Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fruits and Vegetables: I Want a Lemon Cucumber!

Unfortunately, the variety of fruits and vegetables available at local supermarkets is startlingly limited. Sure, there is a bevy of produce on display--carrots, plums, summer squash, peppers, etc.--but, for the most part, only one or two types of each are for sale.

In reality, dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of varieties of every fruit and vegetable exist. Yet, the economics of modern agribusiness have conspired to leave us with the one or two kinds of (fill in the blank) that grow, travel and store the best, with little regard for flavor and nutrition.

Thus, most of us will never see (or taste) a Green Gage plum, a lemon cucumber (photo, above right), an 8-ball zucchini or a husk tomato, which is truly a shame. Instead, supermarkets proffer peaches that are the exact same shape (perfectly round), size (a little smaller than a tennis ball), color (hues of orange, yellow and red) and flavor (none). It’s really quite disturbing; do Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders look anything alike?

During the summer months, I try to bring uncommon produce to my cooking lessons. Lemon cucumbers (yellow and round) are consistently a crowd pleaser. After the initial “What are those?” reactions, the cucumbers are sliced and eaten. In addition to the novelty factor, the crisp, citrusy flavor is always a hit.

Where to go for these different varieties? Your best bets are farmers markets and farm stands. This past Monday at the Union Square farmers market in New York City, Red Jacket Orchards was selling five kinds of (ripe) plum--Prune (purple), Sugar (yellow), Green Gage (green), Castetla (reddish/purple) and Red (uhh . . . red)--which all had distinct, succulent flavors.

That same day, Food Emporium on 68th & Broadway had two kinds of plums--red and black. All were hard as rocks, despite the attached stickers proclaiming they were “Tree Ripe.” I’ve got a better chance of beating Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley than you do of finding a tree-ripened plum at Food Emporium.

Also at the farmers market, Maxwell’s Farm was selling (by my count) seven different types of yellow and green summer squash (photo, left). You’d be amazed at the varied shapes and sizes. Food Emporium, by contrast, had two: the omnipresent, 6-inch, torpedo-shaped zucchini and yellow squash.

Granted, some of the uncommon varieties may not be eye candy to everyone, but Marge Simpson did think Homer was hot at one point.

Two recent articles from The New York Times (about endangered culinary items and bananas) touch on the subject of our limited food choices.

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