Sunday, December 27, 2015

What the heck is that? Kumato tomatoes

Try this experiment at home: drop a supermarket tomato off the counter and see if it gets damaged. 

I inadvertently performed this experiment on some plum tomatoes I was using for a red lentil dish. Nope, they emerged unscathed. 

We all value resilience, of course, but this is a little ridiculous – and an echo of the description in the book Tomatoland of Florida-grown supermarket tomatoes falling off the truck and remaining dent-free. (And I don't mean to imply that this is the worst attribute of supermarket tomatoes, grown in nutrient-free sand, doused in eye-popping amounts of pesticide and harvested under slavery-like conditions. But, yes, there are times when I still buy them.)

I went ahead and used these tomato-bots – I pumped up the tomato flavor with tomato paste and enjoyed the texture and slight sourness the supermarket tomatoes contributed to the dish. 

But using tomatoes in a cooked lentil dish is one thing; a fresh salad is another. Are there viable tomato options for a salad in December?

Enter the kumato.

Kumatoes have a striking appearance - their color is reminiscent of autumn leaves, encompassing various hues of green and brown in addition to their basic red.

Typically when you see a tomato with an exotic appearance, it's hanging out at the farmers' market.

You might have mistaken the kumato for an heirloom variety, had you first seen it in a farmers' market rather than encased in plastic. Kumatoes are actually cultivated (but not genetically modified) tomato variety. They were first bred in Spain; now their patent is held by a Swiss company, Syngenta. Kumatoes have a higher sugar content than most tomatoes (yum) balanced out with some tang, and thicker skins, which make them hardier than regular tomatoes. To help kumatoes stand out even more in shoppers' minds, Sunset, the North American representative for the kumato brand, trademarked the phrase "Simply Unique Brown Tomato" and put the catchphrase on the kumato packaging. 

The kumato tomatoes were delicious in a chopped garden salad, and earned a lot of "How did you manage to pull off a decent salad with winter tomatoes?" compliments. The green and brown hues of the tomatoes got lost in the normal exuberance of a salad. I give the kumato high grades for taste.

But of course it's hard to be unique - even if you're trademarked as such.

Sacher tomatoes, seen here at a farmer's market, are probably mistaken for heirlooms by most shoppers, simply because of their context. But like kumato tomatoes, sachers are carefully cultivated hybrids. Even their name is carefully selected: "Sacher" is intended to connote the chocolately deliciousness of a sacher torte.  As we saw with apple breeding, taste is just one part of the package - the most successful products are also hardy and memorable in the marketplace.

Kumato tomatoes can cope with their farmers' market rivals (and so far, I haven't seen sachers make the leap out of the farmers' market). In fact, the better-because-they're-odd farmers' market varieties help give kumato tomatoes their street cred. But the success of one supermarket "European brown gourmet tomato" can't help but spawn imitators. 

Watch out kumato - brunetta's right behind you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Fuyu Persimmons

Sometimes my Produce Proselytizing goes way beyond my expectations.  
Of all the fruits I've talked up, none has become more popular among my friends than fuyu persimmons.

Some of this success is due to the very real charms of the fuyus themselves. Once sampled, these sweet, flavorful fruits can easily become favorites. (And unlike hachiya persimmons, fuyus aren't bitter and astringent when hard.)  This time of year, most fruit stands include a fuyu display. Fuyus are also pretty cheap, encouraging experimentation and frequent purchases.

My friend Lol identified yet another factor in her own growing fondness for fuyus. As she told me, “Ever since you introduced me to these persimmons, I can't get enough of them! And they're good in so many stages of ripeness. I like them hard like apples – and when they're super-soft, like pudding. And I like them in every stage in between.”

Despite my enthusiasm, I am not quite so tolerant of all fuyu candidates. 

I like fuyus only in the hard-like-apple stage. If they get a bit soft, I have to slice the fruit very thinly - and sometimes I have to dust them with cinnamon - in order to make them palatable. In theory, I could cut a too-soft fuyu in half and scoop the flesh out with a spoon -- many people's preferred way of eating them, as it happens. But in practice, I am more likely to make a gift of the fruit to someone who actually likes 'em soft rather than gussy them up to make them merely tolerable.

