Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Cult of the Sour Cherry

They're elusive. They're delicate. Their growing season is short. They make a brief appearance in select markets - I counted only a few sightings at the Union Square Greenmarket - and none at all at most gourmet stores. Consequently, their fans, an "almost cultlike following," in the words of the New York Times, have been known to head to farms to pick their own. My sister planned her her backyard garden with them in mind, and has reorganized and replanted repeatedly, hoping for some success.

Just what is about sour cherries that warrants such devotion?

"They are perfect," my sister said when I posed this question to her."Their shape and size are very pleasing. Their flavor is perfectly sweet and sour. Their texture is nice and light, not as dense as sweet cherries, although I like sweet cherries too. If only they weren't so hard to come by."

Sadly, my sister's sour cherry tree looks more like her fig tree than this lush beauty.

So it's off to the market.

For those who blinked and missed the Greenmarket's crop of sour cherries, a pilgrimage must be made to Brighton Beach. Forget hipster Brooklyn enclaves like Gowanus  and Red Hook that are making the "Brooklyn" brand an international shorthand for coolness. For produce lovers, this Russian area is Brooklyn's best neighborhood. This rule applies doubly for enthusiasts of produce that is popular with Eastern Europeans.

In case you're wondering if sour cherries fall into this category, take a look at this UN Food and Agricultural Organization chart (courtesy of Wikipedia) or a rival chart about sour cherry production embedded in this Power Point presentation.

RankCountrySour cherry production in Metric Tonnes

(For those Russians who can't cope with sour cherries' short season, there's always компот (compote). 

Sour cherries fall into two categories: the dark red morello, which have red flesh, and rosy red amarelle, which have pale flesh. (Compare the picture at the top of this blog post with the picture below.)  Montmorency cherries, an amarelle variety, are the most widely sold in the US.  

But how do sour cherries stack up against  "regular" Bing cherries? I bought some of each to find out.

As you can see from the pictures, sour cherries (on the left) are smaller and rounder and a little lighter in color. Their flesh is less dense than the Bing cherries' and their taste is - no surprise here - tangy and and a bit pucker-worthy, less uncomplicatedly sweet than the Bings' taste. Both kinds of cherries were very pleasing. In the interest of being thorough in my research, I ate all of both kinds.

Sour cherries have a different nutritional profile than sweet cherries. They have a little less sugar and fewer calories. Their tart taste is also associated with their high concentration of antioxidants. 

According to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, sour cherries have "the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food." A roundup of the health benefits of sour cherries by the National College of Natural Medicine is impressive: tumor reduction in parts of the gut; improved quality and duration of sleep (because of sour cherries' melatonin; decreased post-exercise muscle soreness and inflammation; and greater strength following exerciseChoose Cherries, the website of a trade group that promotes sour cherries, lists studies that link sour cherries to reduced risk of heart disease; reduced risk of stroke; reductions in the inflammation associated with arthritis and gout; and reductions in blood cholesterol and triglycerides. The American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry suggested that sour cherries might be helpful in lowering diabetic people's blood sugar levels and increasing insulin production, prompting the author of its announcement to write, "Perhaps George Washington wouldn't have chopped down his father's cherry tree if he knew what chemists now know."  

Of course, before there were chemists analyzing sour cherries' health benefits, there were chefs creating sour cherry delicacies: sour cherry soup (fondly recalled as a summertime treat by my Viennese neighbor Rose), kriek lambic beer, Persian sour cherry-saffron rice, Turkish nectars and syrups, and my husband's favorite dessert, cherry strudel. (He, like other Upper East Siders of a certain vintage, still mourns the loss of the great Mrs. Herbst but gains comfort in the existence of Andre's Cafe and European Bakery.)

And you needn't be from Eastern Europe or Western Asia to appreciate the culinary possibilities: the US has its own ode to sour cherries: cherry pie.

But when you're torn between fried cherry pie pockets and medicinal "superfood" tart cherry powder - a divide that nicely epitomizes our oftentimes crazy approach to food in this country - remember, there's a lovely fruit in there. 

And you don't have to be a cultist to enjoy it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Grow Your Own, Part 2

I don't have a backyard like my sister does, so my balcony garden is a strictly containers-only arrangement. In the past I've grown - I mean attempted to grow - interesting and ambitious stuff such as cantaloupes and raspberries. The raspberries did fine on their own, but the cantaloupes required pollination. This work is normally falls under the job description of a bee, but our balcony is on the 16th floor, where the flying insects are typically mosquitoes. The one and only time I saw a bee, it was interested only in the tiny flowers of a basil plant. "The cantaloupe flowers, you stupid bee! Go to the cantaloupe! What's your problem?" I shouted, jabbing my finger at the showy blossoms of our cantaloupe plant. Amazingly, the insults and crazed pointing didn't work. The bee ignored me and continued its engagement with the miniature basil buds. My husband ended up pollinating the cantaloupe blossoms with a paintbrush. The plant yielded netted one cantaloupe the size of a softball, thoroughly inedible.

This year I grew some sensible and very good stuff: very sweet cherry tomatoes, flavorful hot peppers and a range of herbs.

I've been pretty delighted with this year's garden. The basil in particular has been bountiful enough to share - the true pride of the summer gardener.

But there's no sense in getting cocky. There in the corner, is the fig tree, faithfully watered in its doomed container with odd bits of failed seed growth and an expired dill plant. 

That's okay. I grew up in a Mets fan family, a cult in which irrational optimism is given voice in the cheer: There's Always Next Year.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Sister's Garden

Over the weekend I paid a visit to my sister's garden. The fig trees look about the same. To use a euphemism, they look "dormant," though if it's any consolation, their dire situation is part of trend so widespread it prompted a New York Times article, "A Fig Tree Dies in Brooklyn, and Other Boroughs."

But my sister's other plantings look great.









Of course, even a successful gardener is entitled to a little envy. 

Despite my sister's best efforts, her sour cherry tree - planted in in homage to our grandmother's sour cherry tree in Far Rockaway, Queens - and because she really, really likes sour cherries - isn't doing so well. But unlike fig trees, cherry trees don't seem to be suffering from general blight this year. Check out this beauty, thriving on East 19th Street in Manhattan, that prompted a pang or two:

Evidently we're not alone in our admiration of this tree - its lowest branches were suspiciously free of fruit. (My grandmother's tree was popular with humans, birds and squirrels alike, though the humans were the most aggressive grazers, causing a disproportionate denuding of the lowest branches.) In case you're wondering, I'm innocent - at least of this particular crime.

What's growing in your garden?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Shroomin' in Tokyo (Guest blog post from Japan)

Location: New York City (Brooklyn and the Bronx, to be exact). Some heavy rains have resulted in a bumper crop of my favorite fungus.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo my friend Hiroko was also thinking about mushrooms - albeit more productively.

Here's her guest blog post: 

As an apartment dweller in Tokyo, words like "farming" and "harvesting" don't typically come very close to me. So when I found a pile of plastic wrapped logs labeled "Shiitake Log" at the fresh produce section of my local super market, I was really skeptical. They were sold 399 yen (around $4) a piece. Seriously? Hey, a pack of Shiitake Mushroom costs about $2.99! So why not giving it a try? Even if it fails, we have nothing to lose!

The idea of farming Shiitake was an instant hit with my 8 years old son. No pets are allowed in this building, but a pet Mushroom Log? YES! With enthusiasm, we opened the plastic wrapping, but we didn't find any instruction,  just a piece of hand-written memo that said, "Remove the wrap. Spray water. In a few days, Shiitake comes." Oh thank you very much!

My son did some research and said: "My fungus needs a high moisture level." He started to spritz water on the log, twice a day, as if it was an honorable job. And really, in two days.....voila! MUSHROOMS!

