Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cauliflower - for Lovers and Haters Alike

Cauliflower has many fans. Also many enemies.

"This is dinner? Is this some kind of cruel, sick joke?" asked a friend who saw my cookbook opened to a cauliflower curry. I had actually planned to substitute some less objectionable vegetables for the cauliflower in deference to his preferences. Hater!

My friend Thom is in the Cauliflower Lover camp. She writes,
Cauliflower is my favorite vegetable!  I like it steamed, roasted, saluted or mashed (but not so much raw.) It is high in potassium and fiber.  A whole entire head of cauliflower is only 150 calories and it will fill you up! 
When you buy the cauliflower, make sure there are no brown spots or black dots on them.  You want the florets to be tightly closed. It's they are loose, the cauliflower has likely been sitting on the shelves for a long time. 
When you cook cauliflower, break it into florets or cut it into smaller pieces, making  sure they are uniform size so they will cook evenly.  Don't throw the stems away! They add texture to the dish. Cut the stem into even smaller pieces, since the stem pieces take longer to cook.
For a simple and tasty recipe, I recommend roasting cauliflower in a pan on a single layer. Crowding the pan will make it harder for the cauliflower to caramelize.  For every 1 head of cauliflower, I would add 2-3 garlic cloves to it. Just smash it and throw them in with the florets.  Drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper for taste and mix well. Put the pan into a 375-400 degree oven for 30-35 minutes, and you are done! 
If you like to walk on the wild side, here are different variations:
a) Before roasting, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder to the fore and mix well. Very healthful!

b) After the cauliflower has been roasting for 20 - 25 minutes (about 10 minutes before it's done), remove the pan and sprinkle a thin layer of Parmesan cheese on the cauliflower. 

Yum! Look how caramelized and snackable these florets look.

For those whose only association with cauliflower is a boiled-to-the-point-of-waterloggged mess method, this recipe can be a revelation.

As a test, I recommended Thom's method to Lol to see if she would try it. Success! Lol said, "Amazingly tolerable! And I think it would even work with frozen cauliflower, since you're eliminating the whole waterlogged part."

One Hater converted, millions to go. Our work is just beginning.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What the heck is that? Honeybells

Sometimes it's good to be the Produce Savant.

Sometimes people give you things. Produce things.

My friend Tim, a Florida native, gave me this fruit, and described it as particularly sweet, juicy, and "orangy."  

I recognized this citrus celebrity right away from wintertime ads in the New York Times. A Honeybell! It had a distinctive shape - I imagined a regular orange wearing a cap with a tassel cocked at a jaunty angle - and skin that looked like it would be easy to peel. I knew Honeybells had a very short season, that they grew along the Indian River, Florida's Citrus Central, and that they were sold by the dozen in fancy, hand-packed gift boxes. I don't typically get my produce via gift box, so I had never had the chance to try a Honeybell - until now.

Honeybells are a kind of Minneola tangelos. (In a rare example of balance, Minneola tangelos are often called Minneolas and just as often called tangelos.) Minneola tangelos are a cross between a grapefruit or pomelo and a tangerine, a hybrid that was the 1931 brainchild of the USDA Horticultural Research Station in Orlando, a kind of citrus counterpart to the apple world's Agricultural Experiment Station in New York.

The point of such agricultural tinkering is to end up with a fruit with the best qualities of its parents, in this case, a fruit with the size of a small grapefruit and the juicy, sweet taste of a tangerine. Interestingly, even though both tangerines and grapefruit have seeds, Honeybells have few or none.

Tim wasn't kidding about the juiciness of Honeybells. They are indeed juicy! I didn't test this out, but supposedly just two honeybells can yield a nice full glass of juice. Some gift boxes even come with a bib.

Overall, the Honeybell was as sweet, juicy and intensely "orangy" as promised. Thanks, Tim!

But what if you can't get a Honeybell? Their short growing season is over, and you might not want to order a gift box of them for next year. While befriending a Floridian is always a good strategy, you can also pursue another path: finding the more humble "regular" tangelo.

I learned that Minneolas aren't the only kind of tangelos: Minneolas have a sister hybrid, Orlando, with the same grapefruit/tangerine parentage. Minneolas are a little bigger and easier to peel. Orlandos come out a little earlier in the season and consequently may be less sweet than Minneolas. According to New York fruit vendor parlance, all tangelos are "Minneolas"; I've never seen any tangelo called "Orlando."

With the Honeybell a fresh memory, I returned to the more humble regular ol' Minneola, which don't seem seasonally limited.

Reasonably similar...

Hmm... are those seeds I see?

Well, humble Minneolas still taste very good. Sweet and rich, with a refreshingly tart undertone.

And if they're not quite as sweet and juicy as their fancy Honeybell counterparts, these humble Minneolas have a humble price to match. 

Best of all, they're still around to enjoy.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Siempre Es Primavera - Guest Blog Post from Mexico City

As this never-ending winter grinds our spirits into filthy slush, it's cheering to think about spring - anyone's spring.

My friend Bethanne has been spending a lot of time in Mexico City, which has a famously mellow average temperature of around 60 degrees. It's always springtime there!  This is sounding mighty attractive right now.

Even better, Mexico City has massive markets that draw upon Mexico's unbelievable agricultural bounty, and a tradition of displaying produce - even at modest roadside stands or hanging out near the socks and toys - in aesthetically pleasing ways.

Playing peek-a-boo near the nopales (pads from the prickly pear cactus), avocados and chayotes, a crisp member of the squash family.

Radishes, herbs like cilantro and mint, and attractively bound young and mature onions occupy market space as proudly as movie tie-in plushies.

Even black trash bags on the ground can make a nice backdrop for flowers, squash, prickly chayotes and mushrooms.

Of course, if the humble roadside stand looks good, imagine what a real market stand will offer!  Citrus fruits, apples, bananas, green pomegranate, peaches, magenta dragon fruit and the scaly monster-with-a-sweet-heart guanabana.

This market photo showcases more dragon fruit, beautifully cut red pomegranate, limes, guanabana's relative, cherimoya, and sapodilla (recently seen in the Filipino markets as the more diminutive chico.  

If huge bunches of herbs (I think I'm seeing oregano, laurel culantro and epazote, among others) are sold next to bags of cement, you know they're pretty central to a country's cuisine.

Similarly, huge bins of dried chile peppers - anchos, chiles de arbol, moritas (chipotles), pasillas, etc. - prove the centrality of these flavor powerhouses in Mexican cuisine.

I'm feeling warmer already. Thanks, Bethanne!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What the heck is that? Tamarind

When my friends Anna and Rabi took a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I said the same thing I say to all my traveling friends: "Send me some pictures of the produce! Send me some pictures of the produce markets!"

Anna said that the town she visited was too small to have an interesting market. Instead, she took a picture of something else that I found interesting: a tamarind tree.

Anna’s husband Rabi is originally from Sri Lanka, where tamarind is extremely popular. Actually, tamarind is popular all over the world. The word “tamarind” comes from the Arabic words “tamar hind,” or ”Indian date,” but tamarind’s popularity extends far beyond just South Asia. The tree is indigenous to Africa, but now grown in warm spots everywhere. In Mexico, tamarind is a big star, showing up in Jarrittos sodas, agua fresca beverages and ices. Just about every tropical country has some candy or jam that features tamarind, and many cuisines, such as Thai and Indian, use tamarind to give recipes  dishes a certain sweet-sour piquancy. Evidently English colonists couldn't get enough either: tamarind is a key ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.

Here are some highlights from the extensive tamarind foodstuff collection at Kalustyan's, the wonderful international spice store: juice, two kinds of candy, chutney, paste, concentrate, etc.

More recently, however, I’ve started to see something even more interesting for sale: fresh tamarind. I've found it in Chinatown, naturally - all interesting produce sooner or later shows up in Chinatown - and East Harlem, which has many groceries catering to Mexican shoppers. 

I had to try it.