Some fuyu persimmons can challenge the inclusive love of even an open-minded enthusiast like Lol. These dinged-up fruit, for example.

I can avoid buying persimmons that look like this at the time of purchase, but I haven't managed to avoid bad fuyus entirely. It's my own fault:  I have occasionally bought so many fuyus that some of them have inevitably gotten forgotten in the back of the fridge or in the bottom of a backpack. When finally discovered, the fuyus' firmness has become a hazy memory, and I'm left with fuyus no better than ones I would have shunned.

So there any hope for these dented, bruised persimmons?


One option I explored was a kick-the-can-forward cryonics. I simply froze the fuyus to delay further decay while I hoped that a better plan would come to mind.

Just chillin'

I was inspired by the idea of freezing overripe bananas for smoothies (seldom made by me, but you might like them) or sweet bread (ditto, but here's a nice recipe for persimmon bread). But unlike slender and easily chopped frozen bananas, frozen whole fuyus are like baseballs. If you plan persimmon bread or smoothies, I suggest you pulp the fuyus before freezing. And if you want to use them in pancakes or oatmeal (my tip for bad blueberries), I suggest dicing them.
I was left with one plausible alternative for my sad fuyu baseballs: baking them whole. I decided to use the same technique for their squishy, unfrozen kin (even though I had the pulping and dicing options for them).

I like to add cinnamon to anything baked, so I installed a fuyu in a ramekin and then dusted the ramekin with cinnamon.

I added a bit of water for a nice brown bath. I already had the oven engaged at 375 degrees for another baking project, and I popped the fuyu dish in. I added a little more water after 15 minutes, and pulled the dish out after about 25 - 30 minutes in the oven. My persimmons sported cinnamon rings around their midriffs, corresponding to the water level. I tried not to think of bathtub rings.

I had kept the fuyus' leafy tops in place before baking for practical reasons. They would be tough to remove on the frozen guys and their removal would make the squishy fruit even messier. But they ended up adding a pleasing note. Baked and burnished, the tops enhanced the autumn glow of the baked fruit. The tops came out easily when I cut the fuyus in half.

I enjoyed the appearance of the persimmons' dense orange flesh, a big improvement of their squishy dented selves. But never mind appearances. What about taste? There was good news on this front. The baked fuyus had dense, honeyed flesh and a taste that embodied many great fall flavors: sweet potato, pumpkin and baked apple. Dignity restored!

And if Lol ever determines that some fuyus actually don't pass muster, she'll have yet another way to love her persimmons.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Insect Farm, Tokyo

I am always happy to get an email from my friend Hiroko and doubly happy when she brings news from Tokyo's swingin' produce scene.

Recently she wrote to me,

I went to a town in Tokyo called Ebisu in Tokyo last Sunday and stumbled upon a farmers market. It was pretty small, maybe too small to call a market, so they called it "Marche" (as if the serving size is always smaller in France than in the US).

She actually wrote more, but of course I was chock full of questions about this first paragraph, and I made Hiroko go back and explain.

What do you mean, “town in Tokyo”? Does Tokyo have towns? And how far away is Ebisu from your “town” in Tokyo?

Hiroko patiently explained,

Tokyo has 23 wards (called "ku," like Meguro-ku, Shibuya-ku) and cities (called "shi," like Tama-shi), and small towns in them. Ebisu is in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo - and is about 15 minutes train ride from where I live. Ebisu housed famous brewery, which produced Yebisu Beer (that is available in the U.S) . The fancy mall where this marche was held used be a beer factory with beautiful red brick architecture, but was kind of abandoned after the shut down of the factory. It kind of reminds me of the the South Street Seaport.
Back to her original comments: 
Because it was in one of those fancy urban malls it seemed more for tourists than for locals to get fresh produce. But actually there were a couple of good stands - I got some organic herbs and peppers. One of the shops was called "Insect Farm."

I asked the lady there what's in the name, and she said "We are organic, so there are a lot of insects in our farm." I thought it was so cute I took some pictures.


I was surprised by the routine use of English, so I asked Hiroko, Would the use of English be routine in a tourist area?

Hiroko wrote,
Yes, pretty much. Train/subway stations, other main attractions of the city usually have Japanese/English signs, some even have signs in Chinese and Korean.
(Hmm, so why does Japan have a reputation as being challenging for (admittedly spoiled and self-entitled) English speakers?  Oh, it's spoken English that is the problem, not written English.  And Japanese students typically study English for at least 6 years, unlike the US, famous for its foreign language deficit.)


I asked Hiroko to translate the prices and compare them to the standard costs in Tokyo. She wrote,
The bunch of sage I'm holding was 150 yen, about $1.25. It's a reasonable price for organic herbs.  [Hiroko, that's cheaper than NYC prices!]
The big bunch of French celery is 300 yen [around $2.50] and a bunch of borage is 150 yen [around $1.25] . A bag of assorted color bell peppers is 300 yen [around $2.50]

The apples in the photo cost 150 yen a piece and 500 yen for four. The muscat grapes are 1000 yen a bunch. It is a bit expensive compared to the regular market price, but they were organic.
I asked Hiroko if most of the market apples were the Japanese-origin apples that are now popular in the markets here - Fuji and Mutsu. She wrote,

We have quite a bit of varieties -  Akibae, Shin Sekai, Shinano Gold and Kogyoku. My favorite is Fuji to eat and Kogyoku to cook. Kogyoku has tart flavor and crisp texture, and it won't get mushy when cooked.
Despite succumbing to the charms of Insect Farm, Hiroko concluded,

That small Marche made me missing Honeycrisp apples, hot apple cider, and other stuff at Union Sq. Green Market.  And I miss Autumn in NYC.

We miss you too, Hiroko! Our fingers are crossed for a visit to NYC in 2016!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Gettin' Figgy with It

Just because my fig tree failed doesn't mean I have to be deprived of figs.

I find figs delightful. I like their plush flesh and pleasingly round shape. When cut in half, figs reveal a secret, fertile world, akin to the interior of gemstones. The figs' crunchy seeds offer a dramatic contrast in texture to the fruit's soft flesh, making each bite more enjoyable. 

And softness is key: If your fig looks really firm, with a strong stem - beware! You want some droop in the stem, some looseness in the skin. Too much firmness may be the signs of an unripe fruit. Dark-skinned figs should be just that; too much green is also a key sign of unripeness, though of course this particular clue offers limited information for a green fig. Figs do not ripen after being harvested, though they may "soften" or "mature" or more likely, rot. You will probably not encounter seriously unripe figs unless you are lucky enough have access to a fig tree, but if you do, consider making these candied unripe figs or unripe fig jam. 

Until recently, I thought figs came in two basic varieties (even if there are reputedly nearly 200 fig types): green and "dark" (black/purple/brown).

Green: Kadota (good) and Calimyrna (better) varieties.

Dark:  Brown Turkey (good) and Black Mission (better) varieties. 

I like them all -- and I also enjoy the the chewy, crunchy seeds-in-the-teeth sugar bomb of dried figs of either color.

But recently I've had my fig consciousness expanded in most exciting way. Forget black and green, or any monochromatic color : how about stripes? Behold Panachée figs, aka Tiger Stripe figs, aka Candy Stripe figs, a yellowish fig with green stripes. I assumed that these figs were a recent hybrid, but the name ""panachée," French for "variegated," dates back to 1826, and fig fanciers have known about these striped figs since the 17th century.

Where have they been all my life? And why have they shown up now?

Apparently Tiger Stripe cultivation was considered, but rejected, a century ago by California fig farmers. The variety was fragile, not as productive and didn't dry very well. Improved shipping has translated into a growth in the fresh fig market - I know I've certainly seen more fresh figs at the fruit stands in the past couple of years. I'm guessing our appetite for exotic fruits has also made us more willing to pay extra for showstoppers (Tiger Stripe figs typically cost more than standard figs), which offsets the fragility and unproductivity costs.

