Breakfast Radishes

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Radishes for breakfast?

Nuh-uh.  Me neither.  But I didn’t think I liked radishes particularly until I tried these babies.

Radishes come in a lot more varieties than I ever gave them credit for.  I always thought of them as the little red spheres that Peter Rabbit got in trouble for and that cafeterias thinly-sliced into cheap salads, and they are, but it turns out they come in white and purple and in between – watermelon radishes are whitish-green on the outside and red in the center – and in spheres and oblong and big like cucumbers, and that’s not even including varieties like daikon and other Asian relatives.

If the only kind that you’re familiar with are the little red salad spheres, you probably think of them as crunchy, spicy, and a little useless, and in general I agree.  Breakfast radishes, on the other hand, are lovely.

They’re smaller and oblong, red from stem almost to the end where they are daintily tipped in white.  Look for ones with nice healthy greens attached.  They should be firm, and the smaller the sweeter, though the teeny ones rot faster.  When they start to turn, they get squishy from the inside out, so the middle will cave before the ends will shrivel.  Good ones look and feel a lot like small fingers.  Sorry, but they do.  If one of them grazes you while sticking out of your straw bag, you’ll jump a foot into the air.  It’s creepy!  Or maybe I’m just jumpy.

But they’re not nearly as sharp-tasting as the supermarket variety, which gives them a fresh, watery flavor – like a pickle without the vinegar.  They have a nice subtle bite so that something’s going on, but if you cook them down, it’s slight enough that it will practically disappear, which can be good when you have too many in the fridge that you don’t want to waste.  Think very, very mild horseradish.

They really shine, however, in simplicity.  Chop them into chunks, drizzle with olive oil and chunky salt, and eat them with your fingers while you sit on the porch on a warm evening with a glass of wine or beer.  Or slice them thin, layer on really excellent bread spread thick with a good butter and sprinkle very lightly with salt.  That’s it.  Cream cheese? Unnecessary.  Spices?  Not here.  Just crispy, crunchy deliciousness that tastes exactly like Spring should taste.

P.S. Don’t throw out the greens!  Use them like you would any mildly bitter green – beet, chard, mustard – and toss with pasta.  More on the greens later…

Trim? Trim off the root hairs or the really spindly long root at the end, and take a little off the top.  If you’re saving the greens, chop them off about 1/2 inch from the root as soon as you get them home – they’ll continue to feed the radish and will wilt faster.  If you’re not saving them, leave them on to help the root stay fresh a little longer.
Edible when raw?  Yes.  Best when raw, in my opinion, though cooked can go in almost anything as filler.
Worth the price of organic?  Probably, and easy to find if you don’t mind them looking a little ugly.  Radishes are one of the key “trap crops” used by organic farmers to lure bugs away from more desirable fare, so plenty of growers have radishes by the bushel-full…Trouble is, they’re trap crops.  They’re gonna look a little worse for wear unless the farmer is doing something to protect them better.  Ignore the bug holes and chomp away!
In season: Spring.  Radishes like a cold snap- it makes them sweeter- and they’re usually best when dug up before the soil gets too consistently hot.  In L.A., I don’t like to buy radishes much past June unless we’ve had a very mild Spring, but in the rest of the country you may be good straight through until August.
Best with: almost nothing – a little oil or butter, a little salt, and nothing else to compete.
How to Store: In the fridge they’ll keep a week or longer, but they will get squidgy about the edges or soft in the center if they go too long.  If they’re no longer firm but not really soft, toss them into any sort of stir-fry/saute-type meal and they’ll cook down and taste just fine.

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Those Are Some Pretty Ferocious Greens….

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Yowzas!

Those dandelion greens are strong stuff.

Dandelion greens are excellent for you – they’re nature’s answer to winter’s famine, chock full of potassium and calcium and vitamins K and C and A.  They’re also the food of fools, fools I tell you! Or at least fools that shop at farmer’s markets, because we looked at their gorgeous display and said, “Ooo!  Those look interesting!  Let’s try some, shall we?” Wherein we proceeded to pay $2 for a bunch, and then got home and weeded $40 worth (at farmer’s market prices) out of our overgrown, pesticide-free lawn and threw them in the yard bin.  Sigh.  We ain’t so bright.

