to find fruit in there," he said, jerking a thumb toward the concession stands. Hot dogs and fries were as popular inside the stadium as they were just outside of it.
After the Cyclones lost to the Staten Island Yankees, we took in some of Coney Island's other attractions.

When I last went on the Cyclone. I felt lucky to have my teeth still in my head at the ride's end. But this old-school (circa 1927) rollercoaster has been joined by newer rides like the Thunderbolt, Sling ShotZenobie, and Soarin' Eagle, variations on the theme of dropping you from a high point really fast and probably shaking you upside down a couple of times for good measure. While we were watching the game we could see the Thunderbolt car making its way up on the track (and if you go to the game picture above, you can see the ant-like car beginning its vertical path upwards in the upper right-hand corner; the track's super-sharp descent immediately follows). More tellingly, we could follow its path by the passengers' screams, which we had no trouble hearing over the din of the game. (To get a sense of these rides, just click on the respective link for a virtual front row seat on each ride.) 

There were no shortage of screams as we strolled around the park, contemplating the long lines and dithering about whether to join them (maybe next time). I was impressed by the sighting of a White Castle tucked in among the rides. Who thought that the experience of being catapulted 150 feet in the air at 90 miles/hour, then twisted into a couple of somersaults, would be enhanced by a greasy burger? 

But to be fair even the lovely farmers market peaches wouldn't be very appealing then either. 


Friday, September 4, 2015

How to Pick a Good Cantaloupe

Yes, once again I'm taking a break from showcasing the oddball and  curious side of produce to offer, as my friend Karen said, "something useful, for a change." My only regret, of course, is that I can't offer this particular blog post in Odorama.

You might recall Odorama from the John Water's film Polyester.  The movie was enhanced by Smell-o-Vision cards that audience members were supposed to sniff at various times in story, to give them a deeper understanding of the movie. (This being a John Waters movie, unlike later family-friendly copycats like Spy Kids, which used "Aromavision," the scents included dirty sneakers and airplane glue.)

A Smell-0-Vision card would be useful to demonstrate the most important criterion in selecting a good cantaloupe: aroma.

A sweet, ripe cantaloupe will have a very pleasant, tropical, floral scent. Your nose can help you weed out cantaloupes with rot and mold - distinctive and unpleasant smells.

In the absence of Odorama, I suggest that you get into the habit of smelling cantaloupes that were sweet and luscious, and committing the smell to memory. Likewise, remember the smell of melon mold and remember it when you next hold your cantaloupe auditions.

You can also find visual clues to the cantaloupe's taste.

First, avoid cantaloupes with signs of withering, moldy patches or rot.

Next, look at the cantaloupe's underlying color below its netting. A creamy or orange color is good; greenish casts, especially if they are dark green, suggest underripeness.

Finally, check out the melon's stem end. An "innie" indentation means that the cantaloupe was ripe enough at the time of harvest to be pulled off its vine.

If the melon still has a bit of stem attached, it means that it had to be cut off before it was fully ripened.

As always, a fruit that is heavy for its side is likely to be ripe and juicy.

Choose a cantaloupe that is heavy for its size and has a floral aroma, creamy color, and an innie stem end, and you're likely to nab a good one!

After dealing with the mystery of the plum, my status as the Produce Savant needs this reassurance.

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, "...by 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.