19 April 2008

Banquet of the bizarre

A Saturday morning is perfect for wandering the stalls of your local farmer's market. Not only is it a great place to pick up fresh produce on the cheap, but it is often also a place where nutrition turns exotic. Markets, grocers and fruit 'n vegetable stalls are infinitely fascinating to me; there are always new varieties of old favourites and by now you've sussed that I'm a sucker for variations on a theme. There are often strange and wonderful new things that entice me: weird fruit from the tropics, or sometimes from someone's backyard; strange vegetable shapes that the Korean lady assures me you cook "like potato". The world is too big and life is too short to bore yourself with green beans and Golden Delicious apples. We should indulge in the variety of tastes and textures that sprout from the Earth (except for okra - that stuff's wholly inedible). So let me unpack my electronic brown paper bag onto my digital countertop here, and I'll share with you some of the virtual veg I scored at the Cyberfarms Cybermarket this morning. Be a love and put the kettle on, will you?

Romanesco Broccoli [Brassica oleracea var. botrytis]. Isn't this gorgeous? It's the mathematician's favourite vegetable, Romanesco broccoli. Which is technically classified as a type of cauliflower, not broccoli. Something to do with the maturity of the developing flowers, apparently. Cruciferous systematics aside, isn't it just the coolest thing? It has an alien symmetry. The whorls of florets have a fractal nature. Some people find it too pretty to eat. I don't: it's delicious simply steamed whole and tossed in butter with some pine nuts and crushed green peppercorns.

Tamarillo [Cyphomandra betacea]. Hailing from the forests of the Andes and now found in gardens everywhere, the tangy tamarillo is a delectable beast. Bursting with colour and zip, I used to eat these straight off the tree. Just don't try the bitter skin; the easiest way is to halve it and spoon the refreshing pulp within. Gorgeous with ice cream, they also make fine chutneys, jellies, jams and compotes. The best thing about the tamarillo is that you can get a giant fruit-bearing tree in as little as two years from seed. This explains why tamarillo seeds are such popular fodder in gardener trades, but also why the trees tend to be rather tender, with shallow root systems. Protect them from frost and strong wind and you too can have juicy freshness straight from the garden.

Water caltrop [Trapa bicornis]. Depending on your frame of reference, it resembles a steer skull charred by a brushfire, or the Baron of Hell from the Doom universe. The water caltrop is the seed of an aquatic plant, which grows with its roots anchored in the mud of lakes or slow-moving rivers. It was cultivated in China for thousands of years as an edible crop, and has recently regained prominence on the international food markets. They need to be cooked in order to be edible, and can then be used in an analogous way to the (unrelated) Chinese water chestnut. Water caltrops feature in several Asian dishes and I shall search them out at the Asian markets in Denver, although they do look rather intimidating, I must admit!

Horned melon [Cucumis metuliferus]. Hello, what's this? In essence, the horned melon is a cucumber gone psycho. Slice it open to reveal the green gelatinous inside, filled with seeds resembling those annoying underdeveloped white ones found in watermelons. Those who can overcome their fear of pips are rewarded with a refreshing taste somewhere between passion fruit, lemons and, well... cucumber. These beautiful and bizarre cucurbits grow in the red soil of the Kalahari desert and so represent one of the few commercial fruits - along with the watermelon - to have their origin in southern Africa. They'll make a colourful and surprising addition to any fruit salad, especially when combined with the white flesh and pink skin of the fabled dragonfruit, the pitaya.

Crosne [Stachys affinis]. Another Chinese introduction, and a member of the Mint family, no less. These made their way to France in 1882 and were long cultivated in the area of Crosne, whence the name. Crosnes are also known as knotroot because of these small, ridged tubers. They are kind of difficult to clean (a potato brush works best) and have therefore proved not to be very popular. However, they are very versatile and can be employed in roasts, or to add a nutty crunch to salads. Crosnes can be stir-fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette as a dish on their own.

Mangosteen [Garcinia mangostana]. The single most astounding fruit I ever had the privilege to taste. I found these at the famous Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, and couldn't resist purchasing a couple. Dubbed "the queen of tropical fruit" by the American explorer David Fairchild in 1903, the dark, sexy rind full of tannins hides virginal white segments, resembling those of the orange. The biggest segments contain one seed each. They are originally from the Malay archipelago and historically did not travel well. However, mangosteens have been popping up on the dessert menus of fancy restaurants in North America, imported from Hawaii or Puerto Rico. Lucky foodies in big cities might even find them at the fresh food markets now, where they typically retail for about $10 apiece. And what did it taste like, I hear you ask? A combination of muscadel grapes, muskmelon, lychees, vanilla ice cream, raspberries, yellow cling peaches and somehow none of those things. In short, it tasted like mangosteen.

Tell me about the strange fruits and vegetables you've eaten, grown or fondled in some exotic marketplace. Links to pictures are welcome. More tea?

Photography credits: Romanesco broccoli © rattyfied; tamarillo © evag29; water caltrop © Exif; horned melon © Nadia McIlhany; crosne © @rgs; mangosteen © sasithorn_s. Please visit these talented Flickr users for more exotic produce.


Anonymous said...

