Friday, June 21, 2013

Red vs. White

We all do it.

Despite our best efforts to appear fair, to be open to all, we all have favorites.

So, love ya, plum! You're fabulous, peach, simply fabby! I'll get back to you in a minute. Lemme just get past you.

The cherries are here.


I wait all year for cherries. Occasionally cherries pop up out of season, presumably after a long haul from Chile or another country whose seasons complement our own, but I always end up giving them a pass after trying one. Some fruit don't do well out of their time.

When I think of cherries, I imagine deep crimson ones. When red cherries are identified, they're typically labeled Bing cherries, named after the Chinese-American horticulturalist Ah Bing, although other varieties, such as
Lambert cherries, also are widely sold. As you might guess from their deep color, Bing and Lambert cherries are chock full of anthocyanins, and so are are very healthful. (Even more healthful are tart cherry varieties such as Montmorency, which are typically canned or used for juice, but some of us love as is. Hmm, I sense a separate entry!)

But red cherries are not the only game in town. White cherries, aka golden cherries, also have their partisans. 

A becoming blush!

White cherries, typically Queen Anne or Rainier varieties (and few can tell the difference), are extremely delicate and bruise easily. Buy a pound, especially if you don't get to pick them yourself, and you'll likely end up with a lot of dinged and battered cherries, like the ones below They're also apparently more susceptible to growing problems, such as frost damage.

What to expect when you're expecting white cherries

Not surprisingly, white cherries are generally more expensive than red cherries - note the back-to-back signs at one of New York's gourmet supermarkets, showing red cherries for sale at $3.99/lb and white ones at $8.99/lb. 

Despite their premium cost, white cherries are very popular - especially in places like Japan, where delicacy is valued and a certain amount of fruit coddling is to be expected. As my friend Hiroko told me, "Rainiers, or "American Cherries," as we call them here, are quite popular in Japan. I remember my friend Aya complaining around this time of the year. She worked for an American semiconductor company in Tokyo, and she always had to make sure that semiconductor chips from the U.S. would secure their spot on air cargo in June. Otherwise Rainier cherries would take over the rides to Tokyo!"

If you look closely at the text in the supermarket's sign for Rainier cherries, you'll see it not only touts "firm skin that creates a satisfying crunch with every bite," (as if the cherries were tortilla chips), but also white cherries' lessened tartness.  This reminded me a bit of the recent trend to praise white chocolatewhich used to be scorned for its absence of cocoa solids/chocolate liquor and the attendant mixture of bitter/tart flavor with the sweetness. But as food activist Jo Robinson wrote in recent and fascinating New York Times article entitled, "Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food," produce's color and complexity of flavor has been seen as a disadvantage for a while:  

In 1836, Noyes Darling, a onetime mayor of New Haven, and a gentleman farmer, was the first to use scientific methods to breed a new variety of corn. His goal was to create a sweet, all-white variety that was “fit for boiling” by mid-July. He succeeded, noting with pride that he had rid sweet corn of “the disadvantage of being yellow.”
The disadvantage of being yellow, we now know, had been an advantage to human health. Corn with deep yellow kernels, including the yellow corn available in our grocery stores, has nearly 60 times more beta-carotene than white corn, valuable because it turns to Vitamin A in the body, which helps vision and the immune system.

And yet I'm happy both red and white cherries are around. For me, white cherries never scale the heights of magnificence that red cherries do, but they are much more consistent. There are points in June and at the end of July when red cherries are available but not worth buying. To me, they taste like mud. I have found (undamaged) white cherries to be pretty consistent in taste whenever they're available. 

The season is too short for me to spurn either contender. Which to choose? I say, Both.

There's a reason why it's a metaphor for a happy, easy life!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What the heck is that? Quanepas

People like eating food from their childhoods.

That explains a lot. Like quanepas.

Quanepas are strange little tropical fruit that grow in the Caribbean. In the Bronx, Harlem and other areas with many residents from the Carribbean, fruit stands sell quanepa branches in the summer. Lord knows my produce trend-spotting record is poor, but I feel reasonably confident in predicting that quanepas will not be a breakout hit. 

Quanepas are attractive enough from the outside - they have a certain Nature Walk charm. The problem is the actual fruit, and especially its problematic ration of Perceived Labor to Fruity Pleasure. To enjoy a quanepa, you use your fingernail to split and remove its green shell. So far so good - not too much work. 

But unlike rambutan or longans - other tropical fruits with easily removed shells - the fruit inside isn't luscious.

It's mostly pit, with a bit of pulp with the consistency of a wet cotton ball clinging tenaciously. Imagine what you could achieve if you clung as tenaciously to your dreams as the quanepa's pulp clings to its pit!

If the fruit is actually ripe - a tough call without picking and squishing each one, something you might be able to do with a tree in your backyard but probably not at a fruit stand - the pulp has a pleasant enough sweet-tart taste. You have to use your teeth to scrape at the pulp and don't get much for your efforts, just a somewhat less fuzzy pit. If the fruit isn't ripe enough, suddenly you recall a long list of things to your really need to get done, so why exactly are you wasting your energy on Operation Fuzz Removal? 

Verdict: I'd be a fan if I were from the Caribbean and and feeling homesick, or if I were enjoying one on a balmy evening in my own Caribbean backyard. Otherwise I'd feel free to pass them by.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Not Everything is Better at the Farmers' Market

Last Saturday I saw these beauties at the Union Square Green Market. Not only were the strawberries very attractive, they were substantially discounted in an end-of-day sale.

Good from far, but far from good

Great, right? The one hitch: the strawberries had very little flavor. (Sorry, Hiroko.)

I couldn't help but contrast them with some strawberries I had purchased earlier in the day, the kind of big, mass market agri-business strawberry that we usually assume are bred for easy packing and shipment around the country.

I actually taste good!

They were succulent.

I love the Green Market. But I would never assume that just because a Union Square farmer sells something I'm obliged to buy it.

One of my favorite vendors offered this ready-for-compost kabocha for sale. 

Choose the kabocha - but not one of these

On several occasions I've sucker-bought grainy, sudsy, and flavorless watermelons because of the farmer's sworn attestation about their deliciousness. (Memo to self: No whole watermelons! No whole watermelons!) Eventually the lesson sunk in.

After learning the hard way, I don't buy corn for the first few weeks it's for sale at the Market -- despite the frenzied crowds at the Market stands. Let those folks elbow each other out of the way to get at the immature, under-ripe goods. I guess it's hard to leave the produce on the vine or on the stalk when the incentive to bring it to market (Market) is so great. I'm doing my part by not encouraging this practice.

Likewise, I suggest that customers ignore the apples being sold in the summer. You know that these apples are about 8 months old, right? And it's not as if there aren't alluring alternatives in the summer.

We are not apples (photo taken last year)

Too wordy for an embroidery sampler but true all the same: 

Just because something is being sold - even under the umbrella of virtue that is the Green Market - does not mean you have to buy it.

So try a blueberry before you buy a pint; buy one peach before you buy a peck. And understand that while there may be many compelling reasons to buy directly from a farmer - good stewardship of the land; better labor conditions for workers; a human connection with the grower and seller; support of the local economy; minimization of wasteful travel; better variety of produce; typically low or no dependence upon chemical fertilizers and herbicides; etc. -- taste isn't always one of them.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hot Weather Treat: Filipino Avocado Milkshake

Kids exult in knowing more than grown-ups, and it's not unusual for a kid to come out of a science lesson about plants to crow to his or her parents, "Tomato isn't a vegetable; it's a fruit. Eggplants are fruits, not vegetables. Pumpkin is a fruit, too. Nyeh nyeh nyeh."

And yet - pumpkin pie notwithstanding - it seems so wrong. We generally think fruits are part of sweet dishes and vegetables of savory dishes, and that's that.

Or is it?

Think of avocados: Guacamole. Salads. Dusted with salt and black pepper or hot sauce.

Not necessarily waiting for the savory treatment...

But such treatment is not inevitable.

A recent mini-heatwave in New York was the perfect opportunity for my friend Bea, who hails from the Philippines (a country that understands the kind of hot, humid weather that always surprises New Yorkers despite its predictability), to showcase her sweet and refreshing avocado milkshake.

Here are her instructions:

1) Remove the pit and the peel from two - three ripe avocados.

2) Put the avocados and several ice cubes in a blender.

3) Add 8 oz of milk. Back home in the Philippines I would use condensed milk, which we use for everything - coffee and tea, rice, soups - but here I use plain milk and add some sugar to taste, maybe about 3 teaspoons. You could use any kind of dairy milk - whole, skim, 2% - or almond or soy milk. My avocado shakes are only a little sweet, so add more sugar to taste if you like a sweeter milkshake.

4) Turn on the blender and let it run until all the ingredients are nicely mixed and frothy. Pour the mixture into 2 -3 glasses.

5) Enjoy this refreshing treat!