I bought the Panachée figs for their exotic and glamorous outsides, but it turns out their insides are even more exciting: ruby-red and juicy instead of the pale, dusty-rose seed interiors. Their flavor is markedly sweeter and more berry jam-like.

You could absolutely scoop out the seed and spread it on toast, add it to Greek yogurt, or use it in any number of ways that you would use strawberry jam.

But why stop there? I cut off the stem end and peeled back the skin in segments to make these stars.

My work was not as clean as it might have been had I not worked impulsively, but no matter. I soon ate the evidence. Because however beautiful these fruits are from the outside, their beauty is more than skin-deep.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Greetings from Costa Rica

Do Costa Ricans come to our fruit markets and think, "What the heck is that?"

I wondered about this as I marveled at the variety and novelty of the produce revealed in this photograph taken by my sister at the Mercado Central in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Just one single photo and yet so much to check out.

Up on top: Kiwis, got it. They're probably called "kiwis" in Costa Rica, too. When I traveled around Europe on an Interrail pass after college, "kiwi" was the one constant. If you're "kiwi" in Hungarian, believe me, you're "kiwi" in most languages.

The other easy one, with the center/left position: Mandarina, or mandarin oranges. Even if there's some confusion on the mandarin/orange/clementine front, we're basically on pretty firm ground with the popular citrus fruits.

I also see some pears, cantaloupe and avocado on the top part of the picture, with nary a sign to contradict me.

As we go down the picture things grow a bit more exotic.

In the bottom left corner, we can see the sign for "Pitahaya."  Pitahaya,
more commonly known in the US as dragon fruit, is an outstandingly photogenic fruit so it's a bit of shame to exclude it from this - or any - photo. Still, it's an old friend, with just enough familiarity and strangeness to be the star of our most popular "What the heck is that" blog post.

Another "What the heck is that?" friend, rambutan, is located in the center/bottom of the photograph, and is here called "Mamon Chino," which I learned, thanks to this blog, means "Chinese sucker." I can't wait to incorporate this new insult into my vocabulary! The "sucker" part of the name presumably comes from sucking out the fruit after removing the rambutan's thick, spider-firework peel, although I'm not sure how different that is than eating many other kinds of fruits; the "Chino" comes from rambutan's Asian origins.

Finally, the really exotic. 

Is that a pile of guava on the right side? Does the sign read "Guavahi"? The Spanish word for guava is "guayaba," not "guavahi," which, come to think of it, doesn't seem like a word at all. Come on, fruit vendors in overseas produce markets, take some pity on me and work on that penmanship. In exchange, I'll do a blog post on guava (or its even more mysterious cousin, guavahi) soon.

My heart rate quickened at the sight of the pile of "anona" in the center - they looked just like cherimoya, a luscious tropical fruit that I love. Other tropical fruit with army drab armor include guanabana and many other varieties. Tough skin on the outside, ice cream-like flesh inside. Wise farmers all over the warm world - Central and South America; Northern, Central and Southern Africa; the Middle East; South and Southeastern Asia - grow members of the armored family, whose fruits have inviting names like "sugar apple" and "custard apple." Anonnas, as they are known in English, closely resemble cherimoya but have segmented flesh that hugs the fruit's shiny seeds.

Finally, two kinds of Jocote. According to a description from Tasty Tropical Fruits in Costa Rica, jacote are eaten when unripe (green skin) and fully ripe (red or yellow skin), but the fruit is tart either way: “Initially upon biting into the fruit your tongue is bombarded by an intense wave of sourness which then subsides into a semi-sweet flavor with a chalky texture. The closer to the pit you get, the sweeter the fruit becomes.” If, for some reason, you want to see some Nicaraguan guys hanging out and eating some jocote, check it out here, and marvel at the full range of possibilities You Tube offers. Jocote seems to be the same fruit as siriguela, one of the sour fruits of Brazil's Northeast featured in my friend-of-friend Isabel's slideshow of Brazilian fruit.

