Have you ever just wandered through the bountiful produce section of a grocery store and wondered what kinds of apples or onions or potatoes or squash to buy? There are so many choices and so many differences. Also how are you going to prepare what you finally do choose?
I was fortunate to get some helpful advice recently at Melissa’s World Variety Produce, the largest distributor of variety produce in the country, located in Los Angeles, California. Our hosts for a fascinating tasting session were Robert Schueller, director of public relations, and Tom Fraker, the company’s executive chef. Each season culinary writers from the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association are graciously invited to visit Melissa’s to learn about produce of the season—an event we always eagerly anticipate. This time we were focusing on fall vegetables and fruit, particularly for upcoming holiday meals.
Melissa’s has a reputation for making produce accessible to its customers, which include both retail outlets and restaurants, and for finding and packaging unique items that might not be available elsewhere. Here are some wonderful items Robert described:
Robert started our session by discussing potatoes. Melissa’s has just released newly packaged Dutch Yellow Potatoes, ready to warm up and pop into your mouth, which is just what we did with enticing roasted potatoes waiting for us when we arrived. They had been lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and were delicious. Melissa’s also offers a nice package of Ruby Gold Potatoes.
Robert pointed out that yams and sweet potatoes are not interchangeable as many people assume. Yams have a thicker skin, white flesh, and are not sweet, while you can actually eat the sweet potato’s skin and the flesh is colorful and flavorful. Sweet potatoes used to just be a seasonal item in grocery stores, but now they are available year-round because they have become a trendy vegetable with many uses, such as sweet potato fries. For your Thanksgiving table, Chef Fraker suggests simply slicing sweet potatoes, lightly seasoning them, and then roasting them, perhaps mashing them before serving. We all took home baby garnet “yams” which are actually sweet potatoes. They will definitely be on our Thanksgiving table.
We were also greeted with crispy, deep green, roasted Brussels sprouts, another trendy vegetable that is frequently replacing green beans on holiday tables, since they are so readily available this time of year. I know people who claim to dislike Brussels sprouts, but they should try the ones Chef Fraker roasted for us. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, they were crunchy, toasty and more scrumptious than any vegetable I’ve tasted recently. Robert showed us Brussels sprouts on the stalk, which were as fresh as they could be and could even be roasted right on the stalk.
There are so many unique and wonderful kinds of squash available. Butternut, Acorn, Spaghetti and Asian Delicata are available year round, but other great varieties are available and fun to try in the fall. A less familiar kind of squash is called Butterkin, a Butternut hybrid that has a rounder shape than traditional Butternut but is just as tasty. We looked at a chart of colorful, uniquely-shaped squash that included such varieties as Orange Hubbard, Turban, Gold Nugget, Kabocha, Carnival and Sweet Dumpling, all easy to prepare and flavorful. Robert pointed out that canned pumpkin is usually really Butternut Squash. Chef Fraker made a zesty and flavorful Butternut Squash Bisque that we all savored. (Look at Melissa’s website for many great soup recipes, including this one. Also at the end of this article, you’ll find the complete recipe for the scrumptious Roasted Chestnut Soup that we also sampled.)
Tomatoes are not usually considered a fall vegetable since they are at their peak in the summer, but Robert shared some flavorful small heirloom tomatoes with us that had been harvested this fall. They were just as good as summer tomatoes and would be wonderful in a salad on your holiday table. Chef Fraker agreed that heirlooms are the kind of tomato to buy this time of year, although he pointed out that canned tomatoes, which are almost always vine ripened, can be another good option for many recipes.
Boiler Onions, as well as Cipolline Onions, are very popular and nicely packaged by Melissa’s, but Pearl Onions are the most popular onion during November. We sampled some savory, tri-colored, creamed Pearl Onions that were delicious. Melissa’s puts three colors of onions—red, white and gold— in a package and we discovered that each color has a different flavor and texture. For easy peeling, Chef Fraker suggests dunking the onions first in boiling water for 30 seconds and then the skins will pop right off.
Of course the most popular fruit in November is the cranberry, which comes from the Midwest and East coast. But another fruit becoming more popular is the persimmon with many different varieties available, including the most common—Hachiya and Fuyu. We brought some persimmons home and really enjoyed just slicing them and eating them as a snack with hard cheese. Chef Tom served us delectable slices of persimmon that had been spread with quince butter and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The chef had simmered quince with vanilla bean for a long time to make the tasty quince butter.
We also tried slices of the unique Dragon Fruit. With its mild white flesh and black seeds, it tastes like a cross between a pear and kiwi. We took one of these unusual-looking fruits home and put slices of it in a fruit salad to the delight of our guests. Passion Fruit was another interesting fruit we tasted at Melissa’s. When its skin is wrinkled, you know it’s ripe and then you can just scoop out the sweet seeds and enjoy them. Chef Tom suggested that Passion Fruit would be particularly tasty on ice cream or with yogurt. And finally, while you don’t expect good grapes in the fall, Melissa’s is offering Christmas Crunch Grapes, which were just harvested from the Central Coast and have tons of great flavor.
Red Delicious Apples used to be the most popular apples in this country, primarily because they ship and store well. But other equally desirable varieties have emerged, such as Gala, Fuji, and Honey Crisp. Ambrosia is also becoming popular, in great part because it does not oxidize or turn brown as quickly as other apples do. Green Dragon and Orin Apples are also more prevalent in grocery store produce sections because they are sweet and not tart. But we loved the small Crimson Gold Apples that look like crab apples but are actually sweet and delicious. Chef Tom made some candied apples out of these small apples and we really enjoyed them, both because of their cute, easily-devoured size and their crisp, sweet taste.
At the end of our tasting session, Robert surprised us with a new product just being introduced by Melissa’s: Purslane micro greens, which the company had previously only supplied to high-end chefs but now is making available to the grocery store consumer. We took an eight-ounce package home and have really savored the light, peppery flavors of these lovely greens in salads, scrambled eggs, and even as an accompaniment with grilled tri-tip. We will definitely be looking for Melissa’s Purslane in grocery stores.
It was another entertaining and educational experience at Melissa’s. As a result, I found myself walking through my neighborhood grocery store as a much more informed consumer. I have a new appreciation for the differences between the myriad varieties of potatoes, onions, squash, apples and other produce items. And this year, our Thanksgiving Day table will hold a varied assortment of colorful and unique vegetables and fruits. Dragon Fruit salad anyone? Or sliced persimmon with quince butter? Or how about tri-colored creamed onions? I am sure to wow my holiday guests.
Here is Melissa’s recipe for the delicious Roasted Chestnut Soup we tasted:
• 2 packages Melissa’s Whole Peeled and Cooked Chestnuts
• 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• 2 tablespoons Unsalted Butter
• 1 large Organic Yellow Onion, roughly chopped
• 2 cloves Peeled Garlic, chopped
• 2 large Organic Carrots, roughly chopped
• 2 ribs Organic Celery, roughly chopped
• 1/2 cup Sherry
• 6 cups Low Sodium Fat Free Chicken Broth
• 2 large Leeks, white and pale green parts only, washed well and roughly chopped
• 1 Dried Bay Leaf
• Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
• Preheat oven to 425ºF.
• Place chestnuts, in a single layer, on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray.
• Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes, tossing them half through the cooking time.
• In a large pot, heat the oil and melt the butter.
• Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes.
• Next add the garlic, carrots and celery and cook until caramelized, about 10 minutes. Do not let it run dry.
• Add a little oil if needed.
• Add the sherry and cook until almost dry.
• Next, add the broth, leeks, bay leaf and chestnuts to the pot.
• Bring the soup to a boil and then simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
• Remove the bay leaf and discard.
• Carefully blend the soup until smooth, either using a submersion blender or counter top blender.
Note: If desired, garnish the soup with some chopped chestnuts.