Friday, December 21, 2012

What the heck is that? Rambutan

Here's a fruit I enjoy two ways!

Baby, you're a firework!

It's the rambutan, a tropical shelled fruit that is similar to lychees and longan fruits. You can get all three in Chinatown, although this past year lychees seemed to be on the verge of a crossover breakthrough to "regular" fruit stands. All three have shells that you can split with a thumbnail and a sweet white fruit inside. 

They're great to pack along on a trip, since they don't bruise, don't require washing, and are very refreshing.

We mean no harm to your planet

To me, rambutans have the best flavor of the three.

And when you're done snacking on the fruit, you're left with the second enjoyable feature: the shell is suitable for art projects. Or, for the more mean-spirited among us, for freaking out others. A discarded shell will confuse and even terrify: alien invasion? Tarantula casings? Nothing good, for sure.

What the heck is that? Guanabana

We were walking through Sunset Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that includes a large Mexican community. Fifth Avenue, one of the area's main drags, has many street vendors. Naturally, the fruit stands caught my eye -  one in particular.

It offered the usual apples, bananas, grapes and pears - and this armadillo-like fruit.

What manner of alien life was this?

What the heck was it?

Many years ago I discovered cherimoyas, a luscious tropical fruit that looks like this:

Will I hatch into a dinosaur? (Image courtesy of Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia)

Was it a kissing cousin to the mystery fruit on this unassuming fruit cart? The cherimoya is famously delicious, with nicknames like "the ice cream fruit" and a fan base that includes Mark Twain, who reportedly called the cherimoya "the most delicious fruit known to men." 

I was curious about the mystery fruit's interior - would it resemble the cherimoya, creamy and custardy?

Inside the cherimoya: Custard! Custard with seeds! (Image courtesy of Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia)

The fruit vendor was not much help. He said he didn't know the name of the fruit and said he stocked a few of them each week so that customers who had special occasions could impress their friends with a very special fruit. I saw the sign that said $6 and I decided Your Intrepid Reporter needed to invest in further investigation. "No, no, no!" the vendor exclaimed when I handed over my money. "$6 per pound. $24 total. I know, very expensive." I am not so intrepid. I put the fruit back next to the apples on the cart.

Another customer started chatting. "I know this fruit. I am from Jamaica, and we grow it there. It's called soursop,"  I had heard the word 'soursop' but I never associated it with a luscious fruit.  It sounded like a corny insult: he ruined the party for everyone because he was a soursop.  I certainly had never met one in the flesh. I used my phone right away to check it out.

Soursop, courtesy of Wikipedia

It was a match! Wikipedia also tipped me off to various other names by which this fruit might be known, including pawpaw and guanabana. "Si, guanabana!" another vendor chimed in. Mystery solved.

Sadly, the real mystery, how this promising and fabled fruit tasted, would have to wait for another day. A day when $1 change would be given for a twenty and a five and it would be fine. 

Even Better Fries

French fries might be the work of the devil - I've heard, but haven't wanted to confirm, that most of the potato's vitamins are fat-soluble and get left behind in the frying pan - but ooh la la! We pan fry potatoes at least once a week. Here are our secrets.

1) Choose good potatoes. (You knew I was going to say that, right?) Okay, okay, frying is the most forgiving way to prepare bad potatoes, especially if you add spices and salt, but it's worth it to use the good stuff.
2) A range of colors is nice. 

Lookin' gorgeous at the farmers' market and even better on your plate.

Purple Peruvians, Purple Majesty, Adirondack Red and other potatoes stay vibrant throughout the cooking process - and like any fruit or veg this color, they're loaded with anti-oxidants. 

In the photo below, we have Yukon Gold, Russet, Purple Majesty and another kind of potato - think of it as a meeting-halfway potato - with purple skin and white flesh. I wondered what it could be, so I googled "Potato purple skin white flesh." According to the Washington State University Extension website, it could be a Blue Mac.  Another candidate is the more memorably named La Crotte D'ours, or Bear Poop.

3) Don't bother to peel! As you've no doubt heard, the skin is particularly nutritious. It's also very tasty! Slice them up and soak 'em for a minute in a bowl of water to rinse off the starch. Then pat them dry with a paper towel. (What's left behind is potato starch, which is kind of fun to play with, but that's another story.)

Yukon Golds, Purple Majesties and others en route to full glory.

4) Fry 'em up! Give yourself more time than you think you'll need. Crusts are nice and underdone potatoes are not.

Getting that nice crust

5) Season liberally! If you start out with good potatoes, salt alone will do the trick, but here are some other good choices:

Paprika and smoked paprika
Crushed rosemary 
Rubs for steak and other meat
Indian spice packages (for tandoori chicken, rogan josh - anything really)
Chopped garlic and parsley (fried parsley is also tasty)
Lots of black pepper

I once improvised a spice blend of garlic powder, crumbled rosemary, salt, smoked paprika and ground chipotle. 

Let your imagination be your guide! There are few dishes in which your success would be likelier.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Make It Pretty!

My friend Lizzie used to work in a nightclub that was in the nether bits of a restaurant. Many people addressed the 2 drink minimum by ordering food (in addition to getting sloshed), and whenever I attended a show I was always struck by the attractiveness of the food making its way in the dimly lit, atmospheric club. I asked Lizzie, "What's up with those beautifully composed plates? I can barely see them in this den of iniquity." She replied, "It's a point of pride for our burly, macho chef. Before anything leaves the kitchen, he shouts, 'Make it pretty! Make it pretty!'" And they do.
In that spirit, I like to take an extra few moments to make my fruit platters attractive. If a hairy-fingered guy in a dark club can care, so can you.
Getting the hang of it might take some fiddling, as I did with these two platters. I thought the bold color of the blackberries really needed to go dead center, so I moved them around.

Something's a little off...

Ah, that's better!

My foremost goal is to have a tasty arrangement, but I must admit that sometimes (say, in December, when this platter was created), I might be willing to allow some flavor duds to enter the picture for some color. Green kiwi, I'm looking at you.

Besides the kiwi, everything on this platter was pretty flavorful. Oranges and grapefruits are generally good winter choices; here I cut off the peel then sliced the grapefruit. I'm sure I will be writing plenty about my beloved fuyu persimmon on another occasion. Here it provides a sunny jolt of color and a luscious tropical taste that balances out the more astringent citrus. The potentially dubious out-of-season cantaloupe was surprisingly sweet.

Some basic guidelines: Keep all fruit selections reasonably bite-sized; provide a mix of fruit; avoid fruit like apples and pears that get brown or mushy with air exposure; and let your platter size convey a sense of bounty.

Here's another platter I created, this time in late summer. I had scored some fantastic mangos and golden kiwis, but their colors needed some jazzing up.

This time the kiwis are green and golden. But the star might just be the mango.
Again, a sense of abundance is key. I like to prep my fruit and dump it in a bowl in advance. Here they are, waiting for their moment.

I feel so pale without my peel.

Prepping in advance means that I feel ready even if company comes early.  I've already taken care of the messy work like peeling and slicing the mango (and gnawing on the pit).  

Sometimes folks  need to be sold a bit on produce. Enticing fruit displays are my way of proselytizing.