Saturday, February 23, 2013

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Grapes

Does this picture make the grapes look juicy and inviting? Trickery! Trust me, some of them are withered. There are a few moldy ones. Their moistness suggests dankness, not juiciness. And when I bravely tasted a couple, I found their flavor most unprepossessing.

What to do with grapes like these?

My recommendation: reach for your roasting pan.

I forget how I began roasting grapes.  I think I found a forgotten bag of grapes in the back of the refrigerator while I was using the oven to roast something else. I opted for the roasting pan instead of the garbage.

The results of this low-stakes experiment were good enough to make me buy grapes expressly to roast them.

Here's what to do: 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the grapes from the stems, carefully inspecting them for mold and rot. Not every grape graduates! Withered grapes are okay, but moldy grapes still get consigned to the compost bin. I have had the best results with seedless red grapes. Black grapes work well too. Green grapes like Thompson taste good roasted but are not quite as comely as the red grapes - roasting turns them brown. I would definitely roast withered green grapes, but I might hesitate to serve them to company. More for me. Heh heh heh!
The bunch after the buzzards came. A few grapes were too yicchy to advance to the next step

Put the grapes on a baking sheet. I like lining the sheet with foil first, but you could use a silicone mat or parchment or (if you don't mind a messier clean-up) skip the liner entirely.

Over the years I've seen seen a bunch of recipes for roasted fruit. Typically the recipes involve lots of grease (oil or butter) and lots of sugar (sprinkle sugar before baking; add honey/agave/etc.) afterwards. I'm a little mystified by this: who wants greasy grapes? Granted, oily grapes will scurry right off the baking sheet, but that's not a great reason to add grease to your food. The grapes give off a marvelously complex version of grape juice when they roast, so you shouldn't need more liquid (let alone a greasy liquid) to cook them.

As for the added sugar, the whole point of roasting fruit is the caramelization of the fruit's own sugar. Do you remember the advertising slogan (that I assume came from a grape trade group;I like the name "The Center for Grape Affairs" but I admit I'm making this up) - "Grapes: Nature's Candy"? Here's a clue! Grapes are sweet. Some fruit may need the boost, but in my experience grapes don't.

I generally roast the grapes for about 20 minutes. If I have other stuff in the oven, especially cooking at a different temperature, I will adjust the time upward or downward. I should probably stop vilifying my oven for its different climatic zones, so I'll just quickly mention that location within the oven matters too. Sometimes a few grapes end up being burnt so that the others end up roasted sufficiently. Their comrades appreciate their sacrifice. I know I do.

Almost there

Note the caramelization

Remove the grapes from the oven. While these guys cool off, I'll follow up on my sister-in-law's suggestion that I include some interesting nutritional information about the produce I write about. Grapes are now understood to have many health benefits - a far cry from what I was told as a kid, namely that grapes were basically sugar and water. Red grapes have resveratrol, a compound that - at least in mouse and rat experiments - fights cancer and inflammation; lowers blood sugar; and offers cardiovascular benefits. A related compound, piceatannol, which is found in red grapes, red wine and peanuts, blocks the growth of fat cells. The deep color of red grapes, as in purple cabbage, comes from anthocyanins, antioxidants that fight also fight inflammation and cancer.  Grapes are a good source of several vitamins (C, A, K, B-complex) and minerals (copper, iron, potassium and manganese). 

Now that your roasted grapes are done, enjoy!

Here are some serving suggestions:
  • Mix in with Greek yogurt
  • Use as a topping for pancakes or waffles (or pound cake)
  • If you include fig jam, membrillo or guava paste when you serve cheeses, put a dish of roasted grapes instead. Roasted grapes are a fine addition to little bruschetta with ricotta or blue cheese
  • If you include dried cranberries in salads, consider substituting roasted grapes
  • Of course, putting it in a dish and eating it with a spoon is #1 in our house!

You may never look at withered grape the same way again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Aren't You More Popular?

I can't predict which actors will become stars - I can't even agree with the popular consensus about which celebrities are good-looking - and I am similarly stumped about why certain fruits or vegetables miss the popularity boat.

Here's a good case in point: why isn't purple cabbage more popular?

Why aren't you more popular?

Purple cabbage is beautiful. It's very low in calories yet almost unbelievably nutritious - a great or great source of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, folate, manganese, thiamin, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. It even has some alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a desirable essential fatty acid. The cabbage's beauty and great nutritional profile are actually wedded together in the cabbage's concentration of deeply pigmented anthocyanins - the source of its lovely color -  which can help fight cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration and other diseases. 