The ones at the market are toothier than the ones in your lawn, though:

and at least we know (or can hope) they don’t have dog pee on them.  If you’re picking them yourself, also be aware that they seriously resemble another plant called sowthistle, especially when young.  Sowthistle’s leaves are wider than dandelion’s and often have a bit of purple in them, but they’re almost identical in a young plant – in older plants, the flowers even look almost the same, but sowthistle will grow a huge leaf-lined stalk up the center (as high as six feet in our untended garden) where dandelions will stay pretty low to the ground and just grow their flowers in the center.  Dandelion leaves sprout up in a little circle, with bright green toothy leaves and a very tough root that can run very deep.  Roots and flowers are edible as well, but not in this post.

But wow are they bitter.  Some people describe them as peppery, which I suppose they are, but I find them more straight up bitter than spicy or peppery.  It’s a little like when you take a bite of walnut shell accidentally, but not nutty.  Of all things, there’s a plastic undertone to the bitterness, like you’ve eaten something that just came off an industrial belt.  I’m really selling these, aren’t I?

Yeah, well, they’re not my favorite.  Cooked, they do become a more interesting thing.  They add a nice sharpness to bland dishes, and I imagine they’d be stellar in some sort of soup or spicy dish, but here’s where a confession needs to take place: I can’t eat spicy foods.  Red pepper flakes? Out.  Chili powder?  Nope.  Indian food?  Hahahahahahahaha!  I like horseradish and garlic and a lot of root-based ingredients that add a little strength, but I can’t take the heat, people.  (Exit the kitchen jokes here.)  So my choices are limited in terms of recipes to try, since there seems to be a bit of a spice consensus in the canon.

We tried them two ways.  First, we followed the “always wilt them” advice some experts touted, which involves cooking them in boiling water for about 5 minutes.  This leaches out a lot of the bitterness.  They were then sauteed in garlic and olive oil, tossed with pasta, olive oil, balsamic, and, because it makes all bitter greens better, bacon.  Delicious!  As I said, they add a nice sharpness and a good counterpunch to the smoky, slightly sweet bacon.  I imagine a vegetarian option without bacon would be just as nice if you used a balsamic glaze rather than straight vinegar – something a bit thick and syrupy to play off the greens.

We also shredded them up and tossed them with regular spring greens into a regular salad with tomato and avocado.  That’s where the yowza comes in.  I repeat, yowza!  That’s some bitter stuff for you right there.  Frankly, they ruined the salad.  We picked out the tomato and avocado and couldn’t even eat the regular greens anymore because we were so scared of spearing a dandelion green accidentally.  Supposedly really young dandelion leaves are much nicer raw, which makes sense, and I vaguely recall trying a dandelion green salad recipe in the past, I think something like Dandelion Salad with Warm Hazelnut Vinaigrette that was edible at least, helped by the hot dressing, but yeah.  Raw is out for me from now on.

Trim? The stems can get a little tough when the leaves are old, but in general, especially if you’re cooking them, they’ll soften up when you cook them, so most trimming is unnecessary.
Edible when raw?  If you like the taste of ear wax, baking soda, or aluminum foil…  Young leaves might not be so bad, and old leaves certainly won’t kill you, but if you’re hesitant about trying new foods, definitely start with cooking them.
Worth the price of organic?  Probably.  I can’t imagine someone who sells dandelion greens (a specialty item to be sure) being crazy heavy on the pesticides, and they’re tough little suckers, as anyone with a yard knows, but on the other hand, you’re eating nothing but the greens which means you’re getting nothing but the surface area that’s been sprayed.  I’d go organic, or at least “No Spray.”
In season: Spring through early summer.
Best with: Garlic, bacon, red pepper flakes, balsamic – preferably strong flavors with a sweet edge that can counterbalance the greens’ bitterness.
How to Store: In the fridge, washed, they should keep for about a week or even longer.  They’re quite hardy.

Squash Blossoms!

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Squash blossoms are back!  And somewhat less importantly, so am I…

So you might not care at all what happened to me after only 4 posts, but I’ll tell you anyway because I have control of the keyboard.  It’s a tragic story for an experimental veggie-lover, filled with heartache and loss and gross things growing in the fridge…  Basically, I got knocked up. Woo-hoo!  Baby #2 on the way!  But in early January, when I had just found out that I would not be allowed to have alcohol for ALL OF SPRING AND SUMMER (the tragic part), I also got violently ill for a week.  I had just purchased the most glorious abundance of strangeness to try simply for your reading pleasure: kabocha squash and purslane and frilly mustard greens that I forget the name of and tatsoi, and the one I was most excited about, nettles – crazy stinging nettles that you need gloves to cook with and that the Irish survived the famine with and oh, it just sounded so bizarre and exciting.  I even took a picture of some of it the morning before The Sickness:

And yes, that’s my son in the corner, judging me for photographing vegetables, or possibly pre-judging me for considering serving them to him.  Cut to 1 week later when I could finally crawl out of bed, morning sickness kicking in so the only thing I wanted to eat was toast and jelly beans, and a plastic bag filled with green slime where beautiful greens used to be, and I didn’t want to touch anything new for months.  Seriously.  My veggie consumption consisted of very plain green salads, the occasional stalk of broccoli, and my beloved illustrious avocado.  I don’t think I blanched or sauteed or even chopped until the 2nd trimester.

