Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What the heck is that? Cherimoya

Beneath the tough, scaly, lizardy exterior lies a tender interior. A smooth, sweet and creamy interior, to be exact. I'm writing, of course, of armored tropical fruits.

I'm thinking of guanabana, which I passed up in Brooklyn when I had empty pockets and some sticker shock. I'm thinking also of Brazilian beauties like the pinha that I am determined to see in person. Ah, someday.

So when I encountered these scaly, lumpy fruits in Chinatown over this past weekend, I was powerfully motivated to buy them. My old pal, the cherimoya.

My interest in what you could call the lizardy fruits basically began with the cherimoya I first had at the fabled La Marqueta, a market built under the elevated Metro-North Railroad tracks in East Harlem. I had specifically gone to La Marqueta to discover unknown, delicious produce. I was not disappointed. The cherimoyas I purchased were magically custardy, as befitted another name by which they are known, custard apple. They tasted like a combination of several tropical fruits - banana + pineapple, most prominently, with hints of other fruits (maybe a very ripe Comice pear?) rounding out the flavor.

It's been years since I've had one. It was time.

The cherimoya in Chinatown looked considerably further along the ripeness continuum than, say, the photo in the Wikipedia entry.

Photo courtesy of Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia

Still, I was game. The Chinatown cherimoyas were a little riper than I would have liked, but I asked for one "for tomorrow, not today," and got one of the firmer ones. (Cherimoya can be a little grainy if not ripe and even a little astringent if far from ripe. I've been told to aim for the feeling of a banana at the degree of ripeness you like.)

I knew I needed to treat the cherimoya, especially if it was very ripe, extremely gently. This fruit stand wasn't going to provide padded sleeves for their high-strung fruit as some gourmet stores do. That was fine with me - I love the range, immediacy and price of the Chinatown produce experience, so  I am willing to forego some niceties. I wrapped my new cherimoya in a T shirt. 

When I got home, I dumped my bags and practically ran into the kitchen.

Here's what the Wikipedia photo of a cut cherimoya looks like: 

Photo courtesy Hannes Grobe, Wikipedia

And here's what mine looked like:

That is, until it looked like this:

Wow, that was good. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Rules of Attraction

On a recent walk through the Union Square Green Market, I saw several items of produce that I suspected I would dislike. Despite my misgivings, I ended up giving them a try. Why? They were so pretty! My head was turned by their beauty. Was my mind changed as well? Let's take a look.

Head Turner #1: Kale Flowers

Spring has sprung!

Selling point: Beautiful, bountiful and just $3 for a huge bunch. And they must be extremely nutritious - we are, after all, talking about kale here.

Voice in my head says: "Edible flowers" usually taste like sodden tissues. (Slight exception: I do like nasturtium well enough in small doses.)

Verdict: A great purchase for a caterer! The kale flowers would look great on a spring salad at a ritzy event, and one of these big bunches could to a whole lot of salad duty (especially considering the portion size at most ritzy, edible flower type events). As for the taste, well, the flowering kale tasted a bit better than sodden tissues but not enough to inspire me to compose a prissy salad. 

Head Turner #2: Red Mustard

Mustard greens are like escarole and chicory. Okay enough, but why would I buy or eat them when I had better options, such as collard, kale or broccoli rabe?  So I've mostly ignored ignored them. These bunches, however, were real lookers.

I feel a rosy glow!

Selling points: I loved the color! They'd be easy to prepare - just saute with some diced onion. Besides, I needed a vegetable for dinner. 

Voice in my head says: Yeah, it's worth making - once.

I made an all red (purple) dish: I sauteed some finely diced red onion until they became translucent and added the mustard greens.

First some onions

I love my cast iron skillet

I stirred the greens and allowed them for a few minutes. I plated them and added a dash of (red/purple) balsamic vinegar.

I know I've seen these mats before

The red mustard greens lost their reddish color in the cooking, as often happens with red/purple vegetables, but overall the dish retained enough Purple Majesty to please even Prince.

Verdict: Quick and easy to make. The greens retained a bit of their bite.Still, I probably won't rush to make the dish again - I sincerely like a lot of leafy green vegetables more than I enjoyed this one. 

Head turner #3: Radishes

When I was growing up, paprika was a kind of tasteless red dust you used to add some color to beige food and radishes were a food garnish, typically in the form of a radish rose, that wouldn't cause harm if eaten. My husband's family, on the other hand, uses zesty Hungarian paprika as an essential spice, and considers radishes a necessary component of any salad. I no longer push radish slices uneaten around my plate, but I don't typically think of purchasing them either. But could I really say no to these beauties?


Selling points: Gorgeous. Inexpensive. If I didn't eat them, maybe I could use them as some kind of centerpiece.

Voice in my head says: Youtube probably has some how-to videos about garnishes if the actually-eating-them plan doesn't work out. 

I made a quick salad by thin-slicing the radishes with a mandoline, adding some salt and a handful of chopped dill and garlic chives that I had on hand. 

Verdict: Finally! A dish I thoroughly enjoyed and would make again. In fact, I already have. The radish salad would be a great addition to a sandwich, too.

Overarching conclusion: Well, beauty may lure me in, but it's not enough for a lasting relationship.  But as the song nearly says, One out of Three Ain't Bad. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Oh, fiddleheads!

With the Great Power of being a savant comes Great Responsibility. *

(* I just found out that  Voltaire said this first, not Peter Parker's Uncle Ben! )

No longer can I pass by a cute little container of some springtime vegetable and think, Yeah, fiddleheads. Whatever.

Instead, I now think, Look at those veggies in those little boxes! Wow, it's probably been about 20 years since I tried them. Look at their tiny, ferny fronds! They look like the curled top of a violin - no wonder they're called fiddlehead ferns!

How do they taste? Will they be a burst of springtime goodness, or will I consign them to the unsung-for-a-good-reason produce pile?

Look at the tiny ferny fronds

Perhaps inspired by the Market's signs for ramps, a fiddlehead announcement appeared. (Just the one, though.)

I saw no evidence of ramps-style mania, but the farmer of the sole booth that was selling fiddleheads was subtly persuasive. He told me that fiddleheads have an extremely short season - on his farm, just about 2 weeks. Like many of the Union Square farmers, he was a very effective produce proselytizer. I seized the moment and bought a box and brought them home.

En route I suddenly recalled reading somewhere that fiddleheads must be cooked thoroughly...because they're poisonous! Perhaps the sign's full message was, "Fiddleheads are here! Eat them, and you may not be!"

I headed to the computer. In Fine Gardening magazine, Ruth Lively, an editor of Kitchen Gardener magazine, had words praise ("Fiddleheads offer a fresh flavor reminiscent of asparagus and a pleasantly crunch, tender-firm texture") tempered by some cautionary advice:

Throughout the world, several types of fiddleheads are eaten, though most contain toxic compounds. The most commonly eaten and most esteemed fiddlehead is that of the ostrich fern, often simply called fiddlehead fern. The ostrich fern is the safest fern to eat, even though it, too, can contain toxins. The fiddleheads of cinnamon fern, lady fern, and bracken fern can also be eaten, but all are at least mildly toxic and can cause nausea, dizziness, and headache, so it’s probably best to avoid them. The safest way to eat fiddleheads is to stick to ostrich ferns and to eat them in small quantities.

Nausea, dizziness and headaches - bon appetit! That about ensured that I was unlikely to sample any quantity in excess of the contents of the little box in my hand. 

The farmer had recommended steaming the fiddleheads for a few minutes then sauteing them, so I followed his suggestion. I opted not to dunk them in an ice bath between steaming and sauteing. I often say, "Eh" to blanching, admirable though it might be. Now that I knew the fiddleheads' toxic secret - unmentioned by the farmer - ganging up on them with two methods of cooking seemed wise.

I dumped the fiddleheads in a bowl of water and rubbed off the bits of dried brown skin.

Next was a few minutes in a steam bath.


I'm shvitzing!

And then a few minutes in the cast iron skillet.

Fiddleheads are quick to cook, and striking to look at.

But what about the taste? They have their fans - one food blogger happily plunked down $19.99/lb at a West Coast gourmet market for his fiddleheads - but others are less enthusiastic about fiddleheads. In response to the query "What do fiddleheads taste like?" some suggested asparagus (albeit in a "weird, dirty way"), but others suggested "dirt" and "grass," and - in one memorable, Gee-how-would-they-have-this-reference-point? answer - "like boiled mouse." 

The middle of the road may indeed be for yellow lines and dead armdillos, as noted activist Jim Hightower used to say, but in this case that's where my opinion ended up. (As an aside, I usually try to encourage vegetarianism through the preparation of delicious, meat-free meals, but all these mentions of dead and/or boiled varmints has me wondering if I have been subliminally trying a different route here - inspiring some visceral disgust. Sorry.)

To me, the fiddleheads tasted more like spinach than asparagus. They had a certain freshness that I could imagine would inspire some enthusiasm. I thought I detected a bit of cynarin, the acid in artichokes that makes food eaten thereafter taste sweeter, but my exhaustive research (i.e., a few minutes with my pal Google) didn't yield any connections.

The Verdict: Forced to pay a premium price for fiddleheads? Skip 'em. If they're growing wild in your backyard, I understand why the annual forage would be springtime delight. Except for the inevitable excessive consumption/ dizziness/ nausea/ headaches/ death thing.

And if you missed them, well, there's always next year.