Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What the heck is that? Muscadine

Suddenly they are everywhere.  Well, maybe not everywhere, but at a lot of places.  

Could muscadines, aka swamp grapes, be the Next Big Produce Thing?

Here are some muscadines at a produce stand in the South Bronx. 

Surrounded by fruit stand mainstays like bananas, strawberries and oranges, and Latino neighborhood mainstays like papayas, plantains and two kinds of avocados (one of which, the large tasteless green kind, labeled "Domin" for Dominican, perhaps a slander) were the muscadines: small purplish fruit, a bit smaller and rounder than Damson or Italian Prune plums in the primo real estate of the center square. 

I have also been seeing muscadines all over Chinatown. Here they are at one stand in Chinatown, next to longans, grapes and starfruit.

 And here they are at Sarah's Fruit Stand in Union Square.

I have a poor track record of produce prognostication - that is, guessing which obscure produce items will cross over. I wouldn't have plucked muscadines off the chorus line.

Muscadines are grapes that are native to the United States, specifically its hot, swampy South, where most grape varieties would plead uncle. They are a fruit with many nicknames, including "America's first grape." Sir Walter Raleigh described muscadines in glowing terms way back in 1584 when he encountered them growing along the Outer Banks in 1584. Southerners have been making jellies, sauces and - most importantly - wine, ever since.

Muscadines grow in clusters, but the clusters are much looser than the tight bunches of other grapes. 

They are harvested one by one, not in bunches. And they are big by grape standards, so it's easy to mistake them for small plums, as you would for the fruit in the opening photo.

Photo credit: grapeseedextract.com
Muscadines, like most deeply colored fruit, have impressive antioxidant levels, and are especially high in resveratrol and ellagic acid. M.D. Journals (special Carolinas edition, natch) says, "A single 1 cup serving of muscadine grapes would more than double the average person's antioxidant intake." This could explain some of the fruit's newfound popularity. In the South, there is also a certain folk celebration of the fruit in the South, especially for old-time muscadine hull pies and wine.

On the "con" side, however, are two inescapable attributes: seeds and thick skins. In this country, seeds are generally considered a nuisance by most fruit consumers (and the corporations that predict and shape consumers' behavior). When was the last time you saw watermelon with seeds, for example?

Thick skin is a different matter: even though I have no quarrel with baked potato and kabocha peels, I am annoyed by the muscadines' thick skins. (I'm pretty tolerant of seeds). But muscadine lovers work around the problem.

Ozzy of Sarah's fruit stand is one enthusiast. "I love them!" he said. His technique is to bite into the muscadine and suck out the pulp, which he then discards. He doesn't mind the seeds, but as he says, "I'm Turkish, so I don't think fruit shouldn't have seeds."

He throws out the skins, but as muscadines grow in popularity, I imagine a secondary market for the discarded skins. Added to smoothies for the nutritional power? Harnessed for agricultural disease resistance? Organic clothing dye? Touted addition to makeup and shampoos?

Or maybe it's just time to bake up some extra muscadine hull pie.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saudações de Portugal (Greetings from Portugal)

When my jetsetting friend Bethanne told me she was planning a trip to Portugal, I naturally demanded some photos of the markets.

"What are you looking for?" she asked. "What if they don't have anything that interesting, just the familiar things we have here?"

"I still want to know what they have and how they sell it," I replied. "Maybe they have huge displays of olives, or something that expresses the essence of the Portuguese way of life.

"I love produce markets!" I added enthusiastically, maybe too enthusiastically. I hoped I wasn't spitting as I talked, though even if I had been, it was a phone call and she would have been unscathed.

Whatever her misgivings, Bethanne is a good friend and she took some photos for me. Actually she took more than photos -- she took a hit for me (and the noble cause of produce nosiness), since the supermarket, a Pingo Doce supermarket in Campo Grande, told her to stop photographing.

This photos below show a nice assortment of melons, plums, regular and donut peaches, grapes, etc. There are also some interesting curiosities above the fruit, like the inflatable banana in the above the fresh fruit in the upper part of the photographs.

I wanted to learn more about Pingo Doce, which looks like a large Portuguese supermarket chain. I enjoyed checking out the stores' weekly circular - something your can't do with a roadside fruit stand or even a central market, however wonderful they are in other ways. From what I could see, fruits and vegetables seem to play a supporting role, as they would in a US circular; I was most struck by the centrality of fish (another supporting player in the circulars I'm most familiar with), and wine, which in NYC is mostly sold in wine stores. In NYC, probably the most famous Portuguese food is very tasty Portuguese bread, originating in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood and delivered all over the metropolitan area. Bread gets a lot of love in the motherland too, judging by the respectful amount of real estate devoted to in the circular.

