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?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pink-a-boo! I can see you! (Or, The Big Apple, Continued)

Evidently 60 varieties of apples are not enough.

Last apple season, I counted 60 varieties of apples sold at the Union Square Greenmarket and wrote about it in a blog entry, "The Big Apple." 
(Of course 60 varieties are but specks of sand on the beach: the forthcoming seven-volume encyclopedia, The Illustrated History of Apples in North America,  identifies 17,000 apple varieties grown between 1623 and 2000.)

This season, I've seen four new varieties: the bland and crisp SnapDragon, an offspring of Honeycrisp created by Cornell University's apple breeding program; the very decent (and remarkably blight-resistant) Crimson Topaz; and  - let's cut to the case - much more interesting Pink-A-Boo and Pink Delight

Don't confuse either of these Pinks with Pink Lady, a fairly random Golden Delicious offspring also known as Cripps Pink.  They are far more intriguing.

From the outside, Pink-a-Boo looks nice enough. The photo above could be of Granny Smiths or another green apple that sometimes has a rosy cast. But it's the insides that count here.

Cut open a Pink-a-Boo and discover its Cherry Vanilla surprise!

Our other fascinating newcomer, Pink Delight, looks like many other reddish apples from the outside, distinguished mainly by being a bit less photogenic than usual (even for low-spray apples).

 But inside, Pink Delight had the same marvelous surprise!

I had never heard of red-fleshed apples until this season, but the eccentric British website lists many varieties, mostly with charmingly lurid names - Red Love, Red Moon, Scarlet Surprise, Purple Passion, Purple Wave, Vampire, Firecracker and Red Devil. A red-fleshed apples few go the Disney route, with names like Pink Sparkle, Pink Beauty and Pink Princess. Here's the site's description of Pink Pearl: 

Rich flavor..the flesh is an attractive light pink and white. The apple is to my taste but if it was put in a child's lunch box it would probably be half eaten.

A comment about the plan for Tesco, a major British supermarket chain to carry red-fleshed apples (yes, I'm envious) included this pithy description of the apples: 

They look pretty damn insane yet wonderful.

Most red-fleshed apples are believed to be descended from malus niedzwetzkyana or Niedzwetzky's apple, a wild apple native to the Caucasus with red leaves, flowers and flesh. Beginning in the 1920s, Albert Etter, a California horticulturalist, used the Niedzwetzky offspring Surprise (sometimes called Surprize) to breed around two dozen red-fleshed apples. In case you were wondering, the red color of red-fleshed apples are caused by our good buddy anthocyanins, the antioxidants also present in a variety of deeply-pigmented produce, including purple cabbage and sour cherries

And what about the taste? Pink-A-Boo, the smaller apple above, has more dramatic coloring than Pink Delight, but rates only a "pretty good" in flavor. In other words, I wouldn't rush to buy it for myself if I had better alternatives -- and considering the only place I could buy it is Samascott's stand at the Greenmarket, which consistently has an incredible selection, so of course I would have better options. But I'd still buy it as a gift for others or simply to wow them.

Pink Delight is another story. Close your eyes and open your mouth. Pink Delight (okay, one you pare off the blemishes) tastes like the Granny Smith of my dreams (but seldom found in real life). Tart, but not astringent. Deep in its apple flavor. Desirable beyond its superficial charms.

I can't wait to see what Apple #65 is like.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What the heck is that? Concord grapes

On a recent visit to the Union Square Greenmarket, I noticed that farm stands with super-fragrant, thick-skinned and deeply purple Concord grapes attracted almost as many bees as the beekeeper who brought a huge honeycomb.

Bees aren't the only fans of the grapes. "Concord grapes make your taste buds sing!" my friend Jen says.