Jacote is a fruit which looks like a small deformed golfball and its colors range from green to yellow to red. The fruit can be eaten both when its skin is green and unripe as well as once it has matured and turned red or yellow. Ripe and unripe alike, the fruit maintains a tartness to its flavor. Initially upon biting into the fruit your tongue is bombarded by an intense wave of sourness which then subsides into a semi-sweet flavor with a chalky texture. The closer to the pit you get, the sweeter the fruit becomes. It is also possible to eat the skin of this fruit as well!
- See more at:

Jacote is a fruit which looks like a small deformed golfball and its colors range from green to yellow to red. The fruit can be eaten both when its skin is green and unripe as well as once it has matured and turned red or yellow. Ripe and unripe alike, the fruit maintains a tartness to its flavor. Initially upon biting into the fruit your tongue is bombarded by an intense wave of sourness which then subsides into a semi-sweet flavor with a chalky texture. The closer to the pit you get, the sweeter the fruit becomes. It is also possible to eat the skin of this fruit as well!
- See more at:
Jocote isn't just another tart, Vitamin C laden fruit in Costa Rica: a jocote tree served hosting duties in April 1842 for the peace treaty that overturned the government of Barulio Carrillo. The treaty became known as the "Pacto del Jacote."  Take that, cherry tree that George Washington allegedly cut down!

Whew. That was a lot of information in one photo! Of course, plenty of questions remain. I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the prices, thoughtfully included in the photo. At 532.90 Costa Rican colon to $1 US, the price of 2,500 is $4.75, the cost per kilo for ripe jocote, dragon fruit and rambutan. Cheaper still are the unripe jocote at 1,000 colon/kilo. Why so much cheaper if both varieties are tart? A good question. Anonas are less than half the cost (1200/kilo) of the rambutan, etc., which strikes me as an incredible bargain. 

The real question: how soon could I get there?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What the heck is that? Sooty blotch

My friend Robair recently commented, "Every time I read your blog, I learn something new about something I'd like to eat."

Not this time, baby.

I should be upfront with the news: Sooty Blotch is not actually an item of produce, though it's fun to imagine asking a vendor for 2 lbs. of it. Nor is "sooty blotch" a vivid insult, though it sounds like an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

Rather, sooty blotch is the first, and probably the last, non-produce entrant in the "What the heck is that?" category.

Sooty blotch is a fungus.

Sooty blotch isn't a tasty fungus like mushrooms or huitlacoche, the Mexican corn fungus that is also known, hilariously, as corn smut. Sooty blotch is the fungus that gives meaning to the term "no spray."

Sooty blotch is associated with wet summers, and can affect other fruit besides apples - pears, grapes and plums are also favorites of the fungus. Farmers can treat their crops with fungicides or simply prune the trees more aggressively during the winter, since better air circulation means better drying in the wet warm weather.   

Seeing unsprayed apples is like seeing one of those "Shocking and Unrecognizable: Stars Without Make-up!" articles that celebrity magazines love to publish. Wow, is that a blemish on Beyonce? You mean it takes work for Katy Perry to look glamorous?

You mean apples would like this without anti-fungal spray?

Listen to Iowa State University's plant pathologists discuss sooty blotch and hear the echoes of feminist deconstructions of the conventions of beauty. As one pathologist noted mournfully, "People know what a good apple looks like. They're used to the Disney World-looking apples."  Another pathologist added, "It's devastating if you're the grower," saddled with apples unfit for the consumer's gaze, suitable "only... for juice and in pies."

I notice that even organic apples sometimes feel the pressure to be beautiful, especially if they're jockeying for attention in a gourmet market.

 Meanwhile the dreaded fungus is by all accounts tasteless and harmless. "Give the skin a good scrubbing if it bothers you," one vendor at the Union Square Greenmarket told me. "Or scrape it off with your nail. That is, if it bothers you." He was right - there was no taste difference, and some of the discoloration did come off on my cloth when I gave a few wipes.