Whoa! Almost too much!

Tokyo is currently in its rainy season, which is called "Tsuyu" ("Plum Rain," the annual rainy season when plums are ripening), so along with my son's diligent spritzing, the Shiitake Log is getting plenty of moisture on our balcony. Did you know 90% of a Shiitake is water? 

The Shitakes are thriving, happily popping up. Harvesting has become my son's daily routine!

Harvesting mushrooms for dinner.

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grow Your Own

The determination some folks have to grow a lawn, despite challenging conditions - arid land, tiny plots - is so strong that it requires psychological insight. One compelling theory suggest that human beings possess a deep impulse to recreate the African savanna, the cradle of human existence, by cultivating a lawn.

Are my sister and I similarly driven by powerful forces in our pursuit of the Rockaways gardens or our youth?

Growing up, we lived in a house with a backyard. Our home was 9 blocks from the ocean, barely within the New York City limits. Our backyard had toads, roses, honeysuckle and best of all, a fig tree, courtesy of our next-door neighbors who had planted a tree right up against the lot line. Every summer would bring a bumper crop, with zero effort on our part. Our generous neighbors were happy to share the bounty - a very good thing, considering that most jurisdictions accept the legal theory that whoever's lot houses the tree trunk owns all the fruit as well. Thank you, Stern family!

Of course, I fantasized about having a similar agricultural experience on my Manhattan balcony. Last year I bought a small fig tree at the Union Square Greenmarket. It developed lush foliage but no fruit. I wrapped it like a mummy to withstand the winter's frost, and have been tending it it carefully since springtime. Here's how it's going so far: 

Sigh. The weed in the corner is obviously doing a lot better than the fig tree is. 

I'd blame the container the fig tree is in, but my sister's two fig plants - one from the Union Square Greenmarket and the other from a botanical center - aren't doing much better, and hers are in the ground in her garden.

A gardening guru told her not to worry; dead-looking fig trees were capable of rebounding in early summer and even bearing abundant fruit by summer's end.

In a an ode to Brooklyn's fig trees, the food writer Melissa Clark attested to this phenomenon, writing,

[I was told that] fig trees are forgiving; if they die in winter, they can come back from the roots and bear fruit. I can vouch for this. That first winter, I wrapped my fig tree in old blankets, giving it a bucket for a hat. In spring, I unwrapped the tree. Everything else in the garden flourished. The mint and lemon balm grew tall and fragrant. The roses budded. But the poor fig tree remained adamantly brown, and I was scared I had killed it. Finally, in June, I gave up hope and lopped off the branches to stake my tomatoes. Then in July, I noticed my tomato stakes were pushing out leaves, and the stump in the barrel had started to grow. Suddenly, instead of one fig tree, I had six. I kept the hardiest of the lot and gave the others away. Now, my tree is laden with darkening fruit, branches bending under the weight. Every year the yield increases. First I got 2 figs, then 5, then 20. Now it's too many to count.

So we keep watering and keep harboring hope. 

Meanwhile, the farmers in Union Square have gone into floral overdrive, taunting me a bit with their lush greenery.

One plant in particular continues to catch my eye.

So far I'm holding strong and just tending to the fig tree I have rather than buying a new one. Really, I have no reason to think a replacement plant would necessarily fare any better. 

Besides, if I want a hardy plant, I know what to grow - a plant chock full of Vitamin C and calcium and more beta-carotene than carrots

And on a 16th story balcony, feral cat pee shouldn't be much of an issue.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Watermelon

This is not a tale of the cunning redeployment of substandard produce - tasteless blueberrieswithered grapes or never-gonna-ripen pears.

Rather, this is the Curious Case of the Exploding Watermelon.