But to come back to the blog with squash blossoms!  What a resurrection!  See, squash blossoms are pretty much the epitome of farmer’s market glory.  They’re extremely perishable and extremely fragile and have a relatively short-lived season and are hugely popular and yet no one grows them for sale, so they’re just, frankly, the elitist little goody two-shoes of the market.  You have to get to the market within an hour of opening times to even GET squash blossoms, because all the chefs buy up garbage bags worth and there’s nothing left by 10 am (did I say 10?  I meant 11:30) when we’ve finally rolled out of bed.  Don’t even try the grocery store.  They won’t have them.

Squash blossoms are just meant to be stuffed.  They have long beautiful petals that you can fold over each other and tuck under the base like a ballerina’s limbs.  They have a very delicate flavor – mildly squash-like, but not mealy or bitter.  They don’t taste of perfume like other edible flowers, either.  They just taste like pockets of Fresh.  Most recipes for squash blossoms call for stuffing with some kind of filling (soft cheese and/or shellfish-based, generally), then dipping in batter and deep frying, and to that I say, ARE YOU NUTS??  I’m not a huge fan of batter fried veggies in general, I’ll admit, but with something so delicate, the entire thing just melts in the oil and you’re basically left with deep fried filling…which now that I type it doesn’t sound so bad.  So the other reason I’m against it is, meh.  Deep frying?  What a chore!  I’m not a fan of really messy time-consuming preparations that waste a lot of an ingredient (oil in this case), so we’ve only bothered deep frying once, and it wasn’t worth the effort.  Here’s my tips and shortcuts:

You’ve got to start when they’re fresh.  And I mean REALLY fresh.  If you can’t get them at the market, grow your own.  Zucchini start by putting forth male flowers, followed by female flowers – the females will grow a zucchini from the base of the flower, so if you want zucchini, don’t pluck all the blossoms in the first flush of growth, or all the blossoms on your plant.  Apparently, the ancient Romans loved squash blossoms so much they barely even knew it grew a fruit – they only grew fruit for the seeds and didn’t eat it.  They only ate the blossoms, or so says some semi-reputable source.  Probably wikipedia.

If they’ve sat around in the heat of the morning, they’ll start to wilt – this is what happened with ours, and why there are so few pictures on this post.  When they wilt, they get thin, and even more delicate, and they rip ridiculously easily when you try to stuff them.  Save the slightly wilted and ripped for non-stuffing uses – they’re still yummy.  If they’ve sat around on the counter for a day, they’ll turn slimy.  Throw them out.  You really have 2-3 days tops from plucking if you put them in the fridge or better yet put their stems in water; otherwise, wait until next market day.

So How to Stuff:  There’s no other way to say it.  You’re going to need a suppository.  Take a half tsp of your mixture (we like goat cheese, fresh herbs- especially rosemary- and garlic, but shrimp or crab with ricotta is also extremely rich and delicious) and roll it in your palms until it’s suppository-shaped: mostly oblong and thinner at one end.  Open the blossom as carefully as you can, stuff the thin end into the base, and then squish in the fatter end.  Twist up the petal tails to close it off, or tuck them under if cheese is oozing out the sides.  Most recipes, again, will tell you to remove the pollen stamens first, but we’ve never bothered.  Most also say to destem, but I like the stems – they’re the most vegetable-tasting part of the whole thing, a very tiny, very mild zucchini flavor, and if you’re deep frying, they’re helpful to leave on for plucking the blossom out of the hot oil.

But we don’t deep fry.  We put them on a piece of aluminum foil on a toaster oven sheet and bake or broil at 400 or 425 until brown on top.  If you spray or drizzle with oil first, you can get a little crisp on them, which is divine.  And that’s it!  They’re basically attractive, labor-intensive, goat cheese receptacles at this point, but they’re oh so good.

