Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thank you, Morley Safer, for this plausible winter garden salad

Remember tomatoes? Sweet, luscious tomatoes, perfect additions to every kind of salad and utterly fantastic on their own? Drippy, summery tomatoes?

Nah, neither do I.

It's about 2 degrees outside. I skidded on black ice this morning. More snow is expected this weekend.

Time for some salad!

Most people don't crave the kind of tomato that bounce undented when it falls of the truck - in other words, the kind of tomato that is available this kind of year. But they still may want the refreshment of a salad. 

Needless to say, "salad" doesn't mean a fatty assemblage of pasta or potatoes featuring my least favorite food substance, mayonnaise. I mean a real salad, a gathering of garden vegetables. But what are the plausible options for a decent garden salad when the supermarket selections can be so dismal?

Here comes Morley Safer to save the day! 

To most people, Morley Safer is known as a veteran correspondent of 60 Minutes, the long-running television show. Some may remember the old joke, "What kind of name is Morley? Is it the opposite of Leslie?" Some people also know that Morley Safer was a journalist in Southeast Asia. But to me, he's mainly known for a salad. 

This recipe for "Spicy Cucumber Salad" appeared in the New York Times about 20 years ago. I recall making it right away. Nowadays we wouldn't think of this salad as being "spicy" - compare it, say, with the deceptively innocuous-looking salads you get in Ethiopian restaurants, with killer chili pepper slices hidden among the lettuce leaves - but evidently 20 years ago in gringo-land, only a crusty journalist with Southeast Asian wartime credentials would know about cilantro and red pepper flakes. It may not be spicy, but it sure is tasty.

What I love most about the recipe is that its ingredients are readily accessible in regular supermarkets throughout the year: cucumbers, carrots and cilantro. Yes, cucumbers from the farmers' market would taste better, but this recipe is quite forgiving. Since the cucumbers are halved and seeded, and then coated with a flavorful dressing, even relatively tasteless, bloated and woody cucumbers can be used. You can use a rainbow of carrots if you'd like, or just a bunch in a cello bag. This recipe will elevate the humble.

Morley Safer's Spicy Cucumber Salad

2 large cucumbers, peeled 
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and sliced into julienne strips (about 2 cups) 
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves 

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup rice vinegar 
3 tablespoons sugar 


1/3 cup vinaigrette
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce, or more to taste
optional: dash of soy sauce

Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber into thin slices. Combine cucumbers, onion, carrots and cilantro in a bowl. Mix the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl, then pour to coat salad. Chill before serving.

Yes, you may place what we vegetarians euphemistically call "a hunk of protein" on this salad for a one dish meal. Or just serve it as a refreshing side dish. You may even crave it in the summer months - when the pickings are much better than they are in February.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Big Apple

My beloved Union Square Greenmarket may be my muse, but I have eyes for other other cities' markets as well. I recently wrote about Washington DC's markets, and perhaps I'll write about Philadelphia's, especially the historic Reading Terminal Market (although, let's be honest, it's the pretzels, not the produce, that make Reading Terminal one of my favorite destinations in Philadelphia). But none of these East Coast cities had farmers' markets with the Wow Factor of San Francisco's.

Yes, I'll admit it. San Francisco's markets were better than anything New York had to offer. Hard to argue with California soil. One item of produce, however, helped me hang on to my New York chauvinism: the apples. San Francisco's markets had neither the quality nor the range of New York's. Even as I oohed and ah'd about dozens of other fruits and vegetables, I actually felt a little homesick - for The Big Apple.

We New Yorkers certainly take our apples seriously here. But - as I found out when researching the nickname for this blog post - the term "The Big Apple" has nothing to do with apples. Instead, the name dates from the 1920's, and derives from the slang use of the word "apple" to mean racetracks and their prizes. NYC, as a big city, had a Big Apple. The term was later popularized by jazz musicians and made official by a New York City tourism campaign.

Of course, the tourism wouldn't have been very effective if the apples weren't so good!

My father-in-law, who hails from area of Vynohradiv in Eastern Europe, has spoken longingly of the range of apples he recalls from his youth. "You'd go to the market and you'd see 16, 20 types!" he recalled. This inspired me to conduct my own census of the apples I've seen over the past couple of months at the Union Square Market, from early ripening varieties like Ginger Gold to still-lookin'-good-in-winter stalwarts like Granny Smith. The count to date: 60. Yes, 60 varieties! (Take that, Heinz!)

