Ready-for-prime-time produce: Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s, a Los Angeles-based specialty produce company
If you want to please diners looking for healthful choices, offer a changing array of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Schueller tracks specialty produce sales closely. He knows which items consumers are buying now, and which may be five years away from acceptance.
Fruits and vegetables that were considered ethnic or exotic just a few years ago are now ready for prime time. If you’re not serving some of the following, says Schueller, you’re not capitalizing on the flavors diners enjoy right now.
Chayote. This pear-shaped vegetable has the texture and mild flavor of a firm summer squash. Peel and parboil, then add to a mixed-vegetable saute to lend a Latin accent. Asian chefs use it, too.
Fennel. Not just for the Italian table anymore, this crunchy, licorice-flavored vegetable, which some call sweet anise, has a taste people crave. Shave it raw into a house salad or slaw, add it to a crudité platter with dip, or braise wedges to partner pork chops or pot roast.
Edamame. Fresh soybeans in the shell, popularized in Japanese restaurants, where they’re an irresistible, peanut-like snack. Offer this high-protein legume as bar food, sandwich accompaniment or on the salad bar.
Jicama. Sweet, juicy jicama is a winner on a salad bar, on a raw-vegetable platter with dip or as a crunchy and original addition to a house salad. Serve a jicama, orange and avocado salad with tacos, carnitas or other Mexican fare.
Mango. If you thought mangoes had to have that beautiful reddish-gold blush to be ripe, think again. Some of the best new varieties, including the Kent and the California-grown Keitt, are fiberless, green when ripe and easy to remove from the seed. They’re great in salsas, dessert sauces, salads and beverages.
Radicchio. With its brilliant burgundy color, radicchio has terrific presentation potential. Use its cupped leaves to hold salads or slaw, grill wedges for a steak accompaniment, or shred this bitter Italian chicory into a house salad to take it upscale. A tri-color salad with radicchio, endive and arugula is a beauty.
Strawberry Papaya. Many people have had bad encounters with papayas that were picked underripe. New salmon-fleshed strawberry papayas from Brazil should make some converts. They are picked ripe and air freighted, so the taste is there, and the color is gorgeous. Great as a breakfast-plate garnish or in a fruit salad or smoothie.
Tomatillos. The little green “husk tomato” (which is not a tomato at all) is the essence of Mexico’s salsa verde and chile verde. Non-Latinos are now accustomed to its tart, perky taste, making salsa verde an ideal low-fat choice for topping chicken or fish.
Red Swiss Chard. In plate presentation, color is everything. The cherry-red ribs of this handsome chard keep their color when cooked. Steam and toss with olive oil and garlic as an à la carte side, or pair with pork tenderloin or sausages.
Finding the whole-grain niche
Mark Furstenberg, owner of The Bread Line in Washington, DC
At the sandwich counter or in the bread basket, whole-grain breads and rolls give diners the option to make a healthier selection. Furstenberg believes that subtlety is key to incorporating whole-grain breads successfully. “Whole grains have to be introduced to the bread basket in one of two ways,” says the baker. “Either as alternatives, or as a component—for example, wheat berries in a white bread.”
In a sandwich program, he says, whole-grain breads are an easy fit. A strong-flavored rye bread could be great with a smoked-fish filling or cold meats. Whole-wheat bread works well with tomatoes and harmonizes with cheese. “Don’t think of bread as the vehicle, but as a part of the food,” Furstenberg suggests.
Look to other cultures for inspiration. Scandinavia’s crisp flatbreads, India’s whole-wheat chapattis and Mexico’s corn tortillas are whole-grain breadstuffs with broad appeal. And remember that you don’t have to go “all the way” to whole grains. Adding whole-wheat berries to a hamburger bun would enhance its nutritional score while providing extra nuggets of texture and flavor.
Vietnam’s lean cuisine
Mai Pham, chef-owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California
For an example of how to eat healthfully, simply and well every day, look to Vietnam. This Southeast Asian country has one of the leanest and freshest cuisines imaginable, based largely on fresh leafy salad greens, fresh herbs, rice or rice noodles and lean grilled or simmered protein.
In Mai’s restaurant, she layers noodles, herbs and lettuce in a bowl, then tops it with sizzling grilled shrimp or sliced pork and chopped peanuts and drizzles the sauce on top.
In Vietnam, the same ingredients might come to the table in separate mounds. The diner would tuck noodles, herbs, peanuts and grilled meat into a lettuce-leaf wrap, then dip the savory package into nuoc cham, a dipping sauce. Cool and hot, crisp and soft, tart and sweet—all come together in these wraps. There is no oil in nuoc cham and only a gloss of oil on the meat or fish.
At its most basic, nuoc cham—literally “dipping water”—consists of water, fish sauce, sugar, lime, chiles and garlic. It is a clear liquid that hits all four flavor notes: sweet, salty, sour and hot. Some cooks float shredded carrots or paper-thin slices of daikon, kohlrabi or cucumber in it. These vegetables flavor the sauce and become lightly pickled themselves. At Lemon Grass, Mai makes a concentrated version of nuoc cham with less water, to drizzle on grilled or pan-seared salmon.
Mai on the elements of Vietnamese dishes:
- Table salad, a platter of leaf lettuce, whole sprigs of fresh herbs (Asian basil, mint, rau ram, red or green perilla), bean sprouts, sliced cucumber
- Steamed rice or rice noodles
- Grilled pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, or fish
- Chopped peanuts
- A sweet-tart dipping sauce (nuoc cham)
On fruit salsa
Rick Bayless, chef-proprietor of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago
Americans tend to think of salsa only as that fresh tomato relish we spoon on chips, but the Mexican salsa repertoire is extensive. Mexican salsas may be chunky, like the fresh salsa we know, but they are more often smooth, thin enough to drizzle, rich with roasted chile flavors, tangy with lime or vinegar and unabashedly hot. One thing traditional salsas rarely are is fruity. The idea of fruit salsa originated in the United States, says Bayless. Fruit salsas evolved from the ubiquitous fresh-chopped-tomato salsa, with fruits like mango, papaya and pineapple replacing the tomato. As a condiment for seafood—especially scallops and shrimp—a creative fruit salsa can be appealing, but chefs should ground themselves in the traditions first.
“Delve into some of those traditional salsas and...then start thinking what you can do with them,” Bayless advises. “Most people realize that salsa gives you a really fresh, high-fiber, low-fat alternative to other condiments. There are some wonderful flavors to be had when you get into these different salsas with different dried chiles. I recommend that, before you explore fruit salsas, you begin to understand the traditional salsas. A lot of chefs don’t do their homework first, and that limits their ability to do a nice job with balancing flavors.”