March 18, 2009 -- In the industry they're known as exotic or specialty produce, but consumers might think of these fruits and vegetables as unusual, uncommon or simply strange.
Although exotic fruits and vegetables still represent 1 percent of all produce sales, "some things once introduced as specialty items are now mainstream and not considered exotic anymore," said Karen Caplan, president of Freida's Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, Calif.
She explained that chili peppers were once new to the average American consumer. But these days most everyone is familiar with these hot peppers and as further indication of their widespread popularity, salsa has eclipsed ketchup as the country's most popular condiment. Mangoes and kiwis were also once viewed as unconventional and are now commonplace in stores.
Caplan offered several explanations for the interest in exotic fruits and vegetables.
"The No. 1 promoter of new and unusual produce is The Food Network," she said.
Watching TV cooking shows helps introduce consumers to items they may have not been exposed to or known what to do with.
Traveling is yet another factor that influences the specialty produce market. Seeing the world introduces travelers to new tastes and foods. For example, people might visit Hawaii and have papaya there for the first time. And when they return, they want to get that fruit here, explained Caplan. Dining out and wanting to replicate a particular taste at home is a third reason why shoppers might gravitate toward less conventional forms of produce.
What follows are descriptions of 13 exotic fruits and vegetables that may have never made it into your shopping cart -- let alone your mouth. The next time you're in the supermarket, perhaps you'll give them a closer look.
In this country, cherimoyas are grown in California and the global supply comes from South America.
You'll know the cherimoya has ripened when it feels soft to the touch, its stem end gives off a fragrance and the fruit's army green skin turns darkish brown. If you cut a ripe cherimoya open, you'll find a white creamy, custardy flesh that you can spoon and enjoy. But skip the black seeds, which are not edible.
Cherimoyas have a rich consistency despite having little dietary fat and also supply some vitamin C. The "moya" as it's called in Latin grocery stores has a unique flavor described as a cross between a banana and a pineapple, with a hint of mango and papaya as well. Schueller considered it "a tutti fruity flavor profile," and went on to say that he's tasted more than 500 different fruits and puts the cherimoya on his Top 5 list.
Tomatillosare generally cooked, which softens up their skin and improves their flavor. They are best known for their saucing abilities and are the main ingredient in green sauces and salsa verde.
"They provide a fullness of body to a sauce that tomatoes don't," said Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del. Schueller adds that "you can taste the tomato flavor, but it's tarter."
Besides an interesting flavor, tomatillos will give your diet a small boost of vitamin C.
Cut by machine into white, cone-shaped fruits, young coconuts are found wrapped in a plastic film in the produce section. As Schueller put it, they resemble a short pencil stub or construction cone, and unlike their rounder counterparts, they sit upright on store shelves and displays.
Young coconuts come from Thailand and have a hard, white shell that takes some effort to remove. You'll need a very sharp knife or meat cleaver to slice through the exterior as well as the husk that's inside. When you get to the interior, you'll be rewarded with a tender flesh that can be scraped out with a spoon and tastes like coconut pudding. Its only drawback is that the flesh is high in saturated fat so consider it a treat.
Some foodies believe that the real prize of the young coconut is its sugary water inside, which can be sipped out with a straw. "The main reason for these coconuts is for the enjoyment of its water," said Schueller.
Also called samphire, sea beans are slender green spindles with a crunchy texture to them. They can be eaten raw and out of hand, or placed on top of a salad or into a stir-fry. At high-end restaurants, sea beans may be used as a garnish.
Popular in European and Asian cuisines, sea beans were introduced in this country less than a decade ago. Because of the sea beans' saltiness, "a little bit goes a long way," said Schueller, who also noted that you would not add more salt or high-sodium ingredients such as soy sauce to any dishes you use them in. People limiting the sodium in their diets should pass up sea beans.
This member of the citrus clan is used in desserts (pies, tarts, sorbets), drinks (lemonades and cocktails) and as a flavoring in cooking. You can squeeze the vitamin C-rich juice over a salad or fish, add a slice of it to jazz up water or use the lemons to make a tasty marmalade.
The peel is easy to grate because it's so thin and close to the fruit's flesh. And the juice is less acidic and milder than a regular lemon. The Meyer lemon is more sweetness than sting and has lots of versatility to it, said Schueller. "And they're very trendy."
California produces most all of the nation's Meyer lemons, and they're in season from October through early April.
When you cut open a chayote squash, there's a pit inside that is edible. The vegetable has a mild taste similar to a cross between a zucchini and a cucumber. Used raw or cooked, the gourd is available year-round and can be grated over a salad or roasted, steamed, grilled, baked or stuffed.
Although chayote squash is a mainstay in Hispanic cuisines and familiar in Asian cooking, as Schueller sees it, "it will take a while for mainstream America to know about it."
What makes the bite-sized kumquat unique among the citrus family is that you can eat the whole thing from the sweet-tasting rind to the tart pulp interior.
Consumed whole or sliced, kumquats can be added to salads, used to thicken sauces or dressings or made into a jelly or jam. You can eat or remove their tiny seeds and they're more prominent in supermarkets during the winter months. Kumquats are a delicious way to sneak in some vitamin C.
Firm and round, pummelos are the size of cantaloupe or larger and sport a yellow-green skin. Their rind is thicker than a grapefruit and their juicy red or white flesh is even more segmented and sweeter.
Pummelos are a popular gift given during Chinese New Year's because they are thought to be a symbol of fertility as well as a sign of prosperity and good luck.
"They're a good omen for the year ahead," said Caplan.
So why go with white? Considered a delicacy in Europe, white asparagus gets its look because of the way it's grown. In a labor-intensive process that also translates to a higher price, the vegetable is not exposed to direct sunlight. The plant is either covered with plastic or by mounds of dirt to avoid the sun's rays, which block the formation of chlorophyll.
This results in the vegetable's white appearance and more tender spears. White asparagus is a good source of vitamins A and C and fiber and remains the same color after its cooked.
What's neat about them is when you cut the fruit crosswise, the slices are shaped like stars, Caplan explained.
"They're wonderfully sweet and crunchy at the same time, and even have a little tang," was the way Pivonka described the vitamin-C laden star fruit, which is one of her favorites. She said they were very full of water and juiciness like a watermelon with a crunchy texture similar to cucumber.
You can eat the skin and the juicy flesh, just skip the seeds.
Gai lan is leafier, thinner and sharper in flavor than traditional green broccoli. It also boasts similar amounts of vitamins A and C and potassium.
Although Americans have been eating gai lan for decades in Chinese take-out spots, they don't know it, suggested Schueller. "It's still very ethnic and will take a while and some education to catch on."
Sometimes called a Uniq fruit, ugli fruit comes from Jamaica and lacks the tartness of a grapefruit. It's very sweet like a tangerine and easy to peel, but there might be a challenge to get consumers to buy it if they've never tasted it before, pointed out Caplan. "Whoever thought of the name did a really good job," she added.
"Dandelion greens have a little bit of a peppery flavor to them," said Pivonka. They can be used raw in a salad, where a vinaigrette dressing might soften the green's bitterness. Or they can be braised in a liquid and served warm.
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