Not only is the list long, it turns out that the apples' family trees are the stuff of soap operas or long Russian novels. The supermarket staple Golden Delicious (perhaps my least favorite apple on this list), for example, is  descended from the Grimes Golden and is a parent, along with the York Imperial, of the Nittany apple. (Not surprisingly, botanists at Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions football team and many other Nittany-named associations, were the midwives of this variety.) This one offspring was plainly not enough: Golden Delicious is also a parent of Jonagold, Cameo, Pinova, Arlet, Mutsu, Pink Lady and Elstar (just to name varieties that were available at the Greenmarket).

Other varieties have intriguing histories. 

Newtown Pippins grew along Newtown Creek, an estuary between Queens and Brooklyn, in the early 1700s (well before - nearly 300 years - the area was designated a Superfund site). Later the variety was exported to Great Britain, where it gained a fan in Queen Victoria. Nowadays Martinelli's boasts of using Newtown Pippin apples in its juice. 

Wikipedia's entry for Newtown Pippin identify it as a parent of Ginger Gold, a late summer apple (that might be the official apple of Brighton Beach); but the Wikipedia entry for Ginger Gold, meanwhile, identifies its parents as "Golden Delicious, Albemarle Pippin and some other unknown variety," with no mention of good ol' Newtown. Oooh, intrigue!

The range of apples sold at the Greenmarket includes both traditional "heirloom" varieties - basically, varieties like McIntosh that were discovered a long time ago as seedlings, then cultivated - and hybrids that are the result of formal apple breeding programs, such as the one run by New York's Agricultural Experiment Station (AES), an affiliate of Cornell University.

When you go to the market and see a new variety like the AES's Ruby Frost, it's easy to assume that breeding programs are a recent invention, but the AES was established in the 19th century! One of its apples, Cortland, was was introduced 100 years ago. My beloved Macoun, a cross of McIntosh and Jersey Black (an otherwise little-known variety), is another AES product, as is Empire, a McIntosh/Red Delicious hybrid.

Nowadays one of the big breeding success stories is Honeycrisp. produced at the University of Minnesota. I had already known that Honeycrisps are usually the most expensive apples in the market, and that they have their own dedicated website; in the course of writing this blog entry, I also learned the very relevant fact that the University of Minnesota patented the Honeycrisp and reaped $10 million in royalties from the apple.   Honeycrisp's parents are Macoun and Honeygold, itself a hybrid of Golden Delicious and Haralson, a notably hardy variety named after the former head of the University of Minnesota apple breeding program.

What's the point of all this tinkering?

We're a country that loves new 'n' improved, so perhaps it's a self-explanatory phenomenon. 

From this fascinating - at least to a fruit nut like me -presentation about apple breeding, I learned that breeders especially fiddle with sweetness, hardiness, crunch, vitamin content, disease and insect resistance, and marketability. A crisper, hardier version of a Macoun would be a commercial success - especially if it could be shipped all over the place.  As the reviewers on this apple info site note, folks who live outside of Macoun territory bemoan their loss! But for me, Honeycrisp isn't an improvement over Macoun. It certainly tastes sweeter - the great restaurant critic Robert Sietsema claims that Honeycrisps have been bred to "have a sugar level way higher than other apples" - in keeping with the modern tendency to manipulate fruits to make them sweeter. A British zoo, for example, recently banned feeding monkeys bananas bred for human consumption, likening them to cake - a far cry from bananas found in the wild. 

But to be fair, the manipulation of the sweetness levels of apples has always been an integral part of the crop's history. Apples, a portrait of the fruit by Frank Browning, describes apples' transformation from super-sour "spitters" (fruit so sour you'd spit them out), to the contemporary sweet stuff. The apples we enjoy in New York and throughout the US have their origins in Eurasia and made their way to the US via the notoriously underskilled European settler-farmers. Or, in other words, "The earliest [European] settlers came ill-equipped in almost all aspects of agriculture, save for apples."

These apples were used for cider and medicinal purposes, but increasingly for food as well, which meant cultivating an ever-sweetened apple. As Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire.

