Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sentinel column - 10/22/10

I was skeptical. A vaguely familiar vegetable appeared at the market this fall. When I asked for a name, the grower shrugged and said she thought it was chayote. That seemed so unlikely. Chayote is a Latin American vegetable. What on earth was it doing at the market stand of an Asian farmer? But that’s exactly what it was – and is. From Mesoamerica to the early European explorers to Asia and now back to America.

Chayote is an edible plant – all of it, but you will find the fruit at the market. It’s related to cucumbers, but the similarity pretty much ends there. When harvested young it can be sliced and eaten raw in salads or salsas without peeling. More mature chayotes are best peeled and cooked. Like zucchini, it’s very mild and best paired with stronger flavors and spices. Raw, it can be livened up by marinating in lemon or lime juice which results in a lovely fresh taste.

I recently combined a small chayote, diced, with bac choy, ham, fresh pineapple and Asian mustard for a tasty dish. Since I didn’t have a wok, I just used a hot skillet with a little peanut oil, stirring and then covering to wilt the greens down. Asian mustard is not as strong as the American variety, but if you don’t enjoy a tang of bitterness, buy it young and tender. My Hmong growers also recommend boiling chayote with pork and mustard greens and perhaps a few hot peppers. And, of course, you can never go wrong with some onion, garlic, or bacon!

You’ll recognize chayote at the market by its light green color and pear shape. It has large puckers or wrinkles and is firm to the touch. Our growers don’t usually bring them to market, but the chayote tubers, shoots and leaves are also edible. All parts of the plant are a good source of amino acids and vitamin C.

I was feeling adventurous during farm visits on Tuesday – a little too adventurous. Zoua Hang Yang showed me a pepper that she grows for her own use. It was a new variety to me and shaped literally like a bell. I took a tiny bite. Hmmm, tasty and not hot at all. Another tentative bite convinced me this was a lovely sweet pepper. Then, I took a big bite filled with the seeds. My mouth exploded with heat. Ten hours later there was still a hint of the burn in my mouth. I’ve been told that hot peppers are good for you and I will admit that after my mouth cooled down I felt great, but I think it was just jubilation that I was going to survive.

Then at Mai Ker Lor and Der Lor’s gardens I decided I would like to try the chayotes I’d seen growing in the Hmong gardens and also the Asian mustard greens. I asked for a small sample. (That's Der)

When I left the Lors the trunk of my car was completely full of produce – huge mustard greens, bac choy, Napa cabbage and other Asian greens, as well as the chayotes.
I should have known better on both counts. Never eat pepper seeds unless you know for sure it’s a sweet pepper and never ask for a gift from a Hmong grower unless you’re ready for an avalanche of gifts. They are big on gifts.

The first year that Mr. Lee sold at our market, we had a vendor lose a relative to death. I took the sympathy card around for all the vendors to sign and I was successful in explaining to Mr. Lee that there had been a death. He gave me $5. I explained that I just needed his signature, not money and gave him the money back. He signed the card, took both my hands and placed the $5 back in them, explaining to me very slowly and clearly why I needed to accept the money. His accent was heavy, I was listening closely, and then I realized that he was speaking very slowly and very carefully to me in – Hmong!

Mr. Lee speaks a goodly amount of English, but my Hmong is nonexistent. I took the $5. The vendor I went to next, who was born in Seneca, said “I saw Mr. Lee gave you $5. Here’s my $5.” And so Mr. Lee’s generosity spread throughout the market.

The market is loaded right now with both familiar produce and the unusual, but all grown right here in the area. Freshness will soon be a thing of the past, so I’d suggest indulging yourself.

We’ll have a new vendor at the market today – Jimmi’s from Lockwood. They specialize in soups which they prepare in their restaurant and can in jars. It sounds like just the thing for the cold nights we’ll soon have.

Lunch today is chicken and noodles, corn, a roll, cookies and a drink for $6. Bailed Green and Wired Tight play.

Lunch and music is from 11 to 1. The market closes at 2.

Next Friday is our annual pumpkin painting day. You supply the pumpkin which you can buy at the market or bring from home; we’ll supply the painting supplies and place to paint.