It's also a contender for My Most Disgusting Produce Story, poised to dethrone the current champion, the tale which begins with my college roommate Kumi preparing some crudites in a lidded box for her Japanese class's midyear party. In June, I discovered the box when I was clearing out our dorm room. I guessed that the orange liquified bits had begun their lives as carrots, the pale green ones, celery. As for the darker green ones - sugar snap peas? String beans? I was too too busy gagging to make it interesting with a wagering pool. (Kumi, safely back in California by then, naturally found the story hilarious. She still does.)

This new story begins with a nice watermelon that looked like this:

When I set it aside for 2 days, my worst fear was that it was under-ripe and wouldn't taste very good.

Clearly, my fears lacked imagination and ambition. When I went to cut it up last night, the watermelon looked like this:

"Gee, my watermelon looks like it's taking a swim in a lake that could catch on fire," I thought cheerfully. "But who would put viscous water in the bowl?"

The next thought was dawning horror.

I grabbed a doubled trash bags and dumped the bowl's contents into the bags.

Normally I a pretty committed composter, but at times like this I am grateful for my dishwasher and my building's trash chute (one of the delights of apartment living). 

If you have a delicate stomach, you might want to skip to the end of this blog post. The watermelon had become truly revolting. Its rind collapsed and the watermelon's insides came pouring out.

The liquid was everywhere, damaging the wood of the furniture the mat was on, wetting (but mercifully not causing lasting harm) a fancy lamp, and in generally making a colossal mess. 

"Wow, that looks like the scene of a crime!" a friend said when I showed him the pictures.

What happened here?

According to a blog post called "Why Do Watermelons Crack, Split and Explode?",

As soon as a fresh plant is removed from its host plant or reaches maturity, it begins to very slowly break down. Heat accelerates this process. 
As it breaks down, a colorless gas called acetylene forms inside the water melon. The gas is volatile and quite unstable while in gas form (which is why when it's used in scientific experiments it's usually used in liquid form.)
The gas will try its best to escape the water melon but as it slowly increases due to the rotting in the water melon, the pressure will continue to increase.
When the skin of the watermelon is no longer strong enough to hold the gas inside, it will explode, often spraying all nearby surfaces with rotten water melon. Sometimes a trip home from the shop in a warm car is the final catalyst required to create an explosion.

Despite the disgusting scene at my house, I feel we got off easy. Just Google a phrase like "exploding rotten watermelon" and you'll see videos with watermelon bits on the ceiling and comments about the worst smell in the world. My watermelon didn't stink and I didn't have to destroy the carpet and the floorboards underneath.

Because of this, I could be more tolerant. Don't we all explode at times? 

So even if this isn't a redemptive tale, at least it has a happy ending: watermelon and I are still friends. Now excuse me while I bite into this instant refreshment.

Friday, May 23, 2014

This Honeymoon Ain't Over

Last week I bought what I thought was cantaloupe. It certainly looked like a cantaloupe, with the characteristic netted pattern on its skin. The fruit stand's sign called it a cantaloupe. The fruit stand vendor called it a cantaloupe. 

But when I cut the cantaloupe open, I discovered a surprise: green flesh!

Cantaloupe? Cantaloupe with honeydew characteristics? I happened to have  a honeydew on hand, so I figured I'd compare the two melons.

Round one: Unopened, the two melons didn't have much in common beyond their shared shape. The honeydew was significantly larger and had smooth, pale green skin. The new melon looked like a cantaloupe, with the netted skin and peachy undertones. 

Round two: interior appearance. The slice of the new melon was pale green. The honeydew was a slightly darker pale green, and its rind was thicker.

Round three, the most important round as far as I was concerned: taste. In the interest of science, I decided to hold a blind taste test, using diced melon, closed eyes and a plate that I spun around a few times so I couldn't memorize locations. I jazzed it up with a wild card, some "traditional" cantaloupe I had bought previously. 