The quest to sweeten the typically bitter fruit ignited a grower's frenzy in the 19th century, bringing fame to hundreds of quintessentially American personalities such as the Red Delicious, the Baldwin and the Jonathan. Each iteration of the apple reflected the young country's understanding of itself as a diverse nation of transplants, a new breed of individuals digging new roots into their adoptive soil.

What about heirlooms? Here's how Robert Sietsema described one heirloom variety, Golden Russets, in this ode
While modern botanists seek to make apples sweeter, shapelier, and more beautifully colored, heirlooms stand in sharp contrast. They're often gnarled and brown, and have hard textures, with flavors that run more to nuts and hard liquor than table sugar and mass-produced perfumes. 
The Golden Russet is a good example. Bite into it and pecans and maple syrup fill your mouth, and even, if you concentrate really hard, maybe the soil that the apple grew in on a sunny hillside near Rome, New York, or somewhere in the Hudson Valley. "Russet" refers to the brown splotches on the apple, producing a certain leatheriness to the skin. The flesh is hard; and hence it takes some chewing to eat, and resounds with a sharp "crack" when you bite into it. The flavor is delicate, too, the opposite of the newfangled Honeycrisp, which is a current farmers' market favorite that displays the modern objectives of hybridization.

Dunno if I'd go that far. I happen to love Golden Russets. Of all the heirlooms I've sampled, they are no doubt the most exotic, the apples that have the least in common with the big, juicy sudsy Washington apples that dominate supermarket shelves. (Washington State is the US's big producer. New York is a distant second. Sour grapes (apples?) on my part? No, my bad experiences with Washington apples is no doubt based upon the combination of varieties I'm not crazy about in the first place (Golden and Red Delicious) and their selection for cross-continental shipping. Maybe I need to taste some apples at Seattle's Pike Place Market to end my grumbling.) 

Golden Russets are noticeably light for their size. Normally I choose fruit that are heavy for their size, but that's not really an option for this apple. They're drier and harder than most apples. Their skin is rough and leathery. Perhaps my powers of concentration are less than Sietsema's, but I've never tasted pecan or maple or terroir when eating a Golden Russet. I have, on the other hand, enjoyed a rich apple flavor, tarter and more complex than that of most apples.  

After all this apple research and tasting, what did I learn?

  • There is sometimes more variety within an apple type than outside it -not a great shocker when you realize how closely related some varieties are.
  • Not all heirlooms are great, and not all hybrids are bad news. Prime examples: Golden Delicious is considered an heirloom and Macouns are the results of manipulated breeding. The flip side, of course, is true as well. "Building a better apple" might result in an apple that's better for shipping or resisting blight, not for better taste.
  • If you don't like the parents (apple), there's a good chance you won't like the kid (apple) much either. Likewise, if you don't like the kid (apple), you probably won't like the parent (apple) either. For me, not liking Grimes Golden wasn't a shocker since I dislike Golden Delicious. Likewise, since I'm no fan of Golden Delicious nor of Jonathan, it was no surprised to be unimpressed by their offspring, Jonagold. Ditto for the Red Delicious/Jonathan hybrid Melrose, a product of the Ohio State horticulture program. Some vendors thoughtfully mention the parentage in their signs, which saves on having to carry around genealogy index cards. But be open to possibilities. For example, I like Fuji, whose parentage includes Red Delicious (with Ralls Genet), one of my thumbs-down varieties, and I like Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady), although Golden Delicious is one of its parents. Maybe you need two disliked parents to really strike out.
  • Don't judge an apple by its name. Spigold, Honeygold, etc. have Golden Delicious as a parent; Ginger Gold and Golden Russet do not. Ask, read up or throw caution to the wind and simply sample.
  • Beware of any apple described as having a "subtle" or "pear-like" taste. While I like actual pears just fine, "pearlike" and "subtle" are code words for "no taste" and "lacks flavor." (See: CandyCrisp, with its sign above.) 
  • I prefer apple slices to biting into a whole apple. Best of all: quartered with the seeds and encasement removed.
  • Taste tests are fun! Apples not only have different skin colors, they have different flesh colors, too. Also, different scents and different textures. Explore, and enjoy! 60 varieties can keep you busy for a good long time.

Were there really 60 varieties? Yes, indeed!

