Saturday, December 31, 2016

Greetings from Cartagena de Indias, Columbia!, it's cold out! You know what that means: time for some virtual Southern Hemisphere travel!

These sunny produce photos come to us from my friend Bethanne, who needed some beach time and sun. She headed to Cartagena, on Columbia's Caribbean coast.

Cartagena comes highly recommended. Here's a description from Lonely Planet
Catagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13 km of centuries-old colonial stone walls.
What could be better? Oh yeah, some great produce! An Epicurious article, 12 Things to Eat in Cartagena, had this to say:
We're only slightly exaggerating when we say you can spend all your time in Cartagena sampling the mind-blowing selection of sweet, sour, acidic and just plain fascinating found-only-in-Columbia fruits. Try as much fruit as you can, whether it be a salad from one for the brightly dressed Palenqueras setting up shop in the shady Plaza de la Inquisicion; a street-vendor-sold fruit like uchiva or anon, with its pineconey exterior and sweet and custardy interior; or a morning juice of nispero or maracuya (passion fruit).

What are these fruits? My Brazilian friends introduced me to South American sweet-tart and best-for-juices sour fruits, and Columbia seems to have plenty of them too. Thanks to two helpful guides, Columbian Fruit: My Mission to Try Them All and Fruits in Colombia, I learned more about the Columbia's produce offerings. Uchiva, for example, is also known as the Cape Gooseberry and looks like a cherry tomato covered by a husk. Yes, very similar to the husk cherries I've bought at farmers' markets in New York! Anon is another member of the lizardy and delicious armored band of fruits that include the cherimoya and guanabana.  Maracuya is one of a zillion kinds of passion fruit found in Columbia. Some other kinds are granadilla, gulupa and curuba. 

Bethanne thoughtfully included a picture of some passion fruit from the fruit vendor. Passion fruit have many seeds encased in goopy capsules, hence the appeal of using them for juices or jams. 

(My South American friends have tended to be huge passion fruit enthusiasts, but I haven't really enjoyed the passion fruit I've bought at NYC fruit stands. Fair enough: I am withholding judgment until I get closer to the source. I sure wouldn't want someone to form an opinion before trying a NYC bagel.) 

Another fruit mentioned in the Epicurious article, and included prominently in the second photo and photo below: nispero. Nispero, and the similar but larger fruit, zapote, look a bit potato-like, with a peel the color of a dirty paper bag. Zapotes are tropical fruits I first encountered in Asia, and nisperos looks like kid siblings, sized more like kiwis than spuds. Zapotes taste like sweet potatoes, albeit with an astringent kick. I assume nisperos are in the same family of taste. I wouldn't have thought to juice them, but it looks like the juicers are always running in Columbia, so every fruit has juice potential. (I am not knocking this innovation, similar to the thinking that gave the world deep fried Mars bars.)

Not everything for sale is that exotic, of course. Bananas, papayas, avocado and tamarind are prominently offered.

So are grapes, oranges, apples and pears.


Tomatoes, carrots, peppers, pineapples, cucumbers and limes.

I think those rosy fruits in front next to the zapotes are mangoes. I'm hoping the blackish purple fruit next to them are something exotic, but they might be plums. And where are the shoppers?

At least one shopper has found something. Well, produce isn't the only agricultural product available. 

And after all, no one can live on jugo de maracuya alone.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Bananas

New Yorkers of a certain vintage fondly remember the commercials of Crazy Eddie, a discount electronics store, whose tagline was "His prices are insaaane!" Perhaps the most memorable were those touting Christmas in August! discounts with a compelling manic energy. 

These bananas have inspired August in Christmastime.

Bananas aren’t my favorite fruit, but I am a favorite customer of many fruit vendors. How better to express appreciation for my regular $20 purchases than by throwing in a couple of maybe-not-so-saleable-in-the-first-place bananas? I'm happy to share good bananas with friends, then take the baddies home. When no banana enthusiasts spoke up, I've taken all of them all home. Transport isn't kind to bananas. Even those that start out in decent shape can acquire quite a bit of dinging en route home.

I had gotten into the habit of peeling the dubious bananas, cutting off the worst bits - braver souls probably use them too, unflinchingly - dicing what remained and putting the banana survivors in Ziplock bags.

And off to the frozen graveyard they inevitably go.

For years I would freeze overripe bananas, or parts of damaged bananas, with the thought that one day I’d use them for banana bread. Truth be told, I had a somewhat spotty history as a banana bread baker: a couple of nice breads for brunches and gifts, offset by the time I agreed to make a loaf for the birthday of a much-disliked boss. (I noticed that I had 2 bananas instead of the 4 required by the recipe, but couldn't be arsed to buy another 2. I went ahead with my banana-deficient banana bread and fielded compliments for the freshly baked, “Um, is that honey cake?” the next day. Co-workers eating free, sweet food: not the most discerning diners on earth.)

The banana bags, which in time would grow brown and covered with ice crystals, piled up in the freezer. “Does this banana spark joy?” I’d ask myself would fall on me during a rummaging. Of course it didn’t – and it was competing for primo real estate in the freezer. So out it would go, to compost or garbage. To avoid playing this game in perpetuity, I’d try to rebuff the generous gifts of my vendor friends but my refusals were never successful.

