No, those aren’t tiny little watermelons. In fact, when I saw these at the Union Square Greenmarket a couple of weeks ago I had no idea what they were. “Mexican cucumbers,” I was told, and the vendor offered me one to taste. The thick skin pops under the teeth to reveal a seed-filled almost liquid interior; although the flavor and texture is reminiscent of a traditional cucumber, there is also a slight lemon flavor. I kept these in the refrigerator and snacked on them like peanuts, popping them whole into my mouth. I don’t know if there’s any way to cook with them, but there’s really no need when they’re so good raw.
Sea beans, aka glasswort, aka marsh samphire, is an ingredient I’d long heard of but hadn’t had an opportunity to use. I was recently walking through the Chelsea Market and stopped by the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, where they always have a nice selection of unusual fresh produce. I spotted sea beans for sale and grabbed a large handful of them. One of the cashiers asked me what they tasted like, and I had to tell her I didn’t know. They turned out to be far more interesting raw than cooked; they were like green beans but with a little sea water taste, as if the beans were already seasoned. When cooked they blended into the flavors of everything else and lost their unique edge. I’ve heard they make excellent pickles, I’ll have to try that next time.
Manhattan Fruit Exchange — 75 9th Ave
On a recent trip to Elmhurst I stopped by an Asian market on Broadway. I picked up a few things: Chinese broccoli, a tub of fresh coconut and tapioca candies, and a bag of yam leaves. Never having seen them before, I wasn’t sure what to do with them; I just hoped they wouldn’t be as intensive as the pumpkin vines I used in WI. My “extensive” research told me that they were not — I simply had to pick off the leaves and tender parts of the stems. I quickly sauteed some mushrooms, then tipped them out of the pan into a bowl. I added a bit more oil to the pan, then tossed in the yam leaves. When they began to wilt I salted them and tossed them, then added the mushrooms back to the pan. I added a splash of vinegar and soy sauce, and covered it for a moment to let it all steam together, then served the mix over rice. The yam leaves didn’t have unique flavor; they were delicious, tender greens, with texture similar to pea shoots. They’re much easier to use than those pumpkin vines; if you see yam leaves on sale, I’d recommend picking some up.
I was at my favorite Korean grocery the other day when I spotted a tray of something that looked like tiny apples, with mottled red and white skin. They were, of course, fresh passion fruit, something I’ve never seen before. I do enjoy passion fruit juice so I picked one up to take home. Using a serrated knife I cut through the tough outer skin to reveal the bright yellow seed pods, which when scooped out left behind anemone-like stubs on the inner part of the husk. The seed pods are the edible part; slightly sweet and brightly tart, with a slightly slimy texture, the fruit was very good. Unlike some of the other exotic fruit I’ve tried, the passion fruit I picked up was grown here in the U.S. — I didn’t know that we grew anything like this here.
Another one for the freaky fruit files — horned melon, aka kiwano. The hard, spiny outside opens up to a bright green interior. The fruit is actually hundreds of tiny gel sacs covering edible (but tasteless) seeds. The gel has the grassy taste of an unripe banana. Not the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but I only picked up the fruit for the novelty of its appearance, so what can you do?
My mom recently gave me a jar of ghee, an ingredient I’d heard of but never used before. Traditionally used in Indian cooking, ghee is a clarified butter. That means the milk solids have been removed from the butter, leaving only the pure fat behind. This is a good thing, because the solids are what cause butter to smoke burn at a relatively low temperatures. The ghee actually solidifies easily, especially as I’m keeping mine in the refrigerator now that it’s open, but it melts almost immediately when exposed to heat. Because of the high smoke point I used ghee to make popcorn, something I wouldn’t do with regular butter. The ghee also came in useful when it came time to heat up some parathas I picked up from Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. It’s turning out to be more versatile than I expected.
My sister always says that I eat weird looking fruit (see the sugar apple, see also the mangosteen), so I thought I’d keep the ball rolling. Rambutans are native to Southeast Asia, and not “The Outer Limits” as was claimed by the specialty food store at which I bought them. Once you crack open the outer husk (which does require a bit of pressure) you reveal what looks like a lychee or longan, with a similar chewy texture. They are sweet, slightly acidic, and completely delicious. I wasn’t thrilled with the long, crumbly pit in the center; I wonder if that was the result of the long journey the fruit made on the way from Asia to my belly.
On a side note, I think that it’s funny to reject food based on the way it looks. Sure, I’m a vegetarian, but as a curious eater I’m willing to try any (non animal) food at least once.