Sunday, July 23, 2017

Appreciating Fennel

Years ago my sister won a scholarship to study in Florence. Being a good sister, I made the oh-so-difficult decision to visit her in springtime. One of my many fond memories of the trip was smelling anise when walking around. "Oh, that's the 'finocchio,' wild fennel," my sister said. I loved the scent, but neither my sister nor I developed any particular enthusiasm for fennel itself.

My indifference has basically continued to this day. When I see the fronds from afar, I think "Dill!" and get disappointed when I see my mistake. This is not to say I never eat fennel. Once in a while, especially when I see a nice bunch in the Union Square Greenmarket, I'll buy some and eat it raw, thinly sliced with a generous sprinkle of salt.

But this member of the carrot family fennel does have many enthusiasts -- like my friend Hiroko. I'll let her take it over from here.

I like to use the whole fennel, including the fronds - they have a nice green color - in salads, but sometimes markets in the US sell them with the fronds removed. I guess they are too bulky and take too much space on the store shelf. So it was a nice surprise when I found a fennel with whole fronds attached in a Tokyo supermarket.

It was so gloriously tall and bushy - look how it was compared to
a 5ft tall kid!

In the summer, I like to eat fennel raw in a salad. It's super easy to prepare! Just remove the tough core and outer part, then slice the fennel think with a mandoline. 

I like fennel with orange (quite refreshing) - it tastes like celery with a bit of anise flavor, so it goes well with the sweetness of orange.

Or with thinly sliced zucchini and a mustard vinaigrette.

When we're in Switzerland [Hiroko's husband is Swiss], we often eat fennel with roast meat. [Editor's note: Avert your eyes! This is a vegetarian blog.] 

On my recent trip to Munich, I obviously enjoyed the city too much, with copious amount of sausage and beer, so I was eating roasted fennel for breakfast and drank fennel tea. They help digestion.

It really worked (so I went out to eat more) !

Now who couldn't appreciate that?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What the heck is that? Quince

The fruit vendor's sign read: "Warning! These are quince, not apples. Ask us about the difference." 

I could only guess the sign was prompted by the ire of customers who had bought some of the fragrant, pear-resembling fruit and nearly lost teeth biting through the thick peel and almost impenetrable flesh, only to be rewarded by the astringent taste of raw quince. Such are the rewards of mistaking quince for apples or pears, fellow members of the botanical Rosaceae family. 

Then there are people like me, who recognize quince as a delight of its own. 

I was ready to roll up my sleeves, grab a peeler and a sharp knife and dust off my father-in-law's recipe for candied quince. (He hails from the area of Vynohradiv in Eastern Europe, an apple/pear/quince  stronghold.)

When I first learned of quince, my first discovery was their enticing scent. The second thing I learned was to never eat them raw. Like hachiya persimmons, quinces are sufficiently astringent to feel as if they are ripping out the inside of your cheeks when you nibble on them.

I recently learned a new word that is used in connection with astringent fruit like quince and hachiya persimmons: bletting. Bletting is a process of decay or frost that renders intensely tart fruit softer and sweeter. I've let hachiyas soften (now I'll use this great new word) but I haven't bletted any quince. Yet.

Instead, I've cooked them. In Europe, the pectin-rich quince has a long and glorious history of being used for jams and preserves; in fact, the word "marmalade" stems from the Portugese word for quince jam, marmalda. From the Wikipedia entry on Marmalade

The Romans learned from the Greeks that quinces slowly cooked with honey would "set" when cool (though they did not know about fruit pectin). Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, "honey fruit") transformed into Portuguese "marmelo"— from the Greek μῆλον (mēlon, "apple") stood for all globular fruits, and most quinces are too astringent to be used without honey. A Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius gives a recipe for preserving whole quinces, stems and leaves attached, in a bath of honey diluted with defrutum—Roman marmalade. Preserves of quince and lemon appear—along with rose, apple, plum and pear—in the Book of ceremonies of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, "a book that is not only a treatise on the etiquette of imperial banquetting in the ninth century, but a catalogue of the foods available and dishes made from them."

Medieval quince preserves, which went by the French name cotignac, produced in a clear version and a fruit pulp version, began to lose their medieval seasoning of spices in the 16th century. In the 17th century, La Varenne provided recipes for both thick and clear cotignac.

In 1524, Henry VIII received a "box of marmalade" from Mr Hull of Exeter. As it was in a box, this was probably marmelada, a solid quince paste from Portugal, still made and sold in southern Europe. Its Portuguese origins can be detected in the remarks in letters to Lord Lisle, from William Grett, 12 May 1534, "I have sent to your lordship a box of marmaladoo, and another unto my good lady your wife" and from Richard Lee, 14 December 1536, "He most heartily thanketh her Ladyship for her marmalado."

If you're used to cooking with apples or pears, you should be prepared: quince is a tough customer. No scooping out the seed pod with a demistasse spoon: you'll need a sharp paring knife to cut and yank the seeds out. But the results are worth it.

Candied Quince Compote

8 cups quince, peeled, cored and sliced lengthwise into 1/2" slices
4 cups water
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 lemon, sliced thinly
12 cloves
2 sticks cinnamon, optional

Combine all ingredients into a 4 quart stockpot. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the fruit is fork tender and rosy in color, about 30 minutes. 

Once cooked, the tough quince slices become silken. I also enjoy the syrupy lemon slices. And the fragrance the quince emits while cooking is a pleasure of its own. A dish of candied quince compote is well worth the hassle.

So you'll be glad to get acquainted with quince -- despite its occasional identity confusion.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Late Springtime at the Union Square Greenmarket

It's hard not to fall in love with New York, with Union Square, with the Union Square Greenmarket this time of year. Flowers, produce and flowering produce all abound.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Greetings from Cuba!

My friend Bethanne recently took a week-long trip to Cuba. In the past, travel from the US to Cuba required considerable planning and justification for the trip, but the normalization of relations in 2015 has made the impulse of regular tourism - tourism for the curious, not just the credentialed or blood-related - possible.

Being a good friend and Produce Savant guest blogger superstar, she took note of the produce markets.

"Everything looked fresh and good," she said. The picture above, with sensible cabbage, peppers, onions and carrots, two kinds of starchy tubers and actually ripe pineapple. reminded me of the fruit stands in El Barrio, aka Spanish Harlem. 

A wide range of bananas.

Bethanne noted, "I learned that Cubans are on ration books and fresh produce isn't covered by the ration books, which makes the fresh stuff a bit of a luxury."

Political issues always touch produce, even if we don't always discuss it. Trade policies, agricultural policies, environmental policies, labor policies, and so on. What's grown? What's sold? At what price? Who's selling? Who's buying? What isn't sold? What's exported? I'm curious about it all. 

Given the historically fraught relations between theUS and Cuba, the political implications of produce seem more central. But perhaps I'll explore these topics more fully in future posts. But for now, I'll just promise to write about the mysterious fruits in the photo. Look forward to "What the heck is that? Mamey sapote" in the near future.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ode to Rossman Farms

I've been away for less than a week and I'm feeling the pangs of withdrawal.

This blog has featured produce markets in the Philippines, Morocco, Mexico, Columbia, and other locations. Here's a market a little closer to home. 

Rossman Farms is located on a gritty corner on the outskirts of Sunset Park in Brooklyn. "Brooklyn" is sometimes used as brand or a shorthand term for a certain kind of artisinal authenticity, but this patch of Brooklyn under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway overpass features porn shops and live poultry sales, along with schools, a church and an astonishing mix of residential and industrial uses. Rossman occupies the whole building, which enables them to buy in bulk and store their cheaply obtained produce. 

Not everything is cheap, but sometimes the prices are jaw dropping.

Granted, I inadvertently stuck my finger in one pear's oozing wound and squealed as if I had been stuck myself. Yuck! I tossed the offending pear out and continued to fill my bag. Velvety roasted pears, the solution to When Bad Produce Happens to Good People/pear division, awaited. Roasting (the blemished and wizened) and freezing (the about-to-be-overripe) were the fates I had in mind for several specimens of Rossman's clearance sale area. I normally never bother with produce sale graveyards, since many vendors typically hold on to produce until the point of rot. I've bought only lightly from Rossman's sale bin, but I enjoy checking it out every time I'm in the store. I was pleasantly surprised to see some broccoli, baby arugula and mandarin oranges in the sale area that were in very good shape, requiring no ingenuity to make them palatable. Part of the game is guessing the outlandishly cheap price for the good stuff. 

Most of my shopping at Rossman's is more mainstream, taking advantage of the store's appreciation of New York's glorious diversity. Eavesdrop on Rossman's owners, and hear them slip effortlessly between Hebrew, Spanish and English. Muslims in traditional garb make up a significant portion of their customer base, and Mexicans looking for nopales, tomatillos and poblano peppers are doted upon. 

And of course I also take advantage of the regular crop of nice vegetables.

Did I mention that Rossman never closes? It's open 24 hours every day of the year. You never know when you need that parsnip.

I checked out the store's Yelp reviews to see if I was alone in my enchantment. There was some grumbling - this is New York, after all - but also paeans like these: 
A fresh vegetable & fruit stand in the middle of factories and industrial buildings, Rossman offers a large array of fresh fruit and vegetables at a low cost. The fruit & vegetables outside is usually days away from going bad so that's where you'll find the cheapest prices. Thanks to Ross I've eaten fruit I never knew existed, I'm opening my horizons lol. -- Chica O
I finally discovered Rossman's (thanks, Yelp) and what a blissful discovery it has been. The location is certainly a bit peculiar-desolate 3rd Ave with its adult video and liquor stores -- but provides ample room for a really good selection of fruits and veggies. As others have noted, I was astonished by how far $20 went here. The 24 hour/all credit cards accepted bit is icing on the cake.   -- Lydia N.
Mike Rossman is a Fruits & Vegetables Genius. He has built an empire that takes the best produce from all over the world. And the prices are surprisingly very low even if one compares them to Brighton Beach area or Ave U or Chinatown  in Brooklyn. [Editorial note: We know Chinatown and Brighton Beach, but we obviously must check out Avenue U!] This is my new favorite one-stop shop for a great fruit - vegetable shopping. I highly recommend this place to everyone I know. Superb job, Mike!  --Kosta R.
I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What the heck is that? Charentais melon

There's nothing like a wrong name to make a mysterious fruit even more mysterious.

I was delighted by the pile of diminutive striped mystery melons I recently found at a favorite produce shop. The melons looked a bit like a cross between a cantaloupe and a carnival squash.  Their sign bore a very cheap price and a name that was entirely unfamiliar to me.

Sharantain? I never heard of it. Neither had Google. "Did you mean Sharlyn?" Google asked not-so helpfully. 

I knew I needn't stay ignorant for long. The melons were adorned with pesky stickers. PLU codes to the rescue!

PLU, or "Product Look Up" Codes, are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards, an international body that should really recruit me to join. These are the codes that cashiers type in at supermarket registers, but curious consumers and fruit fetishists are also welcome to type a number into the PLU Code database to figure out What the heck is that? Number 3033, the number on the melon's stickers, corresponded to "Charentais, small." 

Also appearing on the sticker, albeit in tiny letters, written on an angle: the word Charentais. Oh yeah!

Charentais melons are also known as French cantaloupes. Their origins - and their name - come from the Poitou-Charentes region of France, where they were bred for refinement, "free of natural and highly occurring warts of its parent varieties." I hazily recalled a few past specimens from pricey gourmet stores, fragrant and expensive. These humbler cousins, (who, according to the PLU stickers, hailed from Guatemala) lacked an enticing scent, but also lacked the stiff price tag. Many fruit enthusiasts rhapsodize about the charentais: "Considered by many to be the most divine and flavorful melon in the world...sweet, juicy orange flesh with a heavenly fragrance," said this seed catalogue. And an exotic fruit vendor composed this tribute:
Charentais melons are said to be the finest melons in both taste and texture...They have an orange flesh and a luscious, flowery aroma. Popular in Europe, Charentais are especially prized in France for their rich, honeyed finish.
Both sources described the melon's diminutive size with the gauzy phrase of "perfect for two people," making a shortfall of tasty fruit into a romantic opportunity to share the luscious, honeyed fruit with just that special someone.

So how to the charentais stack up against the mundane, everyday cantaloupe?

The ones I tried - and when paying just 99 cents for each melon, I could be a scientist, with a quasi-statistically significant sample - were very nice, sweet and juicy though not noteworthily fragrant. 

But it's February, for godsakes, and there is no inalienable right to great summer fruit in February. By this standard, the charentais hit a home run.

I'll be buying more, if I can. Charentais is a great cantaloupe -- by whatever name it's known.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Midwestern Visitor to the Big Apple

Enough with the New York apple-centrism! Time to give the Midwest some love.

Recently I noticed Samascott Orchards  selling a new apple at the Union Square Greenmarket. The apple was a rosy red beauty with a focus-grouped name, EverCrisp. A handwritten sign claimed a parentage of Fuji and Honeycrisp. Was this new apple destined for greatness? Despite my dubious record of produce prognistication, I had to investigate.

The EverCrisp is a strikingly attractive apple, but apples can't get by on looks alone. (The Red Delicious apple, for example, the prototypical childhood illustration of an apple, isn't spared ridicule because of its looks; one apple preservationist denounced "this disgusting, red, beautiful fruit" in an article celebrating the end of its "evil reign.") The name "EverCrisp" suggested a commitment to marketing that some apples haven't earned yet. Samascott, for example, sells plenty of apples with names like NY 428, NY 460, NY 543 and NY 652, but it's hard to cross over into the big time with a New York State Agricultural Experiment Station robo-name.

The "Crisp" in EverCrisp's name not only piggybacks off of Honeycrisp apple - an extremely popular and profitable apple variety - but also emphasizes the attribute that makes the Honeycrisp so popular: its texture. Crispness is king! The goal is to have cells that shatter, noisily and juicily. As a New Yorker article called Building a Better Apple noted,
Although a crisp texture is the single most prized quality in an apple - even more desirable than taste, according to one study - crispness is more a matter of acoustics than of mouthfeel. Vibrations pass along the lower jaw and set the cochlea trembling. Biting into a really crisp apple, one feels, in the words of Edward Bunyard, the author of "The Anatomy of Dessert," "a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days."

Some additional research helped me understand the appeal of the "Ever" portion of the name. As one Midwestern seller touts, "Sweet and ultra-firm EverCrisp can sit on your counter for weeks without losing crispness!"

Hardiness is the foundation of EverCrisp, which was developed by a fairly unlikely breeder, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, a collective of apple growers grappling with the unique climate challenges of their region, whose late frosts kill off apples. [Washington and New York, the "powerhouse apple states" have breeding programs that focus on late blooming apples that benefit from proximity to large bodies of water (the Pacific Ocean and Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes) that warm up slowly in the spring; ditto New Jersey, which similarly benefits from the Atlantic Ocean. The University of Minnesota's apple breeding program, creator of Honeycrisp and other successful apples like the Zestar! and SweeTango, was designed to address brutal winter weather. The Ohio State agricultural program that developed the Melrose apple no longer develops apples.] With no formal university program for landlocked Ohio/Indiana apple farmers, the growers dedicated themselves to breeding and promoting disease-resistant, late blooming apples that, in their own words, "naturally escape fire blight, scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust and late spring freezes thus reducing the use of fungicides, antibiotics, and orchard heating."

I appreciated the irony of this modest Midwesterner, bred to overcome the obstacle of not having New York's maritime apple advantage, being grown in New York. So far I've only seen EverCrisps at Samascott's stand, but if all goes well other farmers will follow, as will Whole Foods and other grocers. 

EverCrisp is a very welcome addition to Samscott's arsenal, especially this winter, when some of my other favorites (Macoun, Ashmead's Kernel, Golden Russet) seem to be having a difficult or truncated season. The EverCrisp is as crisp and juicy as billed, with a good apple flavor (for those of us, however unusually, prize flavor over texture), reminiscent of Fuji but without Fuji's occasional powdery and metallic notes. Its attendance at the Samascott stand has been very iffy, showing up sporadically. Twice I've been told the EverCrisp season was over, then been pleasantly surprised by a repeat appearance.

Nevertheless, Samascott demonstrated its commitment to the EverCrisp by investing in a new, formal sign.

Can the EverCrisp "remain crisp for many months"? I'm not planning any testing at my house. That's not the fate of produce (not even longevity champs like red cabbage) in my clutches. But I am encouraged by the sentiment.

Equally encouraging: EverCrisp's modest price. For fans of the notoriously expensive Honeycrisp, and similarly expensive (albeit less popular) SweeTango, EverCrisp offers a similarly tasty, crunchy apple but without the price bite.

That's another Midwestern approach that is always welcome in the Big Apple.