Hot weather - a distant memory now in December - inspired a new idea when I pondered the banana gift conundrum: coffee smoothies. Most commercial coffee smoothies are way too sweet for my taste (for good reason - this one has 105 grams of sugar, plus 8 grams of fat and 610 calories) so I liked the idea of experimenting with making my own. Besides, I needed a use for my colony of frozen bananas.

I knew that using brewed coffee or even coffee syrup would be a problem - it'd make the smoothie too watery. I needed concentrated coffee flavor! A trip to a 99-cents store in Brighton Beach, where I spied this hitherto unsung brand, "Pampa," gave me the solution.

Instant coffee, a mainstay of my childhood utterly forgotten in my coffee-centric adulthood, would give me the flavor bomb I needed.

Coffee Smoothies

Making good smoothies is a craft, not a science. Fiddle around with proportions based upon your taste and what you have on hand. Here is my basic working recipe.


2 bananas, peeled, diced and frozen (dicing before freezing makes preparation easier on the blade of your food processor)
1/2 cup milk, or more to taste (skim, lowfat, whole, nondairy = all good)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 - 2 Tablespoons instant coffee

Place the bananas, milk and cinnamon in a food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Pulse until creamy.

Add instant coffee and pulse until mixed thoroughly. (Yes, you could add the coffee at the same as the other ingredients, but I find this way more fun.)

Serve in a tall glass. Garnish with a dusting of more coffee. I can't recommend this final touch enough - the crunchy, intense coffee crystals are a great counterpoint to the creaminess of the smoothie.

I've become sufficiently enchanted with this coffee smoothie to think of it as bananas' best use, even when the bananas are perfect and in no need of rehab.

After all, a creamy and icy smoothie can be delightful - even with ice on the ground.

Friday, December 2, 2016

What the heck is that? Apple pear

Apple pears: the first step in a project to breed interesting hybrids of popular fruit? A project that could include the easy-peel, not-too-acidic banana pineapple (not to be confused with banana potatoes ) and one-step-ratatouille tomato eggplant?

The truth is a bit less exciting.

Apple pears are a type of pear, as some of the fruit's other names, Asian pear (and its geographic subsets, Chinese pear, Korean pear, Taiwanese pear, Japanese pear, etc.) and nashi (Japanese for "pear") indicate. Apple pears have been enjoyed in Asia for thousands of years and in California since the Gold Rush days, when Chinese immigrant miners planted trees. 

The "apple" part of "apple pear" refers to the fruit's appearance and texture - round and crisp like an apple. In other ways, the apple pear definitely tows the pear line. Apple pears ripen on the tree, not the kitchen counter. They are sweet, with a flavor in the pear family. Apple pears' skins can range from golden yellow to greenish yellow to paper bag brown, with a corresponding texture than can range from delicate to a bosc pear level of coarseness.

Here you can see the outward similarity of the two apple pears to the apple on the left. The apple pears' grainy texture, not quite revealed in the photo, differs from the apple's. Unlike a regular pear, the seed pod is dead center, rather than located in the lower portion of the fruit. 

The more delicate apple pears sometimes earn dog in a winter vest protective gear. 
th -- they're both members of the rose family, or pomes -- but the "apple pear," or Asian pear, blurs the line between the two fruits. Their flavor packs the unmistakeable honeyed sweetness of a pear, but Asian pears have the crisp texture, size and roundness of a superlative eating apple. To scientists they're unquestionably pears, but they're a distinctive and quirky branch of the family. You can use them in tarts, pies and other baked confections, but aficionados recommend eating them out of hand.

Distinctive Characteristics

  • Apple pears differ significantly from the familiar Eurasian varieties that fill your grocer's produce section. Ordinary pears don't ripen on the tree, but must be harvested while still hard and encouraged to ripen in storage. Asian pears, like apples, can be left on the tree and picked while ripe. Conventional pears have textures ranging from meltingly soft to grainy and sand-like, but always relatively dense. Apple pears have a distinctively crisp texture, apple-like but even lighter and juicier than most apples.

Pick a Good One

  • Asian pears are packaged carefully to minimize bruising, their major flaw from the retailer's perspective. Avoid fruit with visible bruising or other damage. Apple pears range from pale yellow to russet to green in color, but this is a question of cultivar rather than ripeness. Rather than color, use your nose to judge the ripest fruit. The best-tasting pears have the sweetest fragrance.

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But they are surprisingly hardy in other important ways: they don't turn brown or mealy when exposed to air, making them a good choice for salads and cheese platters, and their shelf life is noticeably longer than that of either apples or regular pears.                                                                                                          
My friend Thom sent me a picture from a Japanese supermarket in Hong Kong of this gift box of giant apple pears grown in a greenhouse in Japan. 

The price (using the conversion of Hong Kong dollars to U.S. dollars at the time of the picture) is over $22 per apple pear. Yes, $22 each! A box of six makes a nice gift for the right person. 

How can you do justice to a fruit this expensive? Chomping down wouldn't seem right. Perhaps you could only cut it thinly and curate on a platter with some equally fancy tidbit.

Fortunately, when I buy apple pears, whether at the Union Square Greenmarket, a fruit stand or in Chinatown, I don't have such constraints. At $1 each, and sometimes half that cost, apple pears are free to be simply enjoyed.