Results:  The honeydew was sweet and mellow. The new melon was also sweet, a little milder in flavor, and extremely juicy. The cantaloupe was mediocre. I pronounced a tie between the honeydew and the new melon. I banished the cantaloupe to a fruit salad, where it could rest on other fruits' laurels.

I love both cantaloupe and honeydew. To me, honeydews are more consistently good - I have found most honeydew melons that I've bought are at least pretty good - but I enjoy an outstanding cantaloupe more than I do an outstanding honeydew. Let's hedge some bets by eating them both!

But what kind of melon exactly was this green flesh cantaloupe?

Over the years, I've had orange flesh honeydews, which I have not liked as much as regular honeydews. They looked like regular honeydews from the outside, except sometimes they had an orange-y glow to their skins. Inside, they looked like cantaloupes, albeit with thicker rinds. The mix of characteristics of both melons makes sense, since orange flesh honeydews are in fact a hybrid of honeydew and cantaloupe melons.

I also recalled seeing melons labeled  "Honeylopes" at Washington DC's Dupont Circle farmers' market. These were more more or less the reverse of orange flesh honeydews - they wore their cantaloupe ancestry on the outside.

Was my new melon a honeyloupe? 

Another possibility: It could be a galia melon, a small, sweet, cantalope-from-the-outside, honeydew-inside melon that is not as widely available as I'd like it to be. Fairway, a New York market, describes the galia as a cantaloupe-honeydew hybrid; Wikipedia's description is a more circumspect:  a "hybrid melon originating from a cross between the green flesh melon cultivar 'Ha-Ogen' and the netted rind melon culitvar 'Krimka'." (Do the Fairway guys lose credibility points when they mispronounce "galia"? It's GAHL-ya, rhyming with dahlia, not gah-lee-yuh." To avoid these pronunciation pitfalls, you could always opt to call the galia melon a passport melon, or a sarda melon, two seldom-heard names for the same melon.) 

I noticed that my melon had a trademark sticker that read "Honeymoon." "Honey" as in honeydew? "Honeymoon" as the occasion of a romantic engagement between a honeydew and a cantaloupe? Perhaps no meaning at all, just an easy-to-remember name chosen after 10 better names were already trademarked?

I did some research on-line.

According to this press release, Honeymoon melons are "a new cantaloupe" introduced in 2014 by Fresh Quest, a Florida-based produce company. Some further research  - one bit of produce is never enough - on Fresh Quest's website, however, revealed the use of the magic word, "galia," or the puzzling variation, "galia-type." 

So yes, the Honeymoon is a galia. One mystery solved.

Another mystery, however, emerged. What does it mean to be a trademarked melon? 

According to its press release, Fresh Quest was planning to introduce other trademarked melons, and I noticed some cantaloupes with stickers bearing another trademark, "MAG." MAG turns out to be a trademark of the agribusiness giant Del Monte, which has "strict guidelines for growing, harvesting, packing and transporting MAG melons...to ensure a high quality product. Melons must also meet a set of standards in terms of appearance, texture and taste in order to be marketed under the MAG melon name."

My recent foray into the world of apple breeding opened my eyes to the complicated world of produce cultivation and marketing. Interestingly enough, it turns out that like apples, melons began their journey as somewhat unpreposessing wild fruit, and modern breeding programs have  focused on making them ever-sweeter and hardier. As the website Fresh Food Central notes, 

It is almost certain that the melons grown then were not the ones we know now; the sweet, aromatic melons we eat were not around back then, and were probably more similar to the cucumber (and were indeed classified alongside cucumbers), and were really not that appetising, and in fact, unripe melons back then were noted to cause vomiting and nausea. 

On behalf of all melon enthusiasts, I'd like to say, Thank you, melon cultivators, for all your hard work since then!

My research also turned up information about a less formal breeding program that resulted in a cantaloupe - honeydew cross.  The program at Rachel's Tiny Farm : inadvertently planting the honeydew and cantaloupe really close together. Result: a honeydew with a surprise - orange flesh - and a taste "like a vanilla sugar cookie." 