The picture on the tamarind box was pretty accurate: brown pods with a crackly shell and a sticky interior. A twiglike vein ran the length of the pod, and seeds hid underneath the sticky fruit.

The tamarind pulp was certainly tropical fruit-sweet, like dates or dried bananas, with the puckery tang that has made tamarind popular in cooking.

I got into a bit of a groove: Crack off a bit of the shell, peel off the rest. Loosen the twig-vein, which I found somewhat repulsive. Bite off a section of tamarind. Spit out the shiny seed. Chew the tamarind pulp.

Contemplate whether in fact I liked tamarind. Decide I wasn't sure. Reflect on the flavor's similarity to fruits I don't particularly like - bananas, dates - but acknowledge that this sticky sweetness is offset by the tamarind's tang, which I did enjoy. Consider the need for for more experience of that flavor. Bite off another section. 

When there was no more tamarind pulp left to chew, I was forced to acknowledge that I did like tamarind, won over, as millions or even billions of people have, by its sweet-sour charms.

It's hard to argue with a pile of seeds, twig-veins and shell bits.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Don't you wish you were at this Philippines fruit market right now?

My former next-door neighbor Tirso is a serious world traveler, a nurturer of plants you wouldn't imagine could thrive in a New York City apartment, and an all-around wonderful person. Originally from the Philippines, Tirso originally came to New York to work for the U.N. But his love for the Philippines still runs deep.

Years ago he sent me a postcard from the Philippines the featured a fruit market. I still remember the bountiful displays of exotic fruit! Tirso sent me new year's wishes from the Philippines, so I thought I'd ask him to send some pictures of some real-life markets to help me forget our blustery, freezing weather for a minute. With the help of his nieces Bea and Inna in Ilocos, in northern Phillipines, he obliged.  

Here are some highlights:


 "These are the sweetest mangoes in the world!" Tirso writes.

Tirso was always nostalgic about Filipino mangoes. Over the years he shared many mango treats with me - dried mango, mango candy - so I know of his enthusiasm for the fruit. And of course, someone who has lived and traveled as much Tirso has doesn't use superlatives lightly. Trust this guy with your mango selection!

They really have you covered at this market: yellow mangoes, green mangoes, pre-peeled and cut (artistically, too) mangoes for the mango lover on the run.

Pineapples and melons! What's not to love here?


Tirso wrote, "These are tropical fruits called Chicos. They grow in Latin America and Florida, but they're bigger there."

I remembered a fruit that looked just liked these from Vietnam (minus the University of Luzon advertisement, of course). I asked Tirso, "Aren't these  sapote?" Tirso answered that they were indeed, only a smaller variety.

Sapote, or sapodilla, is a tropical fruit that is indigenous to the Americas, but came to the Philippines via Spanish conquest. I sometimes see sapote in the fruit markets in East Harlem and the Bronx that cater to customers from the Caribbean. Sapotes are sweet and relatively caloric, like bananas and other tropical fruits, but - less typically - they have an astringent quality because they are high in tannins.  (Tannins are believed to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial capacities.)  More strikingly, their juice is like latex! After a fruit or two the mucilage will do its trick and you'll have to pry your mouth open.

The final fruit featured looked appealing, but aroused some suspicion when I showed the picture to  my Filipina friend Bea, who also hails from the northern part of the Philippines. "Ha!" she said. "That's imported! We don't have oranges like that in the Philippines." 

I posed the question to Tirso, who listed the citrus fruits native to the Philippines: limes, sour orange; and dalanghita or daladan, sweet tangerine-oranges with green skin.  But not mandarin-oranges. Bea was right. These market oranges were indeed imported from China. 

This got me thinking. The Filipino markets should diversify! Forget nearby China, even if it is the world's biggest apple exporter.  As long as the fruit markets in the Philippines are open to importing produce, how about trading mangoes for some New York State apples? 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Forget the Can: How to Choose and Cut Fresh Pineapples

My friend Karen has a suggestion.