Learning about sooty blotch has made me a bit more accepting of apples' cosmetic imperfections. At the same time, it has also made me aware of the hard work - and probable chemical intervention - that goes into making an apple look naturally perfect.

Today I bought a perfect-looking apple. But lovely on the outside did not guarantee perfection on the inside. Nature often surprises.

 Hmmm...could this become a selling point?

Ya gotta have a gimmick!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Save the seeds

When I recently served my father-in-law some dragon fruit, he said the same thing he always says when I serve him a new and intriguing fruit, especially a fruit whose seeds are prominent or themselves intriguing:

"You should save the seeds. If I still had a garden, that's what I would do. Plant them and see what happens."

Well, I am nowhere near the accomplished gardener he is, but I am finally taking his advice. 

I'm not ambitious enough to attempt to raise dragon fruit, a heat-lover native to Southeast Asia, but his words inspired me to direct my attention to my herb garden.

This year's crop included basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, parsley and chives. The oregano, parsley and chives are still going strong; the dill and basil are a mix of viable plants and stalks with dried leaves and seed heads; and the cilantro has entirely gone to seed.

Time to harvest!

First, the dill. I enjoy the dill in its "firework" stage, when I use the leaves and pretty yellow seed head in pickles and salads, but that doesn't mean the party's 
over when the fireworks subside.

  There's still some utility in the pale, dried-out skeleton.

 I chopped off the dill heads, and then gave them a good shake.

What can you do with the ensuing bounty?

Dill seed was actually a mainstay spice in my rather spice-deprived home. My mother, who has an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, used salt and pepper very sparingly and adventured to the use of garlic only after a late-adulthood trip to Italy. But she used dill seed very frequently in soups. You can also use dill seed in pickles, salads and anywhere you might use caraway seeds - in rye breads or dishes like sauerkraut or braised red cabbage. 

Next was the cilantro, which mysteriously crosses over and becomes "coriander" when I think of the seeds rather than the leaves and stems. Oh, you're supposed to use those terms. 

We use coriander seeds all the time when cooking Indian dishes. But maybe I don't have to buy the seeds in bulk, when I have a coriander-seed-tree right at home?

Once again, it's snip and shake.

If shaking doesn't do the trick, give each little seed a pinch off the branch.

My husband suggested a freshness taste test, but I couldn't really tell the difference between the purchased and the homegrown, other than the bits of tiny debris in the homegrown.

Finally, the basil seed.

Unlike the dill and coriander seeds, basil seeds aren't a mainstream grocery spice rack item. I had grown the basil from seed, and I mainly intended to save the basil seeds for next year's planting.

But a brief google search revealed the limits of my imagination.  

Thai basil seed ice cream!

Trendy salad ingredient! ("Inexplicably, the chefs also spurted a gray dribble of soaked basil seeds on the plate,"wrote the less-than-thrilled New York Times restaurant critic.) 

Tapioca pearl alternative, perfect for bubble teas, smoothies, and other beverages! 

Weight loss aid! (A skeptical comment from the Livestrong website: "Basil seeds, also called tukmaria seeds, are touted as a weight-loss aid because of their ability to swell in water and, therefore, improve satiety. While there's no harm in including basil seeds as part of a healthy weight-loss diet, no studies support these claims.")

Medicinal powerhouse, fighting respiratory, digestive and skin ailments!

Once again, the basic method of harvest was snip and shake. The basil seed heads were stickier than the others, so I pushed the whole mess through a sieve to get my seed yield.

Since most uses mentioned basil seeds' ability to become gelatinous tadpoles with soaking, I decided to soak the seeds and try them out. (No, the photo below is not a grubbier version of the dragon fruit photo at the start of this blog post.)

The resulting concoction was as gelatinous and tasteless as promised. What the heck, if you're in the habit of adding chia seeds for a nutrition boost to your smoothie, I suppose you could try this alternative. I'm going to save the basil seeds for the more mundane task of planting next year's crop.

But this whole exercise has changed my perspective. I'm looking at all of this year's crops with next year's in mind.

Cherry tomato seeds, anyone?