For the wilted and ripped, put a 1/4-inch of oil in a skillet and flash fry.  Toss into a salad for a crouton-y crunch – salads meant for warm dressings, like spinach or arugula, fare the best with the addition of hot veggies, and you can use some of the leftover oil in the skillet to make a hot dressing – or, better yet, toss with pasta and whatever you would have used to stuff them with if you hadn’t been too busy to get to them the day you bought them.  You can douse them in a bit of egg before you fry to help them hold their shape.  Blossom Day 2 dinner was pasta with chopped bacon, shredded chard, goat cheese, and flash-fried squash blossoms, tossed only with rosemary-infused olive oil.  It was so good we actually fought over who got the last squash blossom.  IN A MEAL WITH BACON.  That’s pretty impressive.

Trim? Most people recommend trimming off the stem and pulling out the stamens, especially if they’re already at the pollen stage.  I don’t.  I think they taste delicious, and I’m lazy.
Edible when raw?  Yes, though pretty bland and VERY green-tasting, especially in the more succulent base.  If you’ve ever chewed on sweet grass, it’s a little like that.  Cooking preferred.
Worth the price of organic?  Yes, if you can find them.  Squash blossoms appear for harvest before the more popular fruit, which means they appear at the stage in which even farmers who try to reduce pesticide use are probably doing one last pre-fruit spray.  As a result, though, only really die-hard organic farmers are going to have organic squash blossoms, and they’ll cost you – they’re often used as bait to trap/lure bugs away from the zucchini themselves, so the blossoms get eaten to shreds by nature.
In season: Early summer, and sometimes mid or late fall, a very brief window.  If you see them, nab them.
Best with: Soft cheeses (especially goat), shellfish, fresh herbs (rosemary, garlic, cilantro in particular), avocado.
How to Store: They don’t store well.  A note: don’t wash them.  They’ll rot quite quickly.  Brush out bugs with your fingers or a paper towel, and if they stems are long enough, place in a glass of water like you would any cut flower.  Store in the fridge until they start to wilt, maximum 2-3 days.  If the stems are short for water, a paper bag is best, but it makes little difference.  You should eat them before the packaging has a chance to matter.

That’s Not Kale!

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I was duped!  Duped I tell you!

I purchased this beautiful bunch of leaves at the farmer’s market this weekend.  They were labeled kale.  Another purchaser told her son, “Look!  They have dinosaur kale!”  I believed them all, like the fool I am.

After getting home and quickly realizing it was too fragile and purple to be dinosaur kale, and hours of googling images of various other kinds of kale, I finally asked around online.   It’s not kale.  It’s Purple Mustard Greens.  

Alrighty then, kale chips will have to wait until next week.  Maybe I’ll try Mustard Green chips, but I think they’ll be too bitter.  They are gorgeous, however.   They have a broad flattish leaf that’s a bit frilly on the edges that’s a really bright shade of purple.  The backside of the leaf is a rich green color that makes a beautiful contrast when they’re raw.  When they’re cooked, everything just looks dark green and relatively slimy, so admire them raw.  I want to have fancy parties with platters just so I can line up tiny appetizers on top of one of these bright purple leaves. 

They have a VERY sharp flavor when raw, like horseradish, or, dare I say it? spicy mustard, but if you slice them into thin strips they’re a nice addition to a salad.  When they’re cooked, they mellow out a lot and just add a interesting tang. 

Most people recommend a little pre-cooking for bitter greens.  A nice quick way to prepare them is to throw your greens into a pot of boiling water.  While they’re wilting (about 5 minutes), heat a little olive oil or butter on the stove, then toss in the wilted greens (you can drain them in a colander so they’re not so watery) and as much garlic as you like (or, in our case, can stand – we toss in whole heads.  No one likes to come over for dessert.) and eat when the garlic smells delicious, about 2 minutes.  I really wanted to try this recipe for Mustard Greens Salad with Gruyere and Anchovy Croutons (my mother just went slack-jawed.  “Mustard Greens?  with Anchovies?? Who is this??”  But it sounds yummy!  What can I say, I’m all growed up.) but was afraid the greens were going to go bad before I got a chance.  There are lots of varieties of mustard greens out there, so I’ll try it next time. 

They also go nicely tossed into soups or random meals.  We made a very bland dinner of white beans and parnsip circles and a little ground beef we’d bought for hamburgers that we didn’t get around to grilling and instead just cooked up the ground beef real fast so it wouldn’t go bad – not exactly a meal worth polishing the silver for.  But we threw these mustard greens in the skillet and let them wilt, and it turned out delicious.  It tasted like we’d spent hours simmering things in a complex herbal sauce, when it was just some wilted sharp mustard greens tossed in at the end.  Some people think the stalks are too tough and send them to the compost pile, but if you’re cooking it down anyway, they’ll soften up.  Do cut your greens into bite-sized pieces, however.  I kept stealing my husband’s fork to shred my big greens into more manageable sizes.  What, get up and get a knife?  You people have way too much energy.