Be on the lookout for OrangeVanillaSugarCookie (TM) honeydews (with large stickers, to fit that cumbersome name), coming soon to a market near you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Slime Factor

Is okra the new "it" vegetable?

For the first time, okra is making frequent appearances on New York's produce carts - following the star-making trail of fuyu persimmon, lychees and other mainstream crossover successes.

I know I have limited ability to divinate The Next Big Produce Thing, okra's popularity is surprising for an excellent reason: okra doesn't get a lot of love.

Some responses I've heard over the years: "Eww!" "Are you really gonna eat that?" and "Okra? Aren't they like slugs for vegetarians?"

My friend Maryann is an okra enthusiast, though she mainly enjoys okra in its New Orleans omnivore incarnations - gumbo (literally okra in Bantu), and jambalaya. Of course, it helps that she doesn't mind what others find objectionable about okra: the slime factor. "I like it all," she says.

I'm not as unambivalently pro-okra. I like okra pickles (hmm...I sense a potential blog entry!), which are crispy and non-slimy, but I'm put off by the slug-like texture that I associate with overcooked okra.

To learn more about okra's potential, I turned to Indian cuisine. I love Indian vegetarian food - could half a billion people be wrong? - but I admit that two decades of enjoying Indian food hasn't prompted me to order bhindi masala. (Okra vs. potatoes, lentils and flatbread? Nice try. Hard to find anyone to go halvsies, either.) But simply knowing that okras had a fan base for dishes beyond gumbo and deep-fried hush puppies (deep-fried anything has a fan base, so the that can't count for much) helped make the case to try some okra for myself.

But what to do about the slime factor?

There were several schools of thought: Don't cut the stem. No, don't cut the okra anywhere. An intact okra is a slime-free okra.

No, the enemy is water. Never add water to okra. Dry the okra diligently - and dry it again when you think you're done - after washing it. 

High heat! High heat will keep your okra nice and slimeless. High heat and quick cooking.

No, choose youth! Small, tender okra would naturally have fewer seeds and less developed mucilage - i.e., less slime.

I decided to cherry-pick some ideas from the varying philosophies. After perusing some recipes, I decided to cook okra with some onion and Indian spices.

Most bhindi masala recipes call for the okra to be split lengthwise. That seemed to be an invitation to slimeville. I liked the idea of quick cooking at a high heat. I also liked the idea of small, tender okra, ideally warmed by the August sun in my own ripening garden, but as a young friend likes to say, you get what you get and you don't get upset

My stance on slicing was part devil-may-care (I'd slice most of them), part scientific researcher (I'd keep a few okra whole and see if this control group was substantively different than the cut sample).

Finally, I would wash those babies and pat them Sahara Desert dry.What else are paper towels for?

Indian Spiced Okra

1 lb. okra
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin 
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (what can I say? I love cumin!)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon asafetida, optional 
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or less, to taste) or other hot pepper
Oil spray


Wash and dry the okra. Slice in half or keep whole as you wish. Or do both, for comparison.

Spray a large saute pan or cast iron skillet with oil spray or a thin film of olive oil. Saute the onion over a medium flame, adding the garlic after a few minutes, until golden (about 5 minutes). 

Add the ginger-garlic paste and then the spices, stirring vigorously to coat the onion mixture, and saute for a minute. 

Add the okra, continuing to stir. Add another bit of oil or oil spray to prevent scorching. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook for an additional 3 - 4 minutes.

Variation: I added 2 chopped tomatoes with the okra, since bhindi masala does include tomatoes. 

This time the okra did come out a bit slimy. Was it the tomatoes? Did I simply overcook the dish? My mode of scientific inquiry has its limits: I plan to return to the tomato-free version rather than test all the permutations of the dish. Besides, I'll need those okras for my pickling experiments.

Good thing the produce carts seem so well stocked.