By Guest Wine Food & Travel Chix
Linda Stewart, a former English teacher, currently writes about food, wine, cocktails, and travel. Linda has lived in the Pacific Northwest, Washington, D.C., and Southern California and brings these different perspectives to her writing. Cooking and the culinary arts have been her life-long passions, and she has edited and published three cookbooks for non-profits. Linda writes a cocktail column for www.life-uncorked.com titled, “The Cocktail Corner.”
Melissa’s: Providing Produce from Around the Globe
International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) members were treated to an afternoon learning about Melissa’s World Variety Produce, a distributor of fresh, diverse produce from around the world. Along with traditional products, Melissa’s specializes in out-of-the-ordinary fruits and vegetables. With an emphasis on consumer education, the company is familiarizing the customer, both wholesale and retail, with various and sundry food products, some of which are unusual and exotic, but commonplace in other parts of the world. They are also reviving an interest in food that was more characteristic of the meals consumed a generation or two ago.
Who knew there were so many different types of Kale? A member of the cabbage and Brussels sprouts family, Kale varieties include common, flowering, Tuscan (aka black, dino, laci), and newly on the market, Kale sprouts. Kale sprouts are small or “baby” versions of the parent, and are quite tender. Kale is high in antioxidants, and when cut up and baked at high heat with seasoning, it is a healthy alternate to potato chips.
Robert S. Schueller, Director of Public Relations, explained that the best produce, and the least expensive produce, is purchased at the height of its growing season. Representatives meet with restaurant chefs to discuss recipes and appetizing ways to serve seasonal and specialty produce. Beets, leeks, fava beans, parsnips, artichokes, and rhubarb are among those that are currently in season. An easy way to prepare fresh beets is to wash them first, keeping the peel on, and them wrap them in foil with a sprinkle of water. Pop them in the oven on a cookie sheet or baking dish, and bake at 400 degrees for about an hour. The peels come off effortlessly by rubbing the cooked beets between your hands. Remember to wear plastic gloves to avoid getting red-stained hands from the natural dye beets contain. Interestingly, beet greens or the tops of beets are edible and nutritious. On the other hand, the leaves or green tops of rhubarb are poisonous. Another surprise – if you put cleaned, sliced rhubarb in a pan over medium heat, in a few minutes the rhubarb will begin to melt. Sugar should be added after the rhubarb has transformed into a jell-like consistency.
We were introduced to a new product distributed by Melissa – the Belgian-style leek. Originating in Belgium and Holland, it is larger than a traditional leek. Leeks are similar to scallions or green onions, but have a milder and sweeter flavor. As with all leeks, only the white part is edible. Because leeks are difficult to clean, Schueller stresses that they should be cut-up first, and then washed to remove the dirt hiding between the layers. Leeks can also be frozen after cleaning and taken out ready to use in recipes.
Protein rich fava beans grow inside large, inedible pods. (The pods can be eaten when they are young and tiny.) To remove the beans from the pod, break off the top and “unzip” the seam. Place the beans in boiling water for about one minute, drain, and then place in ice water. But, you are not finished yet – you need to remove the thin waxy outer skin around the bean before they are ready to use.
In their mission to make eating a healthy and diverse diet easy and convenient in today’s hustle-bustle environment, Melissa’s has created ready-to-use products available in most California grocery stores. Don’t have time to cook and peel beets, let alone deal with the purple dye? Melissa’s has packaged beets that are fridge-to-plate ready. Don’t want to take the time to shell all those fava beans? Look for Melissa’s Peeled & Steamed Fava Beans. Perhaps the ultimate innovation in ease and convenience is the globe artichoke wrapped in plastic, with a red button timer on the bottom. When the artichoke is finished cooking in the microwave, after about three to six minutes, the red button pops up.
We learned about Ojai Pixie tangerines, a relatively new tangerine on the market. Although they were the result of crossbreeding at the University of California at Riverside in the 1960s, they did not become a successful commercial crop until citrus farmers in Ojai realized they grew particularly well in the Ojai Valley, producing exceptionally sweet, juicy fruit.
Chef Tom Fraker, Manager of Melissa’s Corporate Kitchen, treated us to several culinary delights. He prepared roasted beet bruschetta, which had a beet base, followed by avocado, sautéed leeks, and kumquat, with a garnish of mint. He used Ojai Pixie tangerines, along with buttercream frosting, as a topping for delicious strawberry-rhubarb muffins. Another delectable comestible Chef Fraker made us was a salad, consisting of arugula, roasted parsnips, and fava beans, topped with grilled shrimp. Roasting parsnips caramelizes them and brings out their sugars. The parsnips tasted marvelously sweet, and reminded me of when my grandmother would cook parsnips in her pressure cooker for just a few minutes until tender, and then sauté them in melted butter and brown sugar. I thought they were dessert.
Chef Fraker designs and tests recipes which can be accessed from Melissa’s website, www.melissas.com. The website provides consumers with recipes, reference cookbooks, and specialty produce cooking tips – how to purchase, how to prepare, and how to serve. Recipes are also included on the vegetable and fruit tags you find in the grocery stores. Chefs, who learn to change their menu items with the seasons, will introduce new food to the community. When people are exposed to healthy food that tastes good, they will want to prepare that food at home. Melissa’s is a marvelous resource that takes the intimidation out of cooking, so that more families can enjoy fresh, interesting, and healthy food.