Friday, December 27, 2013

What the heck is that? Water Chestnuts

As an inveterate Chinatown produce shopper, I frequently see vegetables for sale that are totally mysterious to me. For years I noticed displays of mud-encrusted brown bulbs, but had no idea what they were. Since I had plenty of other items available to amuse me, I paid the bulbs little attention and busied myself with many other produce delights.

But when I was recently shopping at a favorite Chinatown stand (making a typical purchase of broccoli, mushrooms and kabocha), I overheard another customer asking for a pound of water chestnuts.  The vendor obliged by scooping up some of the papery bulbs. This long-term mystery was solved!

Water chestnuts? Sure, intellectually I understood that water chestnuts were not born boiled and canned, but I never realized they were were so readily available fresh.

I hadn't actually given them much thought at all. I had only had water chestnuts in Chinese dishes such as stir-fries, in which they distinguished themselves as the crunchy-but-otherwise-bland element. I assumed they also showed up in pot stickers and other finely chopped vegetable conglomerations, mainly because no vegetable escapes such associations.

But I was curious enough to buy a pound of water chestnuts myself and begin exploring this familiar yet strange new vegetable.

I learned that water chestnuts aren't actually bulbs; they're corms, similar to bulbs, but made up of solid tissue, whereas bulbs are made up of layers of quasi-leaves. Water chestnuts grow in marshes, and - as I had seen over the years - they're generally sold covered with a layer of dirt. They resemble tree chestnuts (actual nuts, not vegetables) somewhat, hence the name, but the two are entirely unrelated.

I gave my water chestnuts a good soak and scrubbing.

The next step: removal of the papery skin. Forget the vegetable peeler:  water chestnuts are small, round and tricky, so you'll need a sharp paring knife. Cut off both ends, then pare off the skin. 

 You'll be left with a lot of debris and small white nubs. 

What to do with these nubs?

One obvious idea was to use the fresh water chestnuts in the manner of canned: sliced in a stir-fry;  chopped finely for pot stickers; or wrapped with smoky tempeh in a vegetarian version of the only non-Chinese water chestnut recipe I know, bacon wrapped around water chestnuts, covered in a ketchup sauce and baked.

But all of them seemed a waste after the hassle of peeling them. Besides, I was curious about how fresh water chestnuts differed from their canned cousins, and sauces would obscure the distinctions.

I decided to try the water chestnuts as is. First bite: crunchy! Sweet, with a mild apple + coconut taste, then a hint of something more vegetal, maybe broccoli stem. After seeing my prep work, my friend Charlotte was sufficiently game to try one. She said, "The taste is changing a little while I eat it. It tastes a little like an apple, but then it tastes different, maybe more like a vegetable by the time you swallow." I thought so too.

It wasn't love at first bite, but I kept eating these little nubs, partly to figure out their elusive taste, partly to figure out if I liked them, and partly because they made a satisfying crunch. I had thought, "Good for crudites," and "Try it with a dip," but before I knew it, there weren't any water chestnuts left to try.

Perhaps another trip to Chinatown is in order...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Autumn at the Union Square Market

Cold weather is a mixed bag for the produce enthusiast. There are definite limits to my locavore enthusiasm when the temperature drops. Still, it's hard for me to remain unmoved by the glorious autumn displays at the Union Square Farmers' Market.

Here are some highlights: