Monday, January 21, 2013

Double Umami

Are you biased against the humble white button mushroom?

I was.

When I say, "button mushroom," do you think of its more glamorous cousins,

Shitakes from the farmers' market

rich with flavor, or do you think of these rubbery tire bits in a can?

Manufacturer's name omitted to protect the guilty

Do you think of bits of sponge or slime - raw mushrooms - adding nothing good to salads? (And that's without even knowing about the toxic hydrazine in mushrooms that cooking neutralizes.)

No wonder I had some aversion to button mushrooms. 

And yet I loved shiitake mushrooms - fresh from the farmers' market or dried in Chinatown, where they're often known as Chinese black mushrooms. Restaurant dishes that featured wild mushrooms like chanterelles and morels were consistently thrilling, as were portobella "burgers" eaten at restaurants and friends' barbecues, sometimes as the main vegetarian option, and at home. (Portobella or portobello? I'll go with "bella" because the small versions - more on this in a minute - are called Baby Bellas.) And I knew these favored fungi were chock full of wonderful nutritional benefitsTrumpet, Hen of the Woods, oyster - I loved them all. 

Crimini mushrooms helped me bridge the gap. 

Build a bridge with a fungus

First, I learned that "Baby Bella" was basically just a marketing term - portobellas are just more mature criminis. Then I learned that crimini are just slightly more mature and suntanned white button mushrooms.  (What this means practically is, of course, subject to debate.) 

Time for a reputation rehab! 

Last week David Tanis published an ode to this humble and overlooked mushroom in the New York Times. Others have pointed out that button mushrooms share, and sometimes exceed, the health benefits of more exotic mushroom varieties.

Would it help to call them Champignons de Paris, as the French - their original cultivators - do? Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University has published a lot of amusing and thought-provoking research showing that that people enjoy food more if they think it's fancier, so you could try a re-branding campaign.

Or your could cook the unsung white buttons to give them a leg up. For me, this meant upping the mushrooms' umami quotient.

Umami, sometimes known as the fifth taste fifth taste (in addition to salty, sweet, bitter and sour), is the "pleasant savory taste" based upon glutamates in the food. Mushrooms are rich in umami. So are fermented products like my beloved soy sauce. 

To me, there are few cooked foods that aren't enhanced by a dash or two of soy sauce. I also believe that a good sear in a cast iron skillet is often a great flavor enhancer. (And cooking in a cast iron skillet can also add iron to your diet, by the way.) 

So I started with this,

added some potion (high octane Korean soy sauce diluted with a little water; low-salt would be a good idea if you didn't want to dilute),


And next thing you know, my buttons have gotten lacquered.

Why, you're looking positively crimini!

I have to say I was delighted with the result.

The finish line

The mushrooms were great on their own and would be a great topping for toast or pasta. Diced more finely, you could use them for bruschetta, pizza or omlets.You know, whatever you might use "fancy" mushrooms for.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What the heck is that? Dragon fruit

Last week my father-in-law reported seeing a new, fascinating fruit for sale at a local green-grocer. He's a botanical artist who admires fruit as much for its vegetation as its taste. He described an oblong fruit, mostly magenta, with leaves in an almost spear-like design flattened against the fruit.

"Something like this?" I asked, showing him this picture.

Now available in Chinatown!

His eyes lit up. We had a match.

I first encountered dragon fruit in Vietnam, on a magical trip that introduced me to many other unknown fruit. (Hey! Maybe I'll write about them!) The flesh of the dragon fruit, which looked like white sherbet filled with poppy seeds, was featured in a fruit salad. What the heck is that, I wondered.

When I asked about this mystery fruit, a waiter brought a whole fruit and presented it to me with a flourish. He then cut the fruit open, cut off some slices and put it on my plate.

When I presented him with my translation phrasebook,  opened to the Fruit section, he carefully reviewed the list and chose trai thanh long, green dragon - presumably because the distinctive leaves look a bit like dragon wings.

Now that's what I call full service!

Trai thanh long là ngon! (Dragon fruit is delicious!)

When cut, dragon fruit typically looks like this:

Wow, is this what a professionally taken photo looks like? (Image courtesy of morgueFile)

More recently, I've seen dragon fruit that looks like this - Red Dragon, if you will:
The search for red dragon is over!

The dragon fruit had a light, mildly sweet and refreshing flavor. With my eyes closed I might have guessed that it was in the same family as the kiwi.  

