We're now in the transition time between the exit of good citrus and apples, and the advent of stone fruit and melons. Apricots have arrived, with reviews ranging from "adequate" to "not bad for this early". The ones I've sampled were tasty, but handle with care, as they bruise easily. California nectarines and peaches are also coming in now, with the nectarine getting my vote for flavor. The first red cherries are good, but very pricey. Expect plums in about two weeks, with Black Beauties appearing first, followed by the Flavorosa pluots out of Reedley. California Desert cantaloupes and honeydews will arrive any day now.
In addition to our rack of assorted whole and ground dried chiles in packages, we now carry selected dried chiles in bulk.
When fresh, it is known as a Mirasol chile. Heat rating: 2,500 to 5,000 SHU*. Uses: sauces, salsa. The skin is tough, so it needs to be soaked longer than other chiles.
A smoked jalapeño. Heat rating: 3,000 to 10,000 SHU*. Uses: stews, braised meats.
Chile de Árbol
Same name fresh or dry. Heat rating: 30,000 to 60,000 SHU*. Uses: wreaths (they keep their bright red color when dried), soups and stews.
So, what makes a hot pepper hot? The chemical compound capsaicin, found in the membranes and around (but not in) the seeds of the chile, causes a reaction with the same nerve endings in the mouth that react to burning and abrasion. So your brain registers capsaicin, not via the taste buds, but through the pain sensors.
*SHU (Scoville Heat Units) are the measure of a chile’s pungency. For reference, a bell pepper has 0 SHU, a fresh jalapeño has between 3,500 and 8,000 SHU, and a habanero has 250,000 to 300,000 SHU. An Indian ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) may have a rating of 1 million. The current heat champion is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion chile, with over 2 million SHU, the equivalent of pepper spray.
Images by Jim McKay
A relatively new worker at a wholesale produce market was looking for a case of Swiss chard in the pallets of produce that had just come in from the commission market. Not finding any box that said "chard", and knowing that many vegetables go by more than one name, he asked, "What's another name for chard?" Another employee, with even less experience, answered, "Burnt."
Ah, but there is another name for chard. It's "silverbeet". It is actually a member of the beet family, but bred to produce nutritious leaves rather than roots.
This is peak season for Swiss chard. Like kale, chard has one of the highest ratios of nutrients to calories. A 1-cup serving of boiled chard contains a mere 35 calories, while providing better than half of the RDA of vitamin C, 22% of the iron, a quarter of the potassium, twice the vitamin A, and seven times the vitamin K. Not to mention it’s tasty. However, one thing it isn’t is Swiss; it was original cultivated in the Mediterranean.
One tip on cooking chard: it boils better than it steams. Boiling leaches out more of the oxalic acid than steaming does, resulting in a much tastier dish. Boil the chard uncovered.
Also plentiful right now are the artichokes from Castroville. Click here to read my artichoke blog.
On sale this week are tasty strawberries from Okui Farms in San Luis Obispo County. They’re available in 1-lb. "cello" containers (see below), or you can pick out just the ones you want from our open display. A one-cup serving of strawberries is only 45 calories, and contains 91% of the recommended daily Allowance of Vitamin C.
Strawberries should be refrigerated. They keep best in a high-humidity environment, so putting them in the crisper is a good idea. Or, as the folks at Okui Farms recommend, place them in an airtight container, one layer at a time, separating the layers with paper towels. Also, it is best not to wash the strawberries until you’re ready to use them.
Step 1: Pick up a strawberry.
Step 2: Dip strawberry in sour cream.
Step 3: Roll strawberry gently in brown sugar.
Step 4 (okay, so I lied): Eat strawberry.
Repeat as needed.
Of course, as any strawberry purist will tell you, strawberries are great all by themselves.
When a fruit or vegetable is referred to as cello (pronounced 'sell-oh', not 'chell-oh"), it means that they are packaged in a plastic wrapper or container. This is an old produceman's term dating waaaay back to when the wrappers most commonly used in the industry were made of cellophane.