"Hey, how about taking a break from writing about weirdo fruits and bizarre vegetables and write instead about something practical, like how to choose a good melon or cut up a pineapple? You know, something useful?"

Hey, I'm all about useful and practical. Was not this blog's very first entry Make It Pretty about making attractive fruit platters?

But Karen is right that I have digressed from time to time from this Useful 'n' Practical path, so I will try to heed her advice. December isn't the best time for melon tips, but it's always pineapple importing season in New York.

What should you look for in a fresh pineapple? First, you want a nice, tropical scent. Avoid pineapples with no scent, which are likely to be under-ripe and flavorless, or with fermented or rotten scents. Also avoid pineapples that are predominantly green. A bit of brown may be okay - it was in the pineapple shown above - provided the brown areas aren't spongy, soft or bruised. I personally haven't found the pull-out-a-leaf method (if the leaf releases easily, the pineapple is ripe - or overripe) helpful in determining flavor, but it is kind of fun. Just make sure you leave some leaves on for the next tester.

Now you're ready to cut up your pineapple. For about $20 you could buy a gadget that cores and slices the pineapple. Like leaf-pulling, using this tool is kind of fun. If it takes the intimidation factor out of enjoying fresh pineapple, great. On the other hand, the corer does waste a fair amount of the pineapple, and it's one more item to buy and maintain. It's not hard to cut up a pineapple using one of those nice sharp knives that you ideally already have on hand. I use my my trusty chef's knife.

1) Cut the bottom of the pineapple off. Some people cut off the crown at this stage, but I like to keep the crown as a handle.

2) Stand the pineapple up and begin cutting off the peel. Don't worry if you leave some peel or "eye" in place. You'll be going back and correcting your work.

3) Find the diagonal line on which a collection of eyes fall. Make a cut to the right of this line.

4) Then make an angled cut to the left of the eyes and remove a V shaped chunk of eyes.  

5) Repeat throughout the pineapple.

6) Vive la Revolution! It's time to cut off the crown.

7) Interestingly, the V cuts end up being a bit decorative.

8) Cut the pineapple in half, then quarters.

9) Remove the woody core. Frugalistas can use the core to make fruit vinegar, stock  and skin treatments.

10) And after that, it's off to the fruit platter. Note the decorative fins your V cuts have given your pineapple slices!

A nice change of pace from the lifesaver ring shape.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What the heck is that? Broccoli leaves

Of course, broccoli leaves = the leaves of the broccoli plant.

But who knew these leaves, now collectively dubbed BroccoLeaf, had become their own produce product?

One of my favorite fruit vendors recently had bunches of organic broccoli leaves for sale. A plastic sign tied to each bunch announced the debut of a new vegetable: BroccoLeaf: "The Broccoleaf has arrived," it (virtually) intoned. The sign, ingeniously wedded to a rubber band, declared,

With all the wonderful nutrients of broccoli, the BroccoLeaf provides even more versatility and vibrancy to your food! Add BroccoLeaf to your eggs...Chop BroccoLeaf and add to any salad...BroccLeaf is perfect for pastas and main dishes..Try BroccoLeaf in your smoothie.

It was hard not to conclude that BroccoLeaf had a bad case of Kale Envy

What's so great about you?
But I was absolutely ready to cheer on Team BroccoLeaf. Broccoli has been my favorite non-potato vegetable ever since I was Li'l Savant. I was a perfect target for the anything-kale-can-do-I-can-do-better rhetoric.

I usually steam or saute kale, so I figured I'd try something similar with the BroocoLeaf. Kale omelet fans, Power Green smoothie enthusiasts: you know what to do.

The verdict: I'm a BroccoLeaf Believer! It really did taste better than kale - to me, anyway. But I'm the first to admit my limits as a predictor of The Next Big Produce Thing.

If BroccoLeaf takes off, will the garbage areas of the Union Square Greenmarket, with their haphazard piles of cruciferous leaves, be viewed as treasure chests?

And if broccoli leaves become established, thrill-of-the-new chefs will have to go a bit further afield to impress their jaded patrons.

BrussoLeaf, anyone?