I also enjoyed reading about the fruta e legumes in Portuguese, which is amusingly similar-but-different than Spanish. Carrots, "zanahoria" in Spanish, are "cenoura" in Portuguese. Onions, "cebolla" in Spanish, are "cebola" in Portuguese.  Oranges, "naranja" in Spanish, are "laranja" in Portuguese. And so on. I notice too that the word "importada" (imported) shows up in a few listings, suggesting that most of the stuff isn't imported, and that the names of maçãs (apples) are in English - Gala, Royal Gala, Starking and Golden. The "translate this page" button helped me learn Pingo Doce's philosophy regarding its produce: 
We are committed to flavor and sweetness. Meaning that define levels of minimum sugar content for each variety of fruit we put on sale.Here you will not find fruit that is not sweet. Do not forget: flavor and sweetness.
Bethanne basically agreed with this sentiment. She wrote, "I found the fruit to be sweeter than in the US. Some of the homegrown stuff gets very big - melons, lettuce and oranges, larger-sized that what you see sold in the US."

Thanks, Bethanne, for the photos and reporting. And thanks Pingo Doce for a new, tattoo-worthy creed for all fruits, fruit vendors and fruit customers:
Do not forget: flavor and sweetness.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What's a nice farmers market like you doing in a place like this?

The farmers market had some good stuff. 

Wonderful peaches, both yellow and white. Nectarines. Concord grapes. Apples. Tomatoes. Berries.

The vendors spoke Russian, not that surprising, given that Brighton Beach, New York's most Russian neighborhood, was only about a mile away. But the market's wares were less noteworthy than its location: near the boardwalk of Coney Island, an area more celebrated for freaks than leeks.

(And certainly the food item most emblematic of Coney Island - especially because Coney Island Whitefish isn't actually a food item - is a Nathan's Famous hot dog, still going strong after nearly 100 years.)

I came to Coney Island to watch Minor League baseball: the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the NY Mets, were battling their cross-Narrows rivals, the Staten Island Yankees. Wholesome, carefully arranged produce was just about the last thing I expected to encounter in front of the Cyclones' MCU Stadium.

Despite the typical stadium rules against bringing in food, the guard let me bring in my newly purchased produce. "We say no snacks, but I gotta admit you're not going to find fruit in there," he said, jerking a thumb toward the concession stands. Hot dogs and fries were as popular inside the stadium as they were just outside of it.
After the Cyclones lost to the Staten Island Yankees, we took in some of Coney Island's other attractions.

When I last went on the Cyclone. I felt lucky to have my teeth still in my head at the ride's end. But this old-school (circa 1927) rollercoaster has been joined by newer rides like the Thunderbolt, Sling ShotZenobie, and Soarin' Eagle, variations on the theme of dropping you from a high point really fast and probably shaking you upside down a couple of times for good measure. While we were watching the game we could see the Thunderbolt car making its way up on the track (and if you go to the game picture above, you can see the ant-like car beginning its vertical path upwards in the upper right-hand corner; the track's super-sharp descent immediately follows). More tellingly, we could follow its path by the passengers' screams, which we had no trouble hearing over the din of the game. (To get a sense of these rides, just click on the respective link for a virtual front row seat on each ride.) 

There were no shortage of screams as we strolled around the park, contemplating the long lines and dithering about whether to join them (maybe next time). I was impressed by the sighting of a White Castle tucked in among the rides. Who thought that the experience of being catapulted 150 feet in the air at 90 miles/hour, then twisted into a couple of somersaults, would be enhanced by a greasy burger? 

But to be fair even the lovely farmers market peaches wouldn't be very appealing then either. 


Friday, September 4, 2015

How to Pick a Good Cantaloupe

Yes, once again I'm taking a break from showcasing the oddball and  curious side of produce to offer, as my friend Karen said, "something useful, for a change." My only regret, of course, is that I can't offer this particular blog post in Odorama.

You might recall Odorama from the John Water's film Polyester.  The movie was enhanced by Smell-o-Vision cards that audience members were supposed to sniff at various times in story, to give them a deeper understanding of the movie. (This being a John Waters movie, unlike later family-friendly copycats like Spy Kids, which used "Aromavision," the scents included dirty sneakers and airplane glue.)

A Smell-0-Vision card would be useful to demonstrate the most important criterion in selecting a good cantaloupe: aroma.

A sweet, ripe cantaloupe will have a very pleasant, tropical, floral scent. Your nose can help you weed out cantaloupes with rot and mold - distinctive and unpleasant smells.

In the absence of Odorama, I suggest that you get into the habit of smelling cantaloupes that were sweet and luscious, and committing the smell to memory. Likewise, remember the smell of melon mold and remember it when you next hold your cantaloupe auditions.

You can also find visual clues to the cantaloupe's taste.

First, avoid cantaloupes with signs of withering, moldy patches or rot.

Next, look at the cantaloupe's underlying color below its netting. A creamy or orange color is good; greenish casts, especially if they are dark green, suggest underripeness.

Finally, check out the melon's stem end. An "innie" indentation means that the cantaloupe was ripe enough at the time of harvest to be pulled off its vine.

If the melon still has a bit of stem attached, it means that it had to be cut off before it was fully ripened.

As always, a fruit that is heavy for its side is likely to be ripe and juicy.

Choose a cantaloupe that is heavy for its size and has a floral aroma, creamy color, and an innie stem end, and you're likely to nab a good one!

After dealing with the mystery of the plum, my status as the Produce Savant needs this reassurance.