1.   Macoun  
2.   McIntosh 
3.   Pinova (aka Sonata)
4.   Red Delicious 
5.   Golden Delicious (aka Yellow Delicious)
6.   Gold Rush
7.   Mutsu (aka Crispin)
8.   Ida Red
9.   Cripps Pink aka Pink Lady
10.  Granny Smith 
11.  Fuji
12.  Golden Russet
13.  Calville Blanc
14.  Ruby Frost
15.  Cox's Orange Pippin
16.  Winesap 
17.  Stayman's Winesap 
18.  Arlet
19.  Cortland 
20.  Rome
21.  Jonathan
22.  Jonagold
23.  Northern Spy
24.  Redspy
25.  Ginger gold
26.  Gala
27.  Braeburn
28.  Spartan
29.  Empire 
30.  Chippers

31.  Monroe
32.  Pendu Plat
33.  Melrose 
34.  Ambrosia
35.  Honeycrisp 
36.  Nittany York
37.  Keepsake
38.  Candy Crisp
39.  Black Twig
40.  Winter Banana
41.  Eve's Delight
42. Suncrisp
42. Golden Supreme
43. Cameo
44. Spencer
45. Smokehouse
46. Grimes Golden 
47. Molly Delicious
48. York
49. Snow Sweet
50. Greening 
51. Lady
52. Akane 
53. Ashmead's Kernel 
54. Fortune 
55. Elstar 
56. Newtown Pippin
57. Baldwin
58. Spigold
59. NY 428
60. NY 460

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Greetings from Agadir, Morocco!

Greetings from Agadir, Morocco!

Alas, the greetings are not my own but rather from a reader, Anita, who sent me some photos from sunny North Africa. (I'm in NYC, where a snowstorm has closed the Union Square Market, chased away even the hardiest of street vendors and even emptied the supermarket shelves of their dubious produce options.)

Anita writes,
I'm on the last bit of a tour of Morocco that includes Casablanca, Marrakesh and Essaouira. I thought you'd appreciate this picture of the central market in Agadir, a city on the Atlantic Coast. This market was actually featured on our tour!

Many people know Moroccan cuisine for its tajinescouscous and cinnamon - infused dishes. Despite some desertification, Morocco is also a big producer of produce - melons, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, olives, figs, dates, and, most prominently of all, citrus fruits. Just about the only Moroccan fruit I've ever seen for sale in the U.S. are Royal Moroc clementines.

Anita writes, 

I saw avocados; nice-looking strawberries and raspberries; gorgeous, huge persimmons; small bananas; squash and eggplant; big navel oranges. Clementines are ubiquitous.

Perhaps Morocco's best known agricultural product is argan oil, which has been used for culinary and cosmetic purposes within Morocco for millennia. More recently, it's become very popular all over the world as an anti-oxidant powerhouse hair and skin conditioner. Argan trees, native to Morocco, grow fruits that contain kernels (not unlike cashew apples) that are harvested for oil.  Argan oil's popularity has been good for the environment - the hardy trees are fighters against desertification - and for women's economic development in Morocco, since much of the argan oil industry is based upon women's cooperatives

Argan fruit extremely popular with another group, whom Anita photographed on the road between Essaouira and Casablanca chowing down in the trees: goats. 

It's nice to know that even these famously non-discerning eaters occasionally eat right!

Thanks, Anita, for sharing your trip with me. I feel warmer already.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Winter Melon One Pot Wonder

I'll admit it - even after years of shopping for produce in Chinatown, I still encounter mysterious vegetables that intimidate me. Winter melon is a good example. 

I guessed from its looks that winter melon was a kind of summer squash, but I was at a loss thereafter. Good thing my friend Thom, a Hong Kong native, is there to break it down for me!

She said, "Winter melon is like a cross-bred hairy cucumber and zucchini. The seeds inside are edible, so you don't have to pick them out. Winter melon is heartier than a cucumber, and it's popular in many Chinese stews and soups."

Thom likes to feature winter melon in this recipe. As she notes, it can be a side dish, or with the simple addition of mung bean vermicelli (aka cellophane noodles), a main course. Best of all, "It's a one pot wonder!"


  • 1 winter melon
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed, or 2-3 slices of ginger
  • 1/2 cup broth (Note: since this is a vegetarian blog, I will suggest vegetable broth)
  • Dash of soy sauce
  • Optional: mung bean vermicelli, softened for 1 minute in boiling water then immediately drained

1) Cut off both ends of the winter melon and peel off the skin to get rid of the fuzz.

2) Cut the winter melon in sections, then cut it into wedges. Keep the size of the wedges consistent so that the winter melon will cook evenly.


3) Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large pot. Add the garlic and let it infuse the oil, making sure that the garlic does not burn. If you do not like garlic, you may use a few slices of ginger as a substitute.

4) Add the wedges of winter melon and a pinch of salt, stirring to ensure that all of the winter  melon is coated with the seasoned oil.

5) Add 1/2 cup broth and let simmer for about 5-7 minutes. Note: If you plan to add vermicelli to your dish, add extra broth at this point. The noodles, which you will add after the winter melon is cooked, will soak up any excess liquid in the pot. Cook until the winter melon turns translucent. 

6) Add soy sauce, perhaps adding a bit more to taste. If you're cooking winter melon as a side dish, you're done! 

7) If you're making the winter melon with noodles, add the drained vermicelli to the winter melon, turn off the fire and keep the lid on for 2 minutes. Try to keep the noodles on one side of the pot.

Enjoy! A great start for winter and the new year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

What the heck is that? Water Chestnuts

As an inveterate Chinatown produce shopper, I frequently see vegetables for sale that are totally mysterious to me. For years I noticed displays of mud-encrusted brown bulbs, but had no idea what they were. Since I had plenty of other items available to amuse me, I paid the bulbs little attention and busied myself with many other produce delights.

But when I was recently shopping at a favorite Chinatown stand (making a typical purchase of broccoli, mushrooms and kabocha), I overheard another customer asking for a pound of water chestnuts.  The vendor obliged by scooping up some of the papery bulbs. This long-term mystery was solved!

Water chestnuts? Sure, intellectually I understood that water chestnuts were not born boiled and canned, but I never realized they were were so readily available fresh.

I hadn't actually given them much thought at all. I had only had water chestnuts in Chinese dishes such as stir-fries, in which they distinguished themselves as the crunchy-but-otherwise-bland element. I assumed they also showed up in pot stickers and other finely chopped vegetable conglomerations, mainly because no vegetable escapes such associations.

But I was curious enough to buy a pound of water chestnuts myself and begin exploring this familiar yet strange new vegetable.

I learned that water chestnuts aren't actually bulbs; they're corms, similar to bulbs, but made up of solid tissue, whereas bulbs are made up of layers of quasi-leaves. Water chestnuts grow in marshes, and - as I had seen over the years - they're generally sold covered with a layer of dirt. They resemble tree chestnuts (actual nuts, not vegetables) somewhat, hence the name, but the two are entirely unrelated.

I gave my water chestnuts a good soak and scrubbing.

The next step: removal of the papery skin. Forget the vegetable peeler:  water chestnuts are small, round and tricky, so you'll need a sharp paring knife. Cut off both ends, then pare off the skin. 

 You'll be left with a lot of debris and small white nubs. 

What to do with these nubs?

One obvious idea was to use the fresh water chestnuts in the manner of canned: sliced in a stir-fry;  chopped finely for pot stickers; or wrapped with smoky tempeh in a vegetarian version of the only non-Chinese water chestnut recipe I know, bacon wrapped around water chestnuts, covered in a ketchup sauce and baked.

But all of them seemed a waste after the hassle of peeling them. Besides, I was curious about how fresh water chestnuts differed from their canned cousins, and sauces would obscure the distinctions.

I decided to try the water chestnuts as is. First bite: crunchy! Sweet, with a mild apple + coconut taste, then a hint of something more vegetal, maybe broccoli stem. After seeing my prep work, my friend Charlotte was sufficiently game to try one. She said, "The taste is changing a little while I eat it. It tastes a little like an apple, but then it tastes different, maybe more like a vegetable by the time you swallow." I thought so too.

It wasn't love at first bite, but I kept eating these little nubs, partly to figure out their elusive taste, partly to figure out if I liked them, and partly because they made a satisfying crunch. I had thought, "Good for crudites," and "Try it with a dip," but before I knew it, there weren't any water chestnuts left to try.

Perhaps another trip to Chinatown is in order...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Autumn at the Union Square Market

Cold weather is a mixed bag for the produce enthusiast. There are definite limits to my locavore enthusiasm when the temperature drops. Still, it's hard for me to remain unmoved by the glorious autumn displays at the Union Square Farmers' Market.

Here are some highlights: