Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Perfect Summer Snack

Lychees aren't my favorite summer fruit, but they might just be my favorite summer travel snack.

A bag of lychees is a virtual cure-all for many summer travel grumbles. 

  • I'm hungry! (They're food, and will slake your hunger.)
  • I'm thirsty and I don't have water! (Lychees are virtually bags of fruity water, and are so refreshing.)
  • My beautiful peaches/plums/name your fragile fruit got bruised and now are disgusting! (It's hard to damage lychees; they're in the junior division of [link]armored fruit)
  • I want some refreshing fruit but I don't have access to a refrigerator! (No problem. Lychees don't need refrigeration for a good long while.)
  • I'm bored! (The process of peeling them, popping them in your mouth and spitting out the seed is better-than-middling entertainment.)
  • Are we there yet? Are we there yet? (Ah, you got me on this one.) 

I have long enjoyed lychees' cousins, rambutans and longans. Lychees are generally more widely available. I remember when you would need to go to Chinatown to buy lychees (as you still need to do for longans and rambutans), but lychees have made it as crossover hits. Not only can you buy lychee flavored liqueurs, coconut water and frozen yogurts, you can buy fresh lychees from non-Chinese vendors.

Some vendors emphasize the jungly look.

What hides beneath lychees' armor? A pearly white fruit with a shiny dark pit. To discover it, just use your fingernail to make a hole in the thin shell at its stem end, then peel off the shell entirely.  

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Typically my lychees end up as a bag of shells and pits, but they're versatile fruits and they dress up well. No reason not to invite them to the party! Here they are in good company (pineapple, grapes, melon, plums and berries) on a summer fruit platter.

Without their shells, lychees are excellent homebodies - and just as refreshing at home as they are on the road.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mango mania

Hurrah! Mangoes are around - and abundant!

Now, I admit that it's not hard to find some kind of mango most of the year. The trouble is, most of the year that mango is a Tommy Atkins, sometimes called a blush mango because of its deceptively rosy glow. Tommy Atkins mangoes generally have pale, insipid flesh, acidic flavor and none of the lushness of great tropical fruit. They hint at great flavor but rarely deliver. Unfortunately, they're the de facto mango for most people in the US because they're the supermarket standard.

If this was the only mango I knew, I wouldn't love mangoes!

Fortunately, there are alternatives.

Check out this fruit stand in a place where people are connoisseurs of tropical fruit - the Bronx! This us Mango Central: nestled among the pineapple, papayas, avocados and quanepas (in the center square), it's all mango, all the time. Just note the numerous varieties! On the left side, Haitian (aka Francis) mangoes; on the bottom, Tommy Atkins; next to Tommy Atkins, tiny Dominican; above the quanepas, Ataulfo (aka Champagne or Manila) mangoes; and above the papayas, either Keitt or Kent mangoes (yes, I admit that I can't tell the difference).

We expect to see varieties of apples and grapes, so why not some choice of mangoes?

My favorites are the Ataulfo and Kent/Keitt varieties.

You might recall Ataulfo as my friend Thom's go-to variety in her Mango Agar Dessert recipe. Good choice! Ataulfos are smooth, not at all stringy and have a great, light taste.

The Champagne gang

Ataulfo pits are extremely flat, so you get a lot of mango for the size.

The weird, whiskery remains

I took this picture for perspective.

Of course, what really matters is flavor. Ataulfos have a light and delicious sweetness. One caution: Ataulfos peel, though smooth and thin, is very astringent.  I have seen folks chomping into these mangoes then spitting out the skin, but removing it before eating is a much pleasanter option.

Cut the mango in long "cheeks" (aim for as close to half as you can without hitting the pit) then remove the peel from the cheeks. Or use a spoon or melon baller to scoop out mango balls.

Next up are Kents/Keitts. Both are large fruit that can be ripe even when their skins are dark green. The big difference, in the US, anyway, is that Keitts are often grown in the US (and Mexico) with a peak season in later summer and early fall. Keitts are generally imported from Mexico and South America and are available January - March and again in the summer. Keitts especially can stay quite dark while attaining full ripeness.

I first became acquainted with K/K mangoes when a fruit vendor gave me a sample of what looked like a particularly robust - and unusually tasty - dark green Tommy Atkins. Huh? This mango was better than the ripest dark blushing Tommy I had ever had! It all made sense when I learned that I was eating an entirely different variety. 

The key I have found with K/K is to make sure the mango is soft and feels ripe, however dark the peel may be. (Many tropical countries have traditions of using under-ripe fruit for salads, pickles, or cooked condiments, but I'm going to leave this area unexplored for now.) A ripe Kent or Keitt mango is lusciousness itself.

