the north face ski jackets Explore the unfamiliar fruits and veggies in your produce aisle
By Emily OlsonFood ColumnistHispanic culture is influencing American life. Whether it?s tortilla chips that have popped onto the list of popular snack foods, or the Spanish language that?s paired with English on virtually every instruction manual and product label, the signs are hard to miss. But there are a few signs that are hidden behind the apples and cucumbers in the produce aisle that haven?t captured our attention. Bananas, apples and carrots are all obvious choices to throw into the shopping cart, but what about produce with Latin influence, like cactus leaves, tomatillos, chayote squashes or jicamas? Surprisingly, you can find all of these items at the local supermarket, but most people probably stroll right by them, passing them off as some biogenetic engineering project that completely missed the mark. Since most people can?t even properly pronounce their names, let alone pick them out of a line up, it?s no wonder these fruits and vegetables are overlooked in the grocery store. Their exotic names and odd shapes allude to something that shouldn?t agree with our palettes, but in reality their flavors closely relate to common foods we already eat, like zucchini, green beans and lemons. With a little info about these unusual foods, you will be able to confidently blaze into new territory in the produce section. Until I actually did some research, I always wondered why the cactus leaves were mistakenly placed in the produce aisle instead of in their obvious home on the plant aisle. Although they have a thorny, throat piercing appearance and seem unfit for human consumption, cactus leaves are harmless to eat. Most come packaged without any thorns, but if you find ones that do have thorns they can easily be removed with a vegetable peeler. The leaves come from a Mexican plant called the cactus nopal, which sprouts up all over Mexico. You can find them throughout most of the year, but the best crop lines the shelves in the spring. The paddles will be tender when they?re ready to eat. Cut them up like any other vegetable in chunks or slices, and simmer them in boiling water until you can stick a fork through them easily. Your end product is a vegetable with a flavor similar to green beans, and they?re a nice addition to salads or cole slaw. Tomatillos, pronounced toh MAH tee YOS,
also provide an interesting flavor to salads but are more commonly found in dishes like ?salsa verde? ? an appetizer that?s listed on the menu at most Mexican restaurants. As their name suggests, they?re a part of the tomato family but have a slightly different appearance. The small green fruit comes enclosed in a Chinese lantern like husk. Although the husk is removed before cooking, you shouldn?t select a tomatillo without its protective husk because it guarantees that you?re getting the real deal. Unlike the tomato, which is tastiest when it?s fully ripe and glows with a deep red color, the tomatillo is at its best when it?s still green. It?s been given the name ?Mexican green tomato,? but this small fruit has an unusual gelatinous texture and lemony herb flavor that sets it apart from its cousin. The foreign produce usually hangs together on the shelf, so if you find a tomatillo, you will probably find the small green chayote squash nearby. Distinct features like its pear shape, green apple color and ridges from stem to end that resemble a mouth with no teeth make this homely piece of produce easy to spot on the shelf. The skin is completely edible, but sometimes it?s bitter, as I quickly found out when I took a bite; so it?s best to try it first. Cut a small piece and taste the skin before you peel the whole squash ? and if you peel, do it under water or you’ll get the chayote’s sticky sap on your fingers. The flavor resembles a zucchini, and you can eat it raw if you like, but I found it had a much better flavor once cooked. The jicama also goes both ways ? you can eat it raw or cooked. This Mexican potato resembles the kind we?re all familiar with, with a thick brown skin and white crunchy flesh, but with its odd bulb like shape you won?t mistake it for our own version. In fact, the check out guy at the grocery store had never swiped one across his scanner, and after staring at it for a few seconds with a puzzled look, he asked me what the heck I was purchasing. This is where it?s important to get the names right so you don?t have to wait for the check out person to spin through the Rolodex a hundred times. The ?j? in jicama sounds like an ?h,? like most words in the Spanish language, and is pronounced HEE kah mah. It has a sweet nutty flavor, and while you can eat it raw or cooked, I found it was best after boiling like a potato. Next time you visit the produce aisle, take a walk on the wild side and pick up one of these unusual fruits or vegetables. On the inside they are just as normal as all the other produce, so before you turn up your nose,
give them a try. Looks can be deceiving.