How did I not know you were in Denver? Let me know if you find any of those lovely items in our markets, will you?

A few years ago in Australia we did a hiking tour of the Daintree rainforest. We had all sorts of lovely fruits whose names I can't remember right now. What I do remember is the bus lurching to the side of the road because our tour guide had found a mango tree. Several had fallen on the ground and she offered them to us - I think I was one of the only ones to partake (something about ethics - whatever.) I'll have to find my travel journals to dig out the names of those other foods.

Admin said...

wow those are INCREDIBLE looking! The Water Caltrop is positively AMAZING! i love how devilish it looks. i also appreciate your post title, "Banquet of the Bizarre" totally appropriate!

Lisa said...

I'm with you on the ochra! The water caltrop might give me nightmares, but everything else looks terribly intriguing.

I think the Romanesco Broccoli would be my first pick if I were to try a new veggie on this list. It is beautiful and it sounds quite simple to prepare. You didn't find any of these around here, did you?

Claire said...

The romanesco broccoli reminds me of the fibonacci numbers. It is quite lovely. Maybe I should try to grow it? I love, love, love growing heirloom tomatoes. Some are rather odd looking, but most people would identify them as tomatoes I think. The water caltrop just is too weird looking for me to want to eat it. Now I think that horned melon looks an awful lot like some of the lemon cucumbers I have grown. I didn't care for all the seeds. If you can get past that, the flesh is rather refreshing.
Yum, mangosteen sounds delicioso!

Unknown said...

claire: Lemon cucumbers?! I'd never heard of those - googled some images and now I'm totally intrigued: did you use them like traditional cucumbers, or more like a melon? I bet that if you count the structures on each whorl, Fibonacci number would reveal themselves in the broccoli, just like they do in the spirals on a pineapple.

Claire said...

I went back and looked at a picture I posted once and they are more round and not as bumpy. We eat them in veggie salads and they do have a lemony flavor. They are a pain in the neck to peel.

Anonymous said...

When I saw the broccoli, I immediately saw fractals. I wonder if the repetition continues microscopically!

Thanks for the tour. If I see a mangosteen, I'll gladly plop down the cash to try it.

Chris Eldin said...

Ahhh, Now I have to have a mangosteen. I wonder if they're in Dubai? I have to look.

You haven't tried okra the way I cook it. Basically, saute onions and garlic in olive oil. Add tomato sauce and okra, and chicken bouillon cube. Simmer for 3 hours and serve over rice. Yum.

Thanks for the visual feast!

Chris Eldin said...


I have developed an email group for all the writers I know. I will use it to announce "Author's Weeks" on my blog. When I send out the email, I send it as a BCC so there is privacy for everyone (nobody's name shows up in the address line). I wanted to know if I could include you in this group? If not, that's okay. I'll pop over, like now, and let you know about these events in case you're interested.

I'm having an author's week on my blog beginning Saturday. Five authors, seven days. I'll make an announcement on my blog on Tuesday or Wednesday.


Angela said...

That is some incredibly wicked looking food. Anthony Bourdain's got nothing on you! But obviously, EOH, you've never had fried okra with green tomatoes, a southern staple that I recall as absolutely yummy. Three things I can't find in Montana: figs, okra and muscadine grapes. When the farmers market in Missoula opens I'll see what strange treats I can find.

arcadia said...

mangosteen klink uiters lieflik. niks geweldig vreemd by die boeremark op hierdie stadium nie, is net uiters opgewonde oor die granate wat ek saterdag daar kon optel :-)

Anonymous said...

Ek het al Tamarillo geƫet. En deesdae kry mens ROOI aartappels in Suid-Afrika. Dit lyk actually soos klein patats, maar dis aartappels en smaak dieselfde as gewone aartappels.

En dan is daar persimmons (ek dink dis die spelling). Dis vrek lekker!

Claire said...

I tagged you to write a six word memoir. It's easy and fun.

Shimmerrings said...

The beautiful mathematics of our edible wonders... the beauty that can be seen in the nature of a spiral and swirl... the hand print of our beautifully wonderous Universe...

Aine said...

Hey, EOH! I just had to tell you that Jason and I just tried a mangosteen. Thanks to you, I failed to overlook them when I saw them in our local grocery store this week!

You are right, they are exquisite! If only the rind didn't require a handsaw...

Unknown said...

jason evans: - not microscopically, I'm afraid. The fractal pattern has to break down at some point.

christineeldin: - okra. Still eww.

angela: - oh, I adore Anthony Bourdain! I wouldn't eat all the weird things he's eaten, though. Like okra.

arcadia: - granate is wonderlike goed. Vreemd dat 'n mens dit nie meer gereeld sien nie.

sonkind: - ja, persimmons is fantasties, maar slegs as dit behoorlik ryp is. Anders is dit soos boomgom!

claire: - I'll be sure to share on your blog, if you don't mind.

shimmerings: - agreed. Mathematics is beautiful. Especially the edible kind!

aine: - handsaw?! Couldn't have been too fresh, then. Must've dried out on the journey here. I knew you would like it!

Shimmerrings said...

Hey, okra is delicious, slime and all! Besides, you can eat it fried, and the slime is all gone :)