Concord grapes, distinguished by a complex, winy flavor and "slip skins" that separate easily from the grapes' flesh, get their name from Concord, Massachusetts. In the 19th century, Concord was home to intellectuals and free-thinkers, including Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and their grape-growing neighbor Ephraim Wales Bull, who cultivated and cross-bred species of the native grape vitis labrusca into Concord grapes. Two interesting articles about Concord grapes, He Sowed, Others Reaped: Ephraim Bull's Concord Grapes and The Syrupy Tale of How Jews Invented Kedem and Modern America, note Thoreau's August 28, 1853 journal entry about the fragrant grape crop:

I detect my neighbor’s ripening grapes by the scent twenty rods off, though they are concealed behind his house. Every passer knows of them. Perhaps he takes me to his back door a week afterward and shows me with an air of mystery his clusters concealed under the leaves, which he thinks will be ripe in a day or two—as if it were a secret. He little thinks that I smelled them before he did.

Ephraim Bull's Concord grape became very popular but - unlike today's fruit breeders and propagators, who can patent an agricultural product - Bull made little or no money from the nurseries all over the country who grew and sold Concord grapes, nor from the "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine" that Thomas Welch, a dentist/ Methodist minister, sold as non-alcoholic communion wine. (Thomas Welch's son, Charles Welch, transformed this Concord grape juice into Welch's Grape Juice and marketed it to wild success at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.)

Nowadays Concord grapes are best known for their presence in Welch's Grape Juice and the jelly in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But why aren't they also in lunchboxes?

"Americans hate seeds, regardless of how the fruit tastes," my fruit vendor buddy Osman, frequently observes. Concord grapes' thick skins are also considered a turnoff for mass marketing.  But we're lucky in New York - at least Concord grapes on our radar, especially this time of year. New York State's Finger Lakes region, about a 5 hour drive north of Manhattan, is a major producer of Concord grapes, mostly for wine production, and consequently, Concord grapes and New York City have a vivid history together that includes basement winemaking by both Italian immigrants in Williamsburg and Red Hook and Jews on the Lower East Side. (Not to mention backyards throughout the City, from my childhood next-door-neighbors' to my my sister's garden, that feature grapevines no one remembers planting.) 

And Concord grapes are not the only hardy, thick-skinned, super-fragrant grape game in town. The Greenmarket market had a variety of blue, magenta and white grapes, both seeded - Concord-style grapes have larger seeds than European varieties do - and "seedless" (i.e., containing tiny vestigial seeds).

Here's my score card:

Concord: the original and the baseline. How far can you spit the seeds?

Mars: What's not to love? Just like Concord - but seedless!

Jupiter: Seedless and more oval than Concord and Mars. Perhaps my favorite of the Concord-y family.

Caco. Red-magenta rather than purple-blue. Seeds. Good flavor.

Canadice. Basically looks like Caco only with slightly smaller grapes in slightly denser clusters. Seedless. Very tasty!

Delaware. Seedless and tasty. Could I really tell the difference between Canadice and Delaware? Yes, but only because I took careful notes!

There's another seedless red variety, Vanessa, that looks just like Delaware and Canadice. I haven't seen it this year (yet). 

And the green grapes:

Niagra. They are indeed known as "White Concord" and are the most popular of the green Concord-type grapes. Some of the wine sellers, for example, sell Niagras.  They have thick skins and seeds but a lighter scent and taste than Concords.

Marquis. Seedless, but eh. Underwhelming.

Lakemont. Seedless. My favorite of the greenies!

Himrod, another green variety, made a blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearance at the Greenmarket this year. To be honest I don't remember much about them other than that they were (1) green (2) seedless and (3) good.

Our old buddy, the Cornell University agricultural program lists many other varieties.

As you can see from the picture of the Marquis grapes, these grapes are not always picture perfect. The dense clusters sometimes promote mold and rot. There is considerable variety even within the vine, with some grapes sweeter and more flavorful than others.

I think of Concord grapes as a Northeast greenmarket kind of produce, but that's naive. Everything is grown in California -- and almost every kind of produce ends up in Chinatown.  So I shouldn't have been surprised to find a package of "Concord-Niabell Grapes" for sale at a Chinatown vendor. Wilson Brand's packaging featured Chinese writing and enthusiastic health claims about Resveratrol and Polyphenols and antioxidants.

But "Niabell"? What the heck is that? As it turns out, basically California's version of Concord grapes. So even this most seasonal - and to me, New York-centered - of grapes can be part of the Endless Summer.