I researched the dragon fruit a bit and found out it's a cactus fruit. This is kind of amusing because my father-in-law is a major cactus enthusiast - perhaps his affinity for cacti was secretly prompting his interest in this unknown fruit? 

Pitaya in Israel by Etan Tal (courtesy Wikipedia)

I love cactus pears and now that you mention it, I kinda sorta saw a resemblance. Thick skin, rich magenta color inside and out in the red variety, edible seeds. Both types of cactus fruit originated in the Americas before making their respective ways to Asia and beyondBut there were also important differences.

Cactus pears, vicious needles (mostly) removed

Prickly pears (aka cactus pears, aka sabras, aka nopales pears) are vicious street fighters. I'd rather fight a dragon than spend the week pulling out a prickly pear's tiny needles from my oh-so-sensitive fingertips. (A hint that I should follow more often than I do: use gloves or a plastic bag to cover your hand while you cut away the treacherous peel.)

More importantly, prickly pears are very sweet and flavorful. And they're cheap - much, much cheaper than dragon fruit. 

But strangely, it's the less flavorful and more expensive cactus fruit that seems to be making its way to the big time. Recently I've seen detergents featuring "dragon fruit scent" and, even more startlingly, I've seen supermarket fruit labels on a pile of dragon fruit.

Have we hit the big time?
You know what's next - dragon fruit smoothies, dragon-tinis, inclusion in must-have beauty regimens, etc. There's no fighting star power!

Wanna know more about some unusual produce you've spotted? Send me a photo and your query and I'll see what I can do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Blueberries

Has this ever happened to you? Sure it has.

Underripe blueberries, moldy blueberries, tasteless blueberries.  What to do?

Blueberries have numerous health benefits and, under ideal conditions, wonderful flavor. If your box of blueberries falls short, don't throw it away! Instead, examine the box carefully and throw away any moldy berries.

Let the sorting begin!

Then wash and dry those remaining flavorless or wizened berries (be sure to do this only after you've eliminated the blechy ones - you don't want to wash the mold onto innocent bystander berries) and freeze them. Be sure to use high-quality freezer bags: this is no time for flimsy bags that are likely to pop open and spill their contents or get filled with freezer burn.

Just chillin'

Then what? Then use the berries, of course!

Don't expect good results for sprinkling them on your Wheaties or fruit salad, but for many purposes they're surprisingly good.

Heating the berries - to make a blueberry sauce, jam or syrup, for example - will help them release sweetness. Of course you could pick over the container, wash the berries and then use them right away for these purposes, but freezing the berries buys you time in case you don't want to use them right away.

You could also use them for muffins, pancakes or oatmeal. Whenever I buy blueberries, I eat as many as are palatable right away, and I freeze the also-rans for my oatmeal. I don't add sugar to my oatmeal but the blueberries taste pretty sweet - much sweeter than they did in their earlier incarnation. The freezing also limits their inky blue sprawl, so pancakes and oatmeal do not end up as soggy as they sometimes can get when chock full of berries.

Almost a smiley face

Of course, frozen berries are also great for anything ice cold or frozen - sorbet, smoothies, even as a decorative element for ice cubes. Turn your unprepossessing produce into treasures!

What about other produce purchases that you are tempted to file under M for Mistake? Stay turned for future episodes of When Bad Produce Happens to Good People. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Potato Recidivism - This Time With Garlic & Rosemary

How could I possibly guess the recipe for Roasted Potatoes with Garlic & Rosemary?

Several years ago my friend Andy came to visit me in New York.

Andy wasn't much of a cook. "Oh, you didn't need to cook for me!" she said when I served her a plate of melon in the summer. Another time she mentioned that she loved cucumbers. "Uh, I don't think I've ever seen you eat cucumber," I said. "That's because it's so much work," she said. 

So I didn't know what to expect when she told me that she was very disappointed that the restaurant she had made a special trip to visit had stopped selling her favorite dish. "And now I'll never get a chance to have it!" she added dramatically. 

Trying to be a good host, I asked her for more information about the dish. Perhaps I could come up with a plausible substitute. I wasn't too hopeful: Andy was from Southern California and enjoyed a wide range of Asian and Asian-fusion dishes that hadn't made their way to the East Coast yet. 

