Monday, August 29, 2005

The new kiwis

Years ago, a mention of exotic or tropical fruit conjured up images of dancing pineapples, wooly coconuts, and golden bananas dancing alongside the likes of the Hawaiian Punch mascot.
Now, these former representatives of the entirely exotic have become market mainstays retaining little of their old novelty or mystery. In their place have arrived a fantastical assortment of rarely seen fruits coming in expressive shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that could only be described as unlikely hybrids of commonplace fruits with slightly more complexity and kick.

Demand from chefs, specialty markets, and savvy consumers has greatly increased for these exotic fruits, leading to a booming influx of imports and domestic growth. I was first introduced to these odd gems while traveling in Asia and Central America, and it has been a combination of my own hunger and nostalgic romanticism that has moved me to search them out stateside. While there is a boom of sorts going on, it is still a big challenge to find things like mangosteen, rambutan, and pitaya in any conventional market. However, since demand is increasing you should expect to see a variety of new fruits, domesticated and grown right here in the United States (especially California), adding some color to the produce bin at your local farmer's market or high priced specialty store. This is a pretty significant development considering the leap of faith and lengthy cultivation process that had to occur in some central valley backwater in order to bring these fruits to domestic soil without importation. I spoke to Karen Caplan, President of Frieda’s, a specialty produce company out of Southern California that distributes these fruits, both imported and domestic, to markets nationwide. Her company (specifically her mother who previously ran the company) is responsible for bringing the hugely popular Kiwi to the United States and encouraging their domestic cultivation. “It took the kiwi eighteen years to catch on, and I think it might take some of these new fruits a while to gain widespread acceptance,” says Caplan.

So while you wait for the influx of exotic goodness some noteworthy favorites to look for are:

Feijoas - Originally from South America and popularly known as Pineapple Guava, the Feijoa is an oval fruit similar in appearance to the avocado. It has a creamy-tan flesh that has a tangy and aromatic flavor reminiscent of pineapple and passion fruit with slight mint overtones.

Tamarillos – Related to both the tomato and the potato, the tamarillo, also from South America, is an egg-shaped, crimson fruit, containing a tart orange pulp with a rich blending of sweet and sour. Also referred to as a tree tomato, this is an ideal fruit for salads, sauces, or jams.

Rambutan – Native of Malaysia, the name Rambutan is derived from the Malay word for hair. This intimidating looking fruit is covered in a soft carpet of gold and pink spines and holds a sweet white-pitted fruit that is similar in texture and flavor to a peeled white grape.

Pitaya – Widely known as Dragon Fruit because of its scaly dragon-like appearance on the vine, the Pitaya is by far the most striking and exotic of the bunch. Native to Latin America, the Pitaya is a cactus family fruit that has a sweet and juicy magenta or white flesh with many small edible seeds. Since they tend to be crazy expensive (maybe $8 to $12 per lb), they are best chilled and savored slowly.

Friday, August 12, 2005

My Big 10 Inch

I must have been 14 when I sliced the knuckle off of my left index finger. Even at such a young age, I had the good sense to trim the top off the carrot and stabilize the base of the carrot against the wooden cutting board as I began to cut with the 10” chef’s knife from the nubby tip of the carrot to the base as I maintained a tentative grip with my left hand. I glided through the thin tip of the carrot with the knife as if I were unzipping a pair of pants, then I got the fibrous core of the carrot and my not too sharp knife took an off-ramp into my not too sharp left hand. I remembered all of this when I sat down to my first “knife skills” class last month.

This came as a happily received wedding gift from my friend Robert after a conversation about our mutual insecurities in the kitchen along with our shared desire to unlearn years of sloppy habits. Although I have never been professionally trained in anything, I hold the conviction that there are “correct ways” to do things, and ways in which you either ape what is correct or do what you can to get by. I have had a sinking feeling over the last few years, and the hundreds of hours of meal prep, that I am simply doing it all wrong when it comes to handling my knives. While cuts are a rare occurrence in my kitchen, and I certainly haven’t had anymore repeat Grand Guignol experiences like I had when I was a teenager, I know I have some bad habits that need to be unlearned.

So, on a sleepy Thursday night, Robert and I made our way to Culver City for, what was to be my first, cooking class (of sorts). The idea of cooking classes excites me, since nearly all of my limited expertise has come from trial and error, and I tend to overvalue the word of the expert (even though I have pronounced anti-authoritarian tendencies). The classroom was littered with unbelievably uncomfortable low-back wire stools that all dutifully faced a stainless steel whale of a kitchen. There was a lot of pre-game chatter among the adult-contemporary students, while they craned their necks in opposite directions to spy what was on the menu and who was blowing through the door unceremoniously late.

While I could drag you through a blow-by-blow of what was taught, the cuddly panda bear nature of the teacher, and the several grand-standing questions asked by my fellow students, I think I could do us all a favor by boiling it down to the key points of the evening, and they read something like this:

Most people don’t sharpen their knifes but instead use a steel (that blunt skewer looking thing) to do a sharpening job that is never done. Steels don’t sharpen knives; they only realign an exiting edge.

There is a part of a conventional onion that really should be cut out and thrown away (the root) because it is bitter and tough.

Housewives from Redondo Beach don’t know what a chipotle pepper is.

Your chef’s knife is your most important and cherished knife and could be used for just about anything.

Those handy paper thin plastic cutting boards that provide the freedom to funnel a few cups of chopped onions into a sauté pan are murder on your knives and should likely be relegated to shelf liners.

The New School of Cooking is never too proud to serve their students Charles Shaw Chardonnay at $2 a bottle.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Botany Dentata

Supposedly epazote (also affectionately known as "pigweed") is one of those leafy herbs that does more than bring an earthy quality to black beans. It staves off some of the more combustive effects of consuming lots of Mexican food; namely beans and namely gas. If you stumble through ethnic cookbooks, developing countries, and an assortment of books in the "magic realism" genre, you will find any number of wise old remedies and additives of the botanical sort. I just recently learned that (once again) for intestinal gas a tea of fennel seeds will dull the roar in your pants. I love this stuff, and there seems to be no end to the wisdom and the claims (whether proven or not).

In some respects, I see this as a sort of rejuvination of the herbal and the historical. A few weeks back, I read an excellent New Yorker article about the now wide use of leeches in pre-op and post-op procedures and how the magic little black leech contains within it a magical anti-coagulant that keeps blood flowing to areas that would otherwise fall victim to any number of nasty degenerative conditions. Gotta love the leech. I think it is only a matter of time before Jamba Juice starts making a Bee pollen black leech smoothie with an optional acai boost.

Ok, but all this got me thinking about plants, herbs, and other flora that doesn't function as benevolent blood thinners, gas blockers, bacteria neutralizing, etc. Something that is not necessarily poison, but something that maybe has it's own agenda once consumed. I am not talking about poison plants (I repeat) but I am talking about a plant that is simply edible but, in essence, has teeth.

I remember my father telling me when I was young that the wonderful symmetrical seed pattern on strawberries were the berries way of insuring fertilization and distribution of it's seeds. From that point on, I felt it quite possible these little heart-shaped rogues were exploiting my GI tract, and that I was innocently subverting their grand plan by doing my business in the bathroom, rather than on a well-irrigated hillside.
They must have been disappointed.

So, the question remains. Where are, and what are these plants that exist to make use of our hunger, gluttony, whatever. When I was in Sri Lanka last December (pre-Tsunami) I took a photo of a flower that appeared to be a relative of a bird of paradise, but held a remarkably different architecture and seemed to (see above). It was simultaniously beautiful and a bit unnerving. The book Life of Pi by Yann Martel revealed a carnivorous plant that consumed wayward sailors and castaways while retaining a set of teeth. Initially, when I read this passage I lost a bit of enthusiasm for the book, simply because I found it a bit silly. But, after coming upon this bloom on a rainy afternoon on the west coast of Sri Lanka, I took a moment to consider both the inspiration and the possibilities.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A more than good egg

On a recent trip to the NY environs, I took a few friends out for, what I thought would be, a complimentary meal but because of a proposed review being nixed, I had to eat my words (so to speak). Regardless, I was working on a story about elemental food trends, as in restaurants that put their culinary focus on a single ingredient or a single set of ingredients as an effort to have the elements determine the menu, rather than the opposite equation. Some of you might have "Iron Chef" bells ringing right now, but remember "Iron Chef" is defined by it's limitations and faithfulness to an ingredient rather than the ingredient providing a guiding premise for the menu. I guess this could be argued.

Regardless, we took ourselves to Uovo, a new East Village bistro that carefully exploits all things Mediterranean (check out the bathroom door plastered with a grid of used Italian museum tickets). The title, meaning "Egg" in Italian, seemed to stick with my elemental theme and hopefully was reflected on the menu. The space was not anything but typical with the requisite exposed brick and green washed walls engaging a looping Radiohead counteract. Pretty standard fare. Typical but not any reason to find fault. The place is new (was at it's second month as of July) and a bit wet behind the ears as far as service goes, but never uncomfortable and always pleasant.

But all of this is inconsequential. The element that moved everything forward was the very simple and engaging dishes. Not everything was exceptional, but seemingly, all the dishes maintained a certain focus. There was a delicately creamy almond soup with drops of olive oil swirled in, tea poached duck liver with drunken cherries, and a truly impressive (for the simplicity factor) raw, yellow, summer squash sliced within 1/8 of an inch and doing acrobatics in a puddle of deliciously carmelized brown butter: a truly simple dish with suprisingly fresh flavors that you don't always associate with squash.

The dessert menu was equally inspired but a bit uneven in execution. The tarragon pink peppercorn ice cream was unique and tasty, but kind of lost it's novelty after a few bites. The Cardamom cookies with a glass of cold goat's milk was simple and elegant in much the same way the summer squash was, but unless you are used to the idea and taste of goat's milk, you might not be too excited about this one. However, I liked this one a lot as I did the ginger pudding and marscapone ice cream with chocolate biscuits.

So, the restaurant and the menu didn't really retain that elemental consistency I was looking for. Eggs did make their way onto the menu, but were not crucial to the dishes, more of an afterthought. But the place was modest, inventive, and impressive and something that is oh-so sadly absent in the anemic restaurant scene of Los Angeles.

At the corner of 11th and Ave B
(212) 475-UOVO