Trim? You can cut off the tougher ends of the stalks if you’re eating raw or don’t like them, but they’re edible and soften when you cook them.
Edible when raw?  Yes, though the flavor is much sharper.
Worth the price of organic?  Yes.  Leafy greens tend to soak up pesticides pretty well, and conventional farmers tend to use pesticides pretty heavily on them because consumers don’t like bug holes in their leaves.  Love the bugs!  It just means another species likes it too.
In season: Winter and Spring – they like cold weather.  Heat waves make them bolt, which makes them bitter.
Best with: Bland dishes to give them bite or one additional strong flavor they can stand up to, like garlic, anchovy, bacon, chile peppers, or vinegar.  Good in soups and Asian stir-fries.
How to Store: They should keep in the fridge for three to four days, preferably in a crisper, produce box, or plastic bag.

More Alien Babies!

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Only this time they’re delicious.

I love fennel bulbs, even though sometimes the flavor of the seed or stalks can overpower dishes.  This happens a lot with soup, I think, but if you’re going to buy sweet sausages from the Italian place that makes them in-house (and why wouldn’t you?  Seriously, they’re delicious.  Which Italian place you ask?  ALL OF THEM.), buy the ones with fennel seed rather than without. 

I kind of feel like fennel is going to grow talons and attack me, but that’s probably because no matter how deep I stuff it into my bag at the market, fronds poke out from among the lettuces and apples and tickle me as I walk, completely freaking me out.   They will also attack you every time you open your fridge.  Those stalks are pretty mischievous.  Or under orders from their alien overlords.  Luckily, it’s the benevolent bulb you want to eat, not the tough, stringy stalks.  Some stores and sellers sell fennel pre-trimmed, but I don’t really recommend buying it that way since the cut edges get dry and shriveled pretty quickly.  If you’re into presentation, save a few of the more delicate-looking fronds to sprinkle on top of whatever you end up making with it.  If you’re thrifty, save the stalks to add to other vegetable leavings to make a vegetable stock, or use them in poaching liquid for fish or chicken.  They can overpower if they’re the main ingredient, but as an addition they’ll add a fresh almost grassy flavor that guests will find hard to place but can really make something simple taste complex.

If you’re not going to eat it right away, store it with stalks on so that it doesn’t get dried out, but don’t store it too long.  If it starts to go old, the bulb will get slightly shriveled with brown edges.  If the outer layers are too dry or brown, you can peel them off and still eat the bulb underneath, but fresher is obviously better.

Cut the stalks right where they meet the bulb – basically cut off anything green. 

Trim the tough bottom part of the fennel as well.  There will be something of a disc in the center, depending on how big your bulb is. 

This is the core.  Some people keep trimming and throw out anything solid-looking, or cut the bulb in half at this point and ditch the core; I don’t mind it as long as it’s not too tough.  I just chop the entire bulb into fourths or sixths if I’m cooking it and it will soften up, or slice it very thin if I’m slicing it to eat raw.

The interior of the bulb resembles celery.  It has a slightly tougher outer layer with a more succulent pocketed inner layer.  Pockets of deliciousness, that is!  

If you remember biology, it really should be used for the picture of cambium in textbooks.  Xylem and phloem anyone?  No?   I’m not a fan of celery, licorice, or dill, so I personally resent the comparisons on fennel’s behalf.  Fennel is related to all three of these stronger-tasting plants, and while it’s taste does closely resemble anise or licorice, it’s not nearly that potent.  If you like licorice, you may either love fennel or find it too bland.  If you don’t like any of the above flavors, like me, you may still love fennel.  It tastes like Spring.  It has a great crunch and enough moisture that it automatically tastes refreshing.  It’s slightly sweet, very slightly grassy, with just a tiny hint of licorice-like sharpness.   Just to clarify, the kind of fennel I’m talking about here is Florence fennel – it’s been cultivated to have this big delicious bulb.  Other types of fennel, including wild, have a slightly sharper taste and slightly different uses, though they’re just different variants of the same species.