"It's roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary," she replied. I could make that, I told her. "How is that possible? You don't have the recipe," she said. Was there anything unusual about the spicing? Were there any secret ingredients? I asked her. "No, maybe some salt," she guessed.

Some people are a little hard to cook for. Maybe they're picky. Maybe they don't know what they like. Maybe their standards are unrealistically high. On the other hand are people who think you're a genius because you figure out the recipe of a dish whose name is the recipe. You must admit that you're no genius. You could, however, be a savant.

After that first time - successful! - of making Roasted Potatoes With Garlic & Rosemary, I made it many, many times. I once served it to friends from London who were visiting New York. "This must be your speciality," Jo said. I hadn't had a speciality before! How could I not pass this recipe on?

General notes: Do not underestimate the roasting time involved. Under-baked potatoes are a crime.  Prep time might run you about 10 minutes but roasting time is more like an hour and fifteen minutes or even more. You will need to mix your potatoes in the middle of cooking, possibly move the pan within the oven and test for doneness before you can declare the potatoes fully cooked.


Great potatoes, skins on,  in a medium dice
  • One head of garlic, cloves peeled and cut in half if large. Crushing them in the process is fine.
  • Olive oil, around 1/4 cup or more as needed. If you want to divide your prep work, you could store the peeled garlic cloves in the oil and store covered in the refrigerator for several hours. This will also flavor the oil nicely. 
  • Dried rosemary - several good shakes of the canister. You could use fresh rosemary, but if you do, use only a few needles or the taste will become overpowering.
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste

Garlic cloves in olive oil

  • Preheat your oven to 400 or so. My oven has about 5 different climatic zones. The lower right hand corner is about 200 degrees hotter than the upper left corner. If you're cooking another dish in the oven at the same time you can set the temperature to the other dish's, but be prepared to adjust roasting time accordingly and test the potatoes for doneness.
  • Wash your hands very thoroughly. You'll be using them as your mixing tool.
  • Dump all the ingredients into a mixing bowl and, using your hands, mix thoroughly. Transfer contents into a shallow baking dish or two (I use a 9 x 13 Pyrex dish) and roast in the pre-heated oven. After twenty-five minutes, remove the dish from the oven, stir the potatoes - with a big mixing spoon; your hands have retired as mixing tools - and spices, scraping the pan if necessary to release any potato crust (aka "the best part"). Return to oven.
  • While the potatoes are roasting, add a handful of kosher salt to your hands and give yourself a Softening Antioxidant Massage by rubbing your hands together briskly. Contemplate the well known health benefits of garlicrosemary and olive oil, which have now entered your body and begun their healing work. Close your eyes and imagine that you are at a pricey spa as you inhale the rosemary's piney scent. Feel the olive oil soften your skin and repair your ragged cuticles. Open your eyes, wash off the gunk and stir the potatoes again. Move the baking dish to a different location in the oven - to the bottom if it had been on the top shelf, to the top if it had been on the bottom. (Your hands really will be softer, by the way.)
  • When the potatoes have been in the oven for about an hour, try testing a potato cube to see if it's fully cooked. If so, remove and serve. If not, try testing again every 5 minutes. Do not serve under-baked potatoes!
And they reheat pretty well!

If any of the garlic cloves have gotten burned in the process, discard before serving or tip off your guests to avoid them. They can taste a bit bitter. But those cloves that have been thoroughly roasted but not burnt will have a marvelous creamy texture. One friend ate so many cloves of the garlic that he began doing a "Puff the Magic Dragon" routine and exhaling onto all the other guests. We discovered that he smelled like pure garlic, rather than garlic breath. And there were no vampires at the party! Coincidence? I'll leave it to you to decide.

Fruit Seasons In Photos

A colleague who lived in Belgrade in the '70's once described the joy that accompanied the arrival of new potatoes in the springtime, a joy of course based upon privation. "After a while, whatever was in your root cellar was withered, and there are only so many ways you want to eat pickled and fermented vegetables," he said. (Of course in 2012, foodies beg to differ on that latter point. And it's officially a trend!)

I certainly eat my share (and yours, too) of imported produce. But sometimes I feel that same joy he described.  So let's salute some of the seasonal produce of the past year, courtesy of the Union Square Farmers' Market.

Spring and Summer

Sugar snap peas!


Watermelon - with seeds!


Did you know "green beans" came in other colors?

Are you as corny as New York in August?

Just the tip of the summer tomato tree

Georgia? I'm in a New York State of mind

Fall and Winter

I just learned that in the UK fried potatoes don't count as one of the recommended daily 5 fruit & vegetables. But still.

Savoy cabbage
Winter Squash

The quintessential fall fruit, denying that it is boring (and perhaps inspiring a blog entry)

One of NYC's iconic fall fruits - Concord grapes (plus friends). Oh, if only this was a scratch 'n' sniff website!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fuyu for You

I wait all year for this fruit

About fifteen years ago I was a regular shopper at a Korean grocery in the East Village of Manhattan that has since closed. The owner had an unbelievably cute grandson who would visit twice a year from Seoul and fascinating stories to share about her attempts to connect with relatives in North Korea. She also had a lot of information about the produce she sold.

"Try this! It's good!" she told me one day, pointing at her persimmons display. "No thanks," I replied hastily. "Last time I tried a persimmons it nearly took out my mouth!" I made a face. Eating a persimmon had all the appeal of chewing on some aspirin - and a pretty similar taste.

"Oh, that is Hachiya," she said knowingly. "That needs to be soft, like pudding. This is different. Fuyu. It's okay if it's hard like an apple. It's still sweet."

Mrs. Kim was a nice lady and the persimmons were two for a dollar. I could be a sport.

I tried the fuyu. I was hooked. In retrospect, Mrs. Kim's recommendation was probably the single most important bit of Produce Proselytizing in my life. I needed to pay it forward, and I have.

I approach strangers looking at the strange fruit - fruit that has gotten a little less strange of late, since fuyu seem to have crossed over into the mainstream - and encourage them to try one. "It tastes kind of like pumpkin pie," I tell them. "You can eat them when they're still hard," I tell others. "They're not like the persimmon you might be thinking of. They're different. Better."

I slip them into fruit platters and I offer colleagues a slice or two when they see me snacking. Often they graduate to acceptance of a whole fruit or two.

Fortunately, I don't need to go to Chinatown or particular Asian markets to get fuyus anymore. Turkish and Bengali vendors are happy to stock them. Amazingly, the fuyus sometimes sport supermarket code labels, demonstrating even at humble fruit stands that they're ready to be rung up after the milk and toilet paper.

Fuyus hitting the big time - with the  supermarket produce stickers to prove it. 

Some basic shopping hints:
1) Look for very firm fruit with as deep a color as possible
2) Store in the refrigerator
3) Regard the peel as your friend. A recent New York Times article about persimmons (another piece of evidence that fuyus are crossing over into the Big Time) claimed peeling "made a world of difference" but I find that advice utterly baffling. 

Serving hints:

You can slice the fuyu, cut it in sections or even eat it with a spoon (more on that later). I like them plain, but if you want to decorate, you could drizzle with honey, any kind of fruit syrup, chocolate sauce or balsamic vinegar.

A slice is nice

You could share this fuyu with seven fuyu newbies and still have a segment for yourself!

This fuyu is going undercover as a hachiya

An overripe fuyu like the one above essentially tastes the same is a "ripe" (i.e., overripe) hachiya. Hachiyas, I should add, are also crossing over into the mainstream. The guys below also feature this season's must-have accessory, the supermarket fruit label. No offense, guys, but I see no reason to buy you. If folks like the custardy consistency, they can just buy the fuyus and forget about them until it's nearly too late. But if they eat the fuyu a little sooner than planned, they won't have to scour their mouths.

Hachiya persimmons. They don't know that I am insulting them.

One final note. The end of fuyu season is often marked by the appearance of a Sharon or Carmel fruit, which looks a lot like a fuyu but with a greenish undertone and generally a less rounded appearance. Sharon fruits do not taste as good as fuyus. Personally I regard them as impostors and give them the stink-eye whenever I see them. Sometimes they have the decency to be labeled "Sharon Fruit" or "Carmel Fruit" but they could easily be mistaken for a fuyu that undermines your love for the species.

Large fuyus from Brazil sometimes show up in Spring, aka Brazil's Fall. I don't know the history of this crop in South America, but I assume it caters to Brazil's not-inconsiderable Japanese community. I find these fuyus less flavorful and generally ignore them.

Two days ago I went fuyu shopping in Chinatown and came back empty handed. This morning on the way to work I saw a fruit stand with Sharon fruit. No point being in denial. The season is over.

But there's always next year.