You may be thinking, Huh! I think I've had a Tommy Atkins mango and it was delicious!  This could certainly be true. Or, more likely, especially if the mangowasn't fibrous, the Tommy mango could have been another variety entirely called a Haden. The Mango Maven, an expert on all things, upgraded her rating of Hadens (from "3rd runner up"). Her antipathy to Tommy Atkins remains in place, by the way: as As she writes in "The Trouble With Tommy Atkins," "Leave the Tommy Atkins mangoes on the shelves. When the Kents or Keitts or Manilas [Ataulfos] come in, get them while you can!! Eventually, produce buyers will get the message."

Of course, there's another school of thought entirely, one in which the best mango is the mango in front of you that someone else has peeled and trimmed. To these "Love the one you're with, baby" adherents, Manhattan - far away from the California and Florida growing fields - offers a unique welcome. The street vendor/fruit stand culture here includes many mango vendors who sell mango "roses" (mangoes on a stick with a half-dozen vertical cuts that turn the mango flesh into "petals") and cut, bagged mango slices. Some vendors include the pit with some surrounding flesh as if it were a particularly thick slice and some toss the pits away and just sell true slices. Salt and hot sauce are optional additions. Bon appetit!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Talking Turkey

My friend Lol recently paid a visit to Turkey, and very graciously took some pictures of fruit stands in Istanbul. (Note to readers: I'd love to get your pictures too - the farther afield from New York the better. That means you, audience member in Mauritius. And you, in Kuwait and Kazakhstan! And you too, Luc of the Jacaranda Primary and Secondary School in Malawi. Just email me your interesting photos - odd fruit, mystery veggies, only-natives-love-it produce, local markets - at Thanks!)

The first photos howcases some very attractive melons (with more of a vine/leaf presence that melons generally do in the US); squash; beans; potatoes; and onions.

When I visited Turkey about 15 years ago, I went in March - a particularly cold March. I was a little startled that there was snow on the ground. I hadn't expected Istanbul to be colder than New York.

In those days Turkey did not import produce - that's probably no longer the case - so the produce selection was a bit limited. I recall that carrots were ever-present, along with grapes, specifically the most wonderful muscat grapes I've ever had.

Turkey has changed a lot since then, but I hope the muscat grapes are as good as ever.

Lol also snapped a picture of cherries, always of interest to me, sold alongside small green plums that were unfamiliar to her. As she wrote,  "There was a fruit in Istanbul I hadn't had before - a kind of green plum that isn't sweet. It's not exactly sour, but it wasn't sweet."

By some cosmic coincidence, while Lol was in Istanbul checking out the strange green plums, I was at Kalustyan's, New York's premier spice bazaar - I also checking out the strange green plums they had on display. 

Fortunately a sign explained it all:

Erik! Not just a man's name, it was a global phenomenon. I bought some plums, took them home and cut them up, and tried them with the requisite salt.

As I snacked, I googled "goje sabz" and found this heartfelt ode on the blog My Persian Kitchen:

Do you have any fond childhood memories that involve food? I do. Many.  I always get that fuzzy feeling inside any time I see or taste something that I loved in my childhood. Everyone looked forward to when [gojeh sabz] were in season because every loves Gojeh Sabz. If you are Persian and you don’t like them, then there is something wrong with you. Can I be any more judgemental???!! Seriously….
 Gojeh Sabz is actually sour plums which have not fully riped. They are sour and delicious! During this time of the year I buy them from our local Persian Grocery store. Much to my delight while I was at the Farmers Market in Torrance yesterday there was a vendor who was selling them. How awesome is that?I just stood in front of the tables and had a moment of happiness with me myself and I.The way we eat them is with a little pinch of salt.  The combination of sour and salty is just out of this world good! It will make you giggle!!! All you have to do is take a little bite, then sprinkle a little salt, take another bite, another sprinkle of salt and another bite….next thing you know you have gone through a whole bunch of them, because they are just like potato chips.

I certainly understand how powerful food memories are. And yes, even produce inspires longing in the homesick. But are erik/gojeh sabz/janareng as addictive as potato chips?


They were okay, but not more than the sum of their parts. "Gee, this tastes like a salty, unripe plum," I thought. Since I had a little pile of salt remaining from Operation Appreciate Gojeh Sabz, I thought I'd experiment with another plum - a ripe one. Whaddaya know? I liked it better. 

And it was even better without the salt.