Purple cabbage is widely available. Here are some heads of purple cabbage on sale this week - in February! - at the Union Square Farmers Market.

Looking gorgeous in February

But you know I wouldn't bother writing about purple cabbage if it didn't taste good.

I love having a purple cabbage on hand. When I buy one, I put it in a plastic bag, knot up the bag's end, and put the cabbage in the refrigerator. I have found that the cabbage will stay fresh for 2 weeks or more, just about the longest of any item of produce I have ever purchased. Another plus in purple cabbage's favor.

What are its down sides? I have given thought to this matter, and I've come up with a list of two items:

1) Most people think of the cabbage that isn't green as red cabbage, not purple. Purple cabbage has no recognition, no Q Score, so of course it's not popular.
2) When people think of cabbage, they think of smelly boiled cabbage, an overcooked vegetable and maybe some old gym socks boiled in a tureen. 

My responses:
1) Okay, okay, I'll call it red cabbage from now on!
2) So don't boil it!

The easiest way to avoid boiling red cabbage is by using it in the most famous of all cabbage salads - cole slaw. Just substitute the red for the green cabbage or use a mixture of cabbages. You could also pickle cabbage. Here's a good picked cabbage recipe.

(I should hasten to say that I have nothing against green cabbage. I just think red cabbage tastes better and is more appealing, even rousing, on the plate.)

I like to cook my red cabbage. I like to sautee/braise it.

Braised red cabbage with apple 

I begin by cutting the cabbage into large chunks, just short of shredding it. I cut out and discard the core. If the cabbage head has tough outer leaves, I generally discard them, since they are the gritty protectors of the cabbage head.

Getting ready, getting shreddy

I spray my large skillet with olive oil spray, turn on the heat and dump in the cabbage. Once the cabbage is sizzling, I add just enough water to prevent it from scorching and season it with some salt. I keep a watch on the pot, stirring and adding water as needed to prevent the scorching. 

A lovely sight to behold

I frequently add two ingredients to the mix: apple slices and ginger paste. A little background on each: my son likes his apples cut up but doesn't always eat them. These uneaten slices go back into the fridge to be used for this recipe. Another source of apples is the occasional bad apple in the barrel, the mealy, the not-rotten but nevertheless flavorless, the cook it or compost it. Think of this as the ""When bad produce happens to good people" solution.

I first became acquainted with ginger paste via The Vah Chef, an inspiring Indian chef and cooking instructor. He used ginger paste and ginger-garlic paste all the time - even when he used fresh ginger and fresh garlic in his recipes. Both are available in Indian groceries and worth checking out. Keep them in your fridge and never worry about grating a withered knob of ginger again. The paste has a great texture for mixing and adds a polished, finished note to many vegetable dishes. Really, rush out now and buy some! A Tanzanian friend told me that ginger paste was one of her mother's first purchases when she arrived to their new home in Chicago, and it has had a permanent parking spot in her refrigerator since then.

I like to dissolve about a tablespoon of ginger paste in water, give it a good stir, and then mix it in to my cabbage. 
The  Vah Chef says "Vah!" about ginger paste
Other possible additions: red wine; red wine vinegar; a handful of caraway seeds; all of the above. Add these ingredients early in the cooking. I sometimes add a splash of balsamic at the end of cooking if I've skipped the ginger paste. Total cooking time = at least 15 minutes (just wilted, still some crunch) or more. Make sure you don't burn the cabbage while keeping the liquid levels very minimal.

Add a splash

Braised red cabbage has a voluptuous, hearty flavor that belies its low calories and simple preparation. I've been gratified that friends have enjoyed it too. "I can't believe how good this is," one friend said recently. "And believe me, I would not have made this dish for myself in a million years. Now I'm going to buy some cabbage next time I go shopping."

Extra nice when the weather's frightful and most fresh vegetable options are as cruddy as the weather

Who's unpopular now?

Portrait of a cabbage by my father-in-law

Monday, February 4, 2013

Choose the Kabocha

Hard as it is to believe this sometimes - it's 19 degrees outside as I write this - cooler weather does offer some produce delights.  

May I present Exhibit A: Winter squash, the kind of squash that, unlike zucchini and other summer squash, has a hard rind and seeds with hard shells. It can also have a luscious flavor. Winter is a little bit of a misnomer, since winter squash is typically harvested in the fall, but - thanks to the hard protective rind - it is stored and sold in wintertime. 

A winter (squash) wonderrland

Over the years I've eaten my way through a wide range of winter squashes. (Now, there's an image...) I started with butternut, perhaps the most popular of winter squashes, and acorn, and then tried the varieties I found at the farmers' markets: delicata, sweet dumpling (great branding! - who would not love a sweet dumpling?), hubbard, etc. I even tried spaghetti squash, whose pulp breaks down into individual strands when cooked. (Supposedly, with sufficient amounts of sauce, the shredded squash pulp becomes a convincing substitute for spaghetti. I was not convinced. I must not have added enough sauce.) 

I came to this conclusion: choose the kabocha.

Ignore those butternuts on the left!

Many restaurants jazz up their winter squash so much that the individual type's qualities don't matter that much. 

Think of the typical ways in which acorn squash is served: The top cut off, perhaps re-positioned at a jaunty angle, seeds removed and the seed cavity filled with syrup and maybe some dried fruit. Or as an alternative, cut into rings and dusted with cinnamon and sweeteners. Any diner torn between vegetable and dessert would not need to choose - these dishes are both!

Butternut are often presented in a more sophisticated way: ravioli, stews, soups, etc. When I decided to cook them myself, I understood why most gourmet stores with a frozen foods department sell frozen peeled, diced butternut. Everyone, even peel lovers like me, agrees that butternuts must be peeled.  If you're using fresh squash, this task is annoying. The hassle would be justified if the payoff of using fresh butternut were great, but it isn't. Butternuts can be watery and kind of insipid compared to other winter squash, and if you're going to puree or saute the squash, and then add a lot of seasonings, why not just use the frozen cubes? The loss of flavor or texture isn't going to be that significant. And if flavor is indeed essential, I would suggest choosing another variety of squash.

I liked the delicata and sweet dumpling, which had edible skins and seeds that were tasty when roasted. But about half the time I drew duds, watery squash with little taste.

Finally I did what I should have done at the start of my journey: I asked a farmer, What's your best tasting squash?

You can guess the answer: the kabocha. 

The winner!

Actually the answer was a little more complicated. It was, "Well, you might not like the answer if you've been getting the delicata. It's the kabocha. They're by far the best tasting and you don't need to peel them, but buying one is kind of commitment, kind of like buying a whole watermelon. Some people complain about how hard they are to open. Their seeds aren't as good as some other squash seeds if you're buying the squash as kind of a two-fer with the seeds. You have to know how to pick them, so if you don't you might get one you don't like. Other than that, yes, they are the best."

He was one of those laconic farmers.

He was convincing, though, so I bought one. And after that, another. The flesh was dense and sweet and flavorful. Like sweet potatoes, only better. Maybe with a hint of chestnuts.

And that was that for the other kinds of winter squash.

Of course, as anyone who is seeking out a food with a somewhat mysterious name knows, it is important to find out if the food is known by any other name. (A friend visiting in London, seeking to avoid raisins in her bread, was assured that there were no raisins, not even dried sultanas, but got a hit "dried blackcurrants." What's in a name?) 

The name "kabocha" is synonymous with Japanese pumpkin and indeed kabocha loom large in Asian cooking, especially tempura and curries. In the US, kabocha are often labeled buttercups, and buttercup squash are often labeled kabocha. 

Of course you're confused
Buying a buttercup isn't the end of the world - they are tasty too, but a little wetter and less dense than kabocha. The two varieties look a lot alike, with the same colors and stripe pattern. Often the buttercup are more rectangular, but I haven't found that to be true 100% of the time. The main difference in appearance is in their bottoms. Buttercup have the "buttercup" button at the blossom end, and kabocha are flat. 

Buttercup bottom

Kabocha bottom

I have to admit I took the farmer's concerns to heart. Buying a whole anything big makes me a little nervous. Last summer I bought some whole watermelons at the farmers market, and some of them would not have merited a second glance had they been cut open. The flesh was mealy and pale, but the watermelon looked great from the outside.

I tried to crack the code of choosing a good kabocha. One market vendor had me thumping kabocha like a shaman so I could hear the special thud that a perfectly ripe kabocha would make. I became a little skeptical of the Kabocha Whisperer, however, when two squash that he pronounced "perfect" were waterlogged and almost inedible. I devised my own, simpler system.

First, I look for a kabocha that looks ripe. An orange blush is appealing.

A winsome blush

I also look for a kabocha that is heavy for its size and has a thick, tough rind. A rind that feels too thin or soft suggests that the kabocha was cut from the vine prematurely.

That pretty much covers the woe of immaturity. On the other end of the spectrum lurks the specter of over-ripeness or even rot. If you see kabocha like the ones below, do not buy them! I took this photo at the stand of one of my favorite vendors at the Union Square Farmers' Market. Yuck! Don't rely upon reputation alone. 

Just about ready for the compost heap, but instead being sold (presumably) with pride

A much better bet

Two weeks ago a friend just asked me for tips in buying kabocha, and I said, "I hate to say this, but I've had better luck with the kabocha imported from Mexico than I have had with the ones from the farmers' market." This view was confirmed by a Union Square Market farmer, who responded to my question about avoiding oozy, waterlogged kabocha, "This time of year I probably couldn't find you a 'dry' kabocha. They've been in storage and they're attracting moisture from the air."

I haven't been able to confirm this assessment is accurate, but it's a good enough tip to drive me to the trucked-in kabocha.

Next problem: kabocha are hard to open. Solution: some upper body strength + a decent chef's knife or cleaver. Find a point, make an initial cut, and slide the knife in. Rocking the squash gently to expand the slice might be helpful. If necessary, trace the point on the other side and finish the slice on that side too. It might be easier to turn the kabocha upside down to make that initial slice. Ask for help from a strong, kind friend if you need it. As a last resort, you could bake the kabocha whole to soften it, let it cool, and then cut it up.

Part of the solution

Kabocha occasionally have yicchy growths on them. If the lichen-looking patch is small and isolated, it should not prevent you from buying the kabocha. Now is a good time to use your sharp knife to cut it off.

Hey hey, ho ho, this yicchy patch has got to go

The cut kabocha looks like this:

Cut kabocha

Use a spoon or your fingers to remove the seeds. 

Where are my offspring?

There are many ways to prepare kabocha. I usually go the simplest route. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet lined with foil with olive oil spray and then spray the kabocha inside and out with the olive oil. Place the kabocha cut side down on the cookie sheet and roast for at least 20 minutes. I've written elsewhere about my iffy oven, so I'll give loose roasting times. After 20 minutes take a peek and test for tenderness. I like a bit of char on the kabocha, but that's a matter of taste.

Getting ready to roast

I don't add anything in the way of seasoning, not even salt, but again this is a matter of taste. Sometimes I roast the seeds. Since the seeds are just a pleasant extra, not a deal-maker, I make no particular effort to scrub or season them. I add them to the tray, pulpy strings and all. The pulp burns off during the roasting process. Spread them out (better than I have below). I recommend checking in on the seeds after 10 or so minutes - they will certainly burn before the kabocha is fully cooked.

Not much effort here

You could also cut the kabocha halves into quarters, 1-inch slices or even cubes before roasting; if you do, expect the cooking time to be shorter. You can also cut the kabocha into slices or cubes after cooking, as I have done here.


I haven't gone back. Will you?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Yet another reason to go to Brazil: Brazilian fruits

Ah, Brazil. 

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

I've only met one Brazilian I've disliked, a rude guy who swam in the same public pool as I did. Very aggressive and very pompous. Perhaps if I were to go to Brazil, as I've long longed to do, I'd meet some obnoxious Brazilians. As one Carioca said to me, "It's not fair to assume that we're all fun-loving and sensual. [Pause] Well, granted I am, but still, you can't assume everyone is."

But never mind the people. What about the produce? 

Pinha, courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim (Wikipedia)

My sister's wonderful friend Paulo just returned to Brazil for a visit after living in New York for the past 13 years. Naturally I asked him to take a break from family activities, reunions with friends, going to the beach, etc. and send me some pictures of the produce and produce markets.

He deputized his friend Isabel, who is from Maceio, Alagoas State, in Brazil's Northeast Regionan area that also includes cities like FortalezaSalvador (known as "Brazil's capital of happiness") and RecifePaulo spent 10 days in this area - his first time there - and reports that the beaches, people and food are all great. 

Isabel very kindly prepared this slideshow of fruits from the region.


Some of the fruit is pretty familiar (even with Portuguese names): coconut (coco), guava (goiaba), mango (manga), watermelon (melancia) and banana (yeah, banana). 

Tamarind (Tamarindo) is extremely popular as an ingredient in savory dishes all over the world, especially Indian and Thai. It's also used in candy, jellies, etc. I've seen tamarind fruit at Mexican vendors in New York - perhaps I can post some pictures when the street vendors return in the springtime. Tamarind has a sweet-tart pulp and glossy seeds. 

I've damned carambola, also known as starfruit, with faint praise. It is juicy and pretty when you cut it up, but to me it's mainly a show-stopping garnish. Maybe I need to acquaint myself with a better class of carambola.

I know of acerola as an ingredient in health food store Vitamin C pills, but not as a fruit. It's the berry of an evergreen bush, very high in Vitamin C and other anti-oxidants, juicy and sour and very popular in Brazil.

Caju sounded like "cashew," so I guessed - correctly - that it was the cashew apple, the fruit that is attached to the seed pod that we like to roast and eat. Apparently in many countries the fruit part, not the nut, is where the action is. How delicious must the cashew apple be to make you forget about the shamelessly-picked-out-of-the-mixed-nut-dish cashew nut?  I'd really like to know! Alas, the cashew apple evidently isn't much of a traveler. 

Jaca is jackfruit, a fruit that I associate with India and China. I've seen canned jackfruit in Chinatown but haven't been tempted to buy it. Some people say jackfruit tastes like bananas. An Indian colleague says her father still misses the jackfruit back home, but the appeal is lost upon her.

Graviola! I recognize you! You're soursop and you're also guanabana, as in "What the heck is that? Guanabana.

Pinha, another armored fruit, is also known as a custard apple. Like the graviola, it is sweet and custardy and delicious. Time to pack your bags for Bahia right now.

I had never heard of pitomba, but it certainly looked familiar. I enjoy longans, a refreshing little shelled fruit from Asia (like my buddy the rambutan). I did some research to find out if the Asian native and Northeastern Brazil native were kissing cousins. Flavors of Brazil, a fascinating blog, confirmed that they are indeed related. 

Longans from Chinatown, NYC  - kissing cousins of pitoma from Brazil?

That pretty much exhausted the familiar and quasi-familiar fruit. Paulo assured me that he hadn't been familiar with all of them either. Apparently some of these Northeastern specialties don't make it out of the Northeast to other parts of Brazil.

Here's what I've since learned: 

According to Flavors of Brazil, Jambo has a scent like roses, hence its alternative names "plum rose" and "rose apple," and is crisp and juicy like an apple.

Mangaba , says the Slow Food Foundation, literally means "good fruit for eating." The fruit is highly perishable, so don't expect it to go dragon fruit style any time soon.

Umbu is a distant cousin of the mango, and though refreshing, is basically never seen outside of, you guessed it, Northeastern Brazil. 

Pitanga is also known as the Surinam Cherry and has a sweet-tart flavor.

Siriguela is another one of those sweet-tart, generally-available-only-in-the- Brazilian-Northeast, fruits. The description on Flavors of Brazil reminded me a bit of a loquat, but I couldn't find confirmation of this theory.

Cajanara is another sour-sweet, aromatic, bright-tasting fruit. I don't know if it's fair to guess that cajanara occupies a lower rung in the national consciousness, but it didn't rate a wikipedia entry, not even in Portuguese. 

And finally, there's cupuacu 

I had heard CupuaƧu described as "king of the jungle fruits." The fruit is the size of a melon but with a creamy, sweet, aromatic pulp. It's high in anti-oxidants and a member of the cacao (chocolate) family. Why, oh why, has the fruit not been brought to our shores?

As I said, yet another reason to go to Brazil.

If the slideshow and list haven't been exhaustive enough for you, check out this article from Deep Brazil magazine.

Bom apetite!

"What the heck is that?" celebrities hanging out together

Here's a photo submitted by Chauncey, of Westchester County, New York, who saw two past "What the heck is that?" celebrities -  dragon fruit and rambutan - hanging out with a friend, carambola, also known as starfruit, at a local gourmet store. 

Those &^%$# paparazzi!

Starfruit are popular with some chefs and mixologist-type bartenders because of their novelty and good looks.  They make a truly world-class garnishThey can be refreshing - they're juicy and crisp - but in my opinion their actual flavor is nothing to blog home about. (So I haven't.) 

Still, nice to see all three fruit hanging out together.

Thanks, Chauncey, for the photo. If you spot a fruit or vegetable that is unfamiliar - or even one that you now know! - feel free to send it to me, for another episode of "What the heck is that?"