There are lots of different ways to prepare fennel, both raw and cooked, but my absolute favorite is also extremely easy.  (You may be noticing a trend with my recipes.  I’m lazy.  I have a toddler.  I own a mismatched set of skillets I bought at Marshall’s and one nice omelette pan we received as a wedding gift that I subsequently used metal utensils on and ruined.  I don’t really do complicated.)  Slice the fennel as thin as you can without injuring yourself.  If you have a mandoline, your fennel will look much prettier than mine.  Break up the slices (they’ll come apart when you pick them up) so that you can pile them artfully on a plate.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Squeeze the juice of half a lemon on top.  Pick out the seeds that inevitably fell into your salad.  Top with a tablespoon (who are we kidding here?  I use more like half a cup.  It’s cheese!) shaved or grated parmesan (use fresh here, not the stuff in the green can) and sprinkle with a little chunky sea salt.  If you’re fancy, top with those saved feathery fronds so it looks pretty.  That’s it.  It doesn’t look very glamorous, but I could eat this salad almost every day.  Yes, it’s topped with half a pound of cheese (did I say half a cup earlier?  I probably lied), but if you have more self-control or perhaps more lactose-intolerance than I do, it doesn’t have to be.  It’s crisp, it’s summery, it goes with almost everything, and fennel is supposed to aid digestion and have other magical herbal properties including lots of vitamins, so that cancels out all the cheese I just put on there.  Isn’t that how vitamins work?

Peel? Trim.  All the parts are technically edible, but it’s the bulb that’s the tastiest.  Trim off the stalks and tough bottom part, and peel off any outer old layers if necessary.
Edible seed? Yes, though you won’t see it on the bulbs you’ll buy at the market.  Fennel seed, pollen, and other varieties will be the subject of another post.
Edible when raw?  Yes.  Raw or cooked are both delicious.
Worth the price of organic?  Probably.  The bulb sits just above ground, so it gets contact with both sprayed-on pesticides and things sitting on the soil.  Insects don’t love fennel (in fact, some gardeners use it as a natural repellant), so it shouldn’t need tons of pesticides to grow well anyway.
In season: Fennel is a cooler weather crop, so you’ll find it in Spring and Autumn.  Spring fennel is usually a little sweeter than Autumn fennel, since an unexpected heat wave can make the plant bolt, making it sharper. 
Best with: lemon, fish, chicken – milder flavors let the subtler bulb shine. 
How to Store: In the fridge for up to a week, though if you keep it that long you’ll have some old layers to peel off.
Note on Growing Your Own: Almost every plant on Earth hates fennel, so if you decide to grow it yourself, put it in a pot or raised bed alone, or plant it in a separate area from other plants, especially fruits and vegetables.  If you plant it anywhere near dill, they’ll cross-pollinate and neither will be the flavor you want.

Pretty Sure It’s an Alien Egg…

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Okay, so this isn’t from the farmer’s market, it’s from the grocery store, but I mean, just LOOK at the thing:

How do you NOT wonder what the heck it is?  Yeah, yeah, read the sign.  Thank you.  The grocery store claims that it’s called a Kiwano Melon or Horned Melon (one store said “Horny Melon.”  Ha!  Yes, I’m a twelve-year old boy at heart.)  The Internet claims that it’s one of the few sources of thirst-quenching liquid in the Kalahari Desert.  Seeing as I am not in the Kalahari Desert, I just haven’t gotten off my duff to go to Trader Joe’s and buy some water lately, I was dubious, yet hopeful.  Trying foods you’ve never seen before is an optimistic endeavor – I keep hoping to find something a-MA-zing like Uglifruit, or better yet, crème brûlée I can grow on a vine.  (What’s uglifruit you ask?  It’s a seriously ugly fruit that I used to see at Whole Foods in Chicago in January.  They only grow it in Jamaica, I think, and for the life of me I can’t find one in Los Angeles.  I’ve been looking every winter for over ten years.  It’s like a peach decided to dress up like an orange on the inside and a troll on the outside.  It’s awesome.  If I can find one, it’ll be a post topic one of these days.)

So would the kiwano melon turn out to be my new extravagant long-sought love?  Alas, no.  But first, what to do with it.  A ripe kiwano is oblong-shaped and bright yellowish-orange with spikes all around.  Cut it open either horizontally or lengthwise and you’ll find this: 

Green, seed-filled goo.  I’m really selling this, aren’t I?  But it is what it is.  The interior is filled with little gelatinous sacks that each contains a seed.  For a little botany in your life, I expect the purpose is to protect each seed from drying out so there’s a chance a few can survive even the Kalahari sun.  Evolutionarily, it’s ingenious.  Practically, it’s a pain in the ass.  You see, to enjoy said goo to its fullest, you need to spoon some out, put a little in your mouth, and try to just eat the goo without eating the seed.  You sort of bite down on the tip of the seed to hold it in place and suck off the jelly-like casing.  It’s not something you want to do in public.  It’s messy, a little gross, and feels a little creepy, like you’re sucking on eyeballs or something.  Okay, now that I’ve made you NEVER want to try one, I should put in the disclaimer – it’s the consistency of jello.  If you like jello, you may not find this whole process that distasteful.  I hate jello.  It feels like I’m sucking on eyeballs.  So there’s that.

But I also have to add: to me, the only possible appeal of jello is how easy it is to eat.  It’s why they serve it to people in full-body casts.  So if you just take jello and make it hard to get to…well…you’ve lost me.  The flavor is pretty nonexistent as well.  There’s a hint of melon in there, but so subtle that it’s almost nil.  It’s like honeydew but without any of the sweetness and almost no juice whatsoever.  If this is how you quench your thirst in the desert, I have learned that I do not want to ever be stuck in the desert.  Some have said it’s reminiscent of cucumber, but there’s not nearly that much flavor to it.  It’s very, very subtle.

Now the lazy among you out there (me! me! oh that’s me!) might think, Forget the goo-sucking, you pansy.  Just eat the stupid seeds.  And you’re right.  You can.  I did.  You know when you’re enjoying a nice ripe cantaloupe and all of a sudden you get an accidental seed that slipped through?  It’s got that sharp taste of melon-flavored rock?  That’s exactly what the seeds taste like.  They’re not awful or anything; they just taste like melon seeds and make the whole mouthful taste like melon seeds instead of subtly-flavored goo and make you wonder why you paid three bucks for this alien egg.

Now it does have its good points, I’m sure.  For starters, my toddler kept coming back for more spoonfuls, seeds and all.  This is a child whose favorite food since he started solids is sauteed spinach, so granted, he’s a weird kid,but clearly there was something likeable about the thing other than the fact Mom was eating it with a strange expression on her face. I also think that if you like pomegranate seeds or similar in, say, a salad, but the flavor’s a little strong, this would give you the same textural effect without the berry flavor, so that might be nice.  As decor, the thing’s gorgeous.  They keep on the counter for months and look smashing in centerpieces, or you can hollow them out and they have very cool pockets you could stuff something more tasty inside as serving bowls.  You could also stab it with a pointy stick and make a very effective mace out of it, I imagine. 

It has its uses.  If you try one and like it, let me know.  More importantly, let me know WHY.  Were you stuck in the Kalahari?  Ah, that makes sense then.

Peel? Scoop, really.  A few websites say that the peel is edible with salt or sugar, but I haven’t been able to find any particulars.
Edible seed? Yes, but not preferred.
Edible when raw?  Yes, straight out of the shell.
Worth the price of organic?  They’re so rare as it is, I don’t know if there are even organics available.  Personally, I don’t think they’re really worth the price at all, except as a novelty.
In season: They need hot, desert conditions, but if those exist, they’re in season.  Currently, they’re grown in Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and California, and a different cultivar in Latin America.
Best with: cocktails seem to the popular use, and fruit salads.  The seeds are unusually high in iron, for a fruit.
How to Store: On the counter, not in the fridge.  They’ll keep for up to three months.

The Illustrious Avocado

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Alright, so an avocado isn’t the most exotic food to start a page called “Strange and Yummy,” but when you grew up with your vegetable choice of frozen peas, frozen corn, or the more mysterious frozen mixed vegetables – consisting of frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen carrots, and the dreaded lima bean – an avocado was a revelation.  Other than pre-sliced on my California Turkey sandwich at Au Bon Pain, I don’t think I saw an avocado in the flesh until I actually moved to California at the age of 20. 

If you’re an avocado newbie like I was, you might be wary of their alien bumpy skin, afraid of their fatty reputation, or worried about what occasionally appears to be green goo oozing out of the sides of the sandwich.  You shouldn’t be.  An avocado is nature’s mayonnaise.  Well, okay, if you hate mayonnaise, you might not like an avocado.  A ripe avocado is silky and almost eggy in its richness.  If you splash it with fruit vinegar you’ll notice that an avocado is technically a fruit, not a veg, but an avocado really shines with fresh garlic, ripe tomatoes, shellfish like crab and shrimp – especially with a sharp acid to counter the smooth, slightly sweet avocado, like a splash of lemon, lime or balsamic vinegar.  An avocado is equally at home mashed into a guacamole and served with chips or served in a crystal martini glass filled with fresh ceviche, in California rolls, in salads, and divine in a BLT. 

Okay, it’s definitely weird that a fruit can be fatty.  That just seems…wrong, doesn’t it?  I’d think it was unfair somehow, but the nice part at least is that at least avocados are full of the good kinds of fat – you know, the kind that gives you boobs instead of love handles.  Wait, that’s not what that means?  Oh.  Anyway, it’s full of yummy yummy good fat and lots of vitamin E, which doesn’t show up in tons of places and is absorbed best with food instead of supplements and is super good for you but now I forget why because all the knowledge on nutrition I used to have memorized has been replaced with versions of the Alphabet Song.  The perils of having a toddler.

So what to do with it?  First, you’ve got to know what to look for.  A ripe avocado should have a little give when you squeze it; if it’s soft or actually squishy, it’s overripe.  It might still be good in something mashed into oblivion, but it will be too squishy to holds its shape in anything else.  Don’t squeeze too hard or too obviously though – ripe avocados actually bruise pretty easily, and sellers don’t like people mushing up their produce. 

Avocados start out with bright green skin (some varieties are quite smooth, most regularly available kinds are bumpy) and turn brown as they ripen.  Again, too brown and it’s too ripe.  A little hint of green is a good thing to look for unless you plan on using it as soon as you get home.

 

Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, but watch out for the big pit, and watch out for your hand.  That’s how I got this scar:

Okay, you can’t really see it, but I know it’s there and it hurt like a sonofabitch when I stabbed myself with the tip of the steak knife.  I never use the right knife for the job, by the way. 

The inside will be greener towards the skin, paler towards the pit, and will usually get a little yellowish when it’s really ripe.  If it’s hard – not apple hard, even just green-tipped banana hard – it’ll be bitter and gross.  You want it soft and creamy – if there’s any separation of layers or brown spots, cut them out and use the rest.  See these?

That’s separation.  This guy’s getting close to guacamole time.

Something I just discovered from a grower this fall?  You can keep avocados in the fridge to stop them from ripening.  I know, I know, you can do that with almost everything, but I’d always heard avocados were counter fruit.  Not so!

You can use the sharp tip of a knife to jab the pit and pluck it out – envisioning some enemy’s eyeball if it makes you feel a little more badass when making a salad – but I’ve got issues with knives slipping away from me (see nonexistent scar above), so I like to sort of wrestle it out with a fingernail even if it mangles the pretty indent a bit. 

Use a big spoon to get between the thick skin and the avocado flesh and take out the whole half at once, then slice, dice, julienne or mash to your heart’s content.

So now to the yummy part…Yay!  I love avocados.  I could eat them almost every day.  I personally don’t like them even the least bit warm – maybe someone out there has a recipe that uses them cooked, but I haven’t seen one – so I don’t even like to put them on top of something like an omelette until it’s already on the table.  My favorite way to eat them is the simplest: cut one avocado and one tomato that’s roughly the same size into roughly the same size chunks.  Add a little raw red onion if you’re feeling snazzy.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and maybe the tiniest bit of olive oil if you want more of a dressing, sprinkle with salt and garlic powder and enjoy!

Except once you’ve had farmer’s market tomatoes fresh from the sun in summer, grocery store tomatoes in the dead of winter are pale pink lumps of tastelessness, so instead I’ll be eating today’s purchase in my secret non-dairy tuna salad recipe:

Mash half of one ripe avocado.  Drain one can water-packed tuna and mix together.  Add a splash of lemon juice and some garlic powder if you’re more adult-like, or a teaspoon of pickle relish if you’re a traditionalist.  Voila!  Tuna salad without the mayo.   I had some lovely pics of it piled elegantly on crackers, but when all is said and done, well, tuna salad, even with avocado, looks a little like pinkish mush.  And I accidentally deleted them from the camera while they were downloading.  But trust me, it tastes delicious.

This is how I get my son to eat avocado, by the way – he used to love it raw when he was just starting solids, but now he wants nothing to do with it, so I have to hide it in tuna salads so he gets that precious vitamin E.  What’s that for again?

Peel? Definitely – skin is inedible.
Edible seed? Nope.  Pit it.
Edible when raw?  Definitely.  At its best.
Worth the price of organic?  Not really.  Their thick skin protects them from absorbing most pesticides.
In season: Haas avocados (the most common kind available) from January through fall in California.  Since they’re a more tropical fruit, they’re usually in season somewhere in the world all the time.
Best with: shellfish, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes, red onions
How to Store: A heated debate, especially when cut into, which we’ll get into another time.  Whole avocados can be stored in the fridge to make them last longer or on the counter to ripen.  Once ripe, store in the fridge for two days to a week.  If you overbought, you can puree the ripe flesh with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice and freeze for up to five months.