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The potato: Black little dress of tubers

The potato is the little black dress of tubers—a classic starch that goes with everything. But even the little black dress needs a jazzier replacement now and then. And with restaurants from fine dining to QSR fusing the fiery flavors of Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, the introduction of offbeat roots—like yuca, jicama, and malanga—makes strategic sense.

Yuca (YUHK-uh), also called cassava, or manioc (in Brazil), is one of the most important plants in the tropical diet. Whether pureed for bobo de camarão (a creamy Brazilian shrimp sauce), simmered with tripe in savory Puerto Rican mondongo, boiled in sanchocho, ajiaco, or cozido (the numerous stews of Latin America), ground into meal and toasted for farofa to sprinkle over moqueca (a Brazilian fish soup), or grated and steamed or baked for dumplings and breads, this versatile tuber is a staple throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and Pacific islands. Yuca resembles a long sweet potato. It has a brown, bark-like, waxy skin, and crisp flesh with a bland, slightly sweet, buttery flavor.

In 1999, 168 million tons of yuca were produced by 85 countries. By comparison, 294 million tons of potatoes were produced that year. But yuca has come a long way. In 1990, the U.S. imported 18 million lb. of fresh yuca; by 1999, the figure had reached 59.4 million lb.

Fresh yuca can be sliced thin on a mandoline and fried for crispy chips, chopped into long matchsticks for alternative "french fries," mashed and seasoned with garlic or chiles, or pureed and thinned with stock for a silky sauce. Mojo agrio, a Cuban sauce of olive oil, sour oranges, and garlic, is a bright way to dress up plain-old mashed yuca. Chunks of yuca can be added to meat or vegetable stews during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Yuca can be reheated in fat or liquid; it doesn't get lumpy like other tropical roots.

Yuca is available all year. Look for rock-hard roots that have no stickiness, bald spots, soft areas, mold, or hairline cracks. Choose comparatively cylindrical roots (not sharply tapered ones) which are easiest to cut into equal-size pieces. Although yuca may appear hardy, it perishes rapidly. Store it in a basket in a well-ventilated area at a cool room temperature; it will last about a week. If the yuca cracks, store it in the refrigerator. Yuca has a tough outer skin that should be removed with a paring knife. Once cut, wrapped yuca can be refrigerated for a short time. Yuca does take well to freezing. It should be peeled, rinsed in water, then wrapped tightly and frozen.

Jicama (HEE-kama) is another tropical root that has moved from the obscure to the familiar. This round, softball-sized vegetable has thin, tan skin, with crisp, juicy white flesh. Jicama is best eaten raw. Its mild, porous flesh makes it the perfect canvas for bold, bright flavors like citrus, ginger, and chiles. It can be shaved, cubed, sliced, or julienned for salads, slaws, salsas, or relishes. Jicama is also tasty when pickled.

All jicama available in the U.S. is imported; it is available throughout the year. Look for jicama that feels firm and that is heavy for its size. Jicama can be refrigerated in the walk-in for about a week. The skin and the fibrous layer of white flesh just under the skin should both be removed with a strong vegetable peeler or pairing knife. Once peeled, jicama can be sliced or diced as needed. To prevent it from discoloring, keep peeled jicama in acidulated water.

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