"It's cello, not cello!"
Blue Lake green beans are a healthful and easy to prepare addition to your dinner menu. A 3.5 oz. serving of green beans contains only 31 Calories, 7.1 grams of carbohydrates, 3.6 grams of fiber, and practically no fat.
Remember “string” beans? We can thank Calvin Keeney for developing the “stringless” green bean in 1894. Virtually all green beans sold today are stringless, which is why we don't hear the term “string bean” too often anymore.
Many green bean casserole recipes call for canned beans, but it’s easy to substitute fresh green beans. Allow about 1 pound of fresh beans for 1 can. Cut off the stems, cut into 1-inch pieces, and blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes (hint: adding a pinch of baking soda or salt to the blanching water will help preserve the beans’ color). Plunge beans into ice water to stop the cooking process. Then drain and use them as you would canned beans.
The recipe below comes from Campbell’s, the folks who invented the green bean casserole in 1955.
Classic Green Bean Casserole
1 can (10 3/4 ounces) Campbell's® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup (Regular, 98% Fat Free or Healthy Request®)
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Dash ground black pepper
4 cups cooked cut green beans (approx. 1 ½ lbs. fresh)
1 1/3 cups French's® French Fried Onions
Stir the soup, milk, soy sauce, black pepper, beans and 2/3 cup onions in a 1 1/2-quart casserole.
Bake at 350°F. for 25 minutes or until the bean mixture is hot and bubbling. Stir the bean mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining onions.
Bake for 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown.
We're getting to the end of the winter fruit season, and the summer fruit won't be here for awhile. There are a few winners around, though.
For a sweet apple, crisp and juicy, go with the Ambrosia.
Page mandarins are pretty much done, but the Shasta Golds are juicy and sweet, with a strong acidy kick.
Our first seedless Muscat grapes from Chile are in, and they're great.
Photos by Jim McKay
Also arriving this week are the Manilla or Ataulfo mangoes. Even if you're not keen on mangoes, you should try this one. The flesh has a smooth, custard-like texture, and you can eat almost all the way down to the seed, for there are hardly any strings to get stuck in your teeth.
The Manilla mango (that's not a misspelling, there are 2 "l's" ) is small enough to peel and eat like a banana, but if you want to slice it or any other mango, here is a video that demonstrates a good technique. CAUTION: mangoes should be washed and dried before peeling! They can be slippery, so please be careful. Watch the knife! Watch your fingers! Watch the video:
This week, I would like to address a question that has hounded me for years:
"Why do people throw away perfectly good food?
We have become conditioned to the idea that certain parts of vegetables are good and others are bad. While this is true in some rare cases (e.g., rhubarb stems are delicious, but rhubarb leaves are toxic), we tend to discard plant parts that are not only edible, but tasty to boot, only because we don’t know what to do with them. For example:
Don’t toss out the tops. Cook them as you would Swiss chard or kale. It’s like getting two side dishes for the price of one!
Why throw away the stems? They taste just as good as the florets! Try them steamed, boiled, or sautéed with olive oil and garlic. Or shred the peeled, uncooked stems to make broccoli slaw.
Once upon a time, all cauliflower was sold “naked,” that is, not wrapped in plastic film. The farmer would leave on the leaves that covered the flower, which helped keep the vegetable from turning brown. The leaves and the stem were all edible. When the industry started wrapping cauliflower, the stems and leaves got lopped off, sacrificed in the name of expediciousness and “presentation.”
We still have naked cauliflower from time to time in our organic section. It costs more, but some of the expense is mitigated when you consider that the whole thing is edible.
We all tend to throw out the outer leaves when preparing lettuce, but many Europeans use these leaves to make soup. The cores are used, too, as a sort of ‘poor man’s radicchio’.
Save the core for soup. Cut it smaller, though, as the leaves usually cook faster than the core.
Can anyone explain to me why you don’t use the stem? It tastes exactly the same as the crown. If you must break it off, trim it, chop it up, and add it to stuffing or meat loaf.