Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Mystery of a Plum

Sure, many kinds of fruits and vegetables come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. It's hard to go to the Greenmarket and not marvel at the variety of peppers, for example. But I think I know what to expect with peppers: small peppers are generally hot (how hot, of course can vary enormously) and green peppers taste more vegetal than red ones.

Plums, on the other hand, continue to stump me.

I understand a few varieties, especially the Empress and Prune - the oval ones with purple skins and greenish-brown flesh. When I was young, the sightings of prune plums always made me sad, since they signified the end of summer and the imminent return to school. Nowadays they appear in July, breaking the poignant end-of-summer-freedom association. I'm not a big fan of these plums, but I appreciate their intelligible code: hard plums will be tart, soft ones sweeter, and their flesh predictable along the green-brown spectrum.

But "black" or "red" plums are another story. Will their flesh be pink-red -- or beige? Plums with similar purple-black skin can look nothing alike when cut.

Markets that meticulously describe their produce often still use these crude color terms to identify their plums.

I turned to the International Federation for Produce Standards PLU (Produce Look Up) Codes on the plums' stickers for salvation.

Not much help! The code 4040, for example, just signifies "Large Black Plum."
This "includes Ambra, Black Beaut, Prima Black, Blackamber, Black Torch, Catalina, Challenger, Black Diamond, Friar, Royal Diamond, Black Knight, Freedom, Black Flame, Howard Sun and Angeleno." This range means that the plums labeled #4040, the most common number I've seen, can vary from squat to heart-shaped and can have interior flesh of pretty much any possible plum color: dark magenta, beige, pale pink. More importantly, #4040 plums can have any degree of flavor. Likewise, Code 4042 indicates "Large Red Plum," with another wide range of varieties (including ones I actually am familiar with, like Santa Rosa and Fortune).

Three of the stickers featured a cute dinosaur, which is a trademark of Dinosaur Brand pluots. A few years ago NPR claimed that pluots, the plum-apricot hybrids, "now make up a majority of the plum market. In fact, you might be eating a pluot or an aprium [another plum-apricot hybrid] and not even know it." Based upon my sticker survey, with many more #4040s than any other number, that isn't true. Using the International Federation for Produce Standards PLU website tells you about as little about the pluots as it does for plums: PLU 3278 is "Mottled Pluot" whereas 3609 is "CA Red Pluot." But since pluots and plumcots, pluots' plummier cousins, are relatively recent hybrids, breeders are interested in their distinctions. I wouldn't mind a chart for plums as comprehensive as this handy-dandy one for pluots!

Of course, many markets sell farm fresh plums, free from any PLU sticker adornment. The Union Square Greenmarket leans heavily toward plums round and small, like Shiro and Methley, which they sometimes call Sugar Plums. Of course, "sugar plums" usually refers to a confection of dried fruit, ground almonds and lots of sugar -- adding to the confusion that surrounds plums.

So what to do with the mystery of the plum? I'd say relax and enjoy its unpredictability. And with that, I'll salute the plum, in all of its diverse beauty and mystery.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What the heck is that? Pumpkin scapes

It was the word "scapes" that first lured me.

To me, the word "scapes" refers to garlic scapes, the stalks and flower buds of a
garlic plant. I have very positive feelings about these scapes.

Farmers used to cut off garlic scapes to direct the plant's energy toward its bulb. (Then one day a farmer realized that the scapes tasted good, really good, and a new vegetable was born.) These pumpkin greens probably had a different path - they were the edible vines of a pumpkin plant, so why not use them? After all, pumpkins are the vegetable equivalent of tail-to-snout pigs, with everything usable from fruit to seeds to decoration

Still, I had never heard of eating pumpkin scapes/greens, so I directed a few questions to the seller at the farmers' market.

"Why are these called scapes, and not pumpkin greens?" I asked. "Good question," he said.

"What do they taste like?" I asked. "Ha!" He replied. "Another good question! Someone told me they taste like pumpkins, like beet greens taste like beets. But I really don't know. You should buy them and tell me."

"What should I do with them?" I asked. He smiled and shook his head, then said, "I really don't know, but you can't go wrong-" I joined in here, " chopping them up sautéing them with garlic."

The seller might not have been a master salesman, but he had a point about the preparation. What the heck: I bought them.

The pumpkin scapes had something going for them besides their name. I'm a sucker for the tendrils that vines shoot out as friendship-feelers to anchor themselves. I'm always entertained when I see a vine plant lasso in another plant, a piece of patio furniture or anything else in its path - a gate, a broom handle - to support its own stability. Sometimes the shoots are long and aimless, the bid for "friendship" unsuccessful; other ones are kinked and doubled upon themselves for extra strength.

Won't you be my neighbor?

The bunch of pumpkin scapes had no shortage of charming shoots. Some reminded me of old style telephone cords.

It turns out that pumpkin greens are popular throughout Africa, South Asia and the South Pacific. In Kenya, a traditional mashed potato dish called mukimo can feature chopped pumpkin greens. The Malaysian dish masak lemak labu uses both pumpkin flesh and pumpkin greens cooked in coconut milk. Guam, Bangladesh, India, Zimbabwe - all have cuisines that make good use of pumpkin shoots, sometimes simply boiled with salt, but more often seasoned with locally celebrated ingredients such as peanut butter (Africa) or mustard seeds and turmeric (South Asia) - and, of course, onions and garlic. A test nibble on some leaves revealed why no one seemed to advocate for use in salads: many of the pumpkin scapes had a weird, prickly texture. Their taste was mild, unlike the bitterness of many greens, and I suspected I could get away with a quick cooking time.

I planned a garlic saute, but I decided to celebrate the full "scapeness" of these pumpkin greens by enlisting garlic scapes rather than garlic bulbs in the dish.

I gently sauteed some finely chopped garlic scapes in a large skillet, then added the pumpkin scapes, which I had chopped very coarsely.

The cooking time was indeed brief - 5 minutes or so. The resulting dish wasn't photogenic or fit for company - dig those long stems! - but it wasn't intended to be. This experience was a getting-to-know you, focused mainly on taste. 

And taste was in rather short supply. The pumpkin scapes had a vegetal, mild flavor. They lacked the bitterness of greens like broccoli rape and collards, which some might see as a plus, but they also lacked the oomph and personality of these greens. There was nothing to highlight or temper. I definitely did not discern any pumpkin flavor. 

The pumpkin scapes' flavor void was filled by the garlic scapes' ebullient personality. This was not at all an unhappy outcome, but I could have enjoyed the rich, garlicky flavor without the pumpkin scapes as well.

So by all means use the pumpkin greens if you have a pumpkin patch growing anyway. Add the greens to soups and stews for added nutrition and color. Just don't expect this supporting player to become a star.