Wednesday, 19 January 2011

GREAT STORE-CUPBOARD FINDS No. 3

No. 3 Hearts of Palm
I first ate heart of palm in a salad in an Argentinian restaurant in Caracas in 1993. I was in Venezuela for a holiday which promised to be fascinating and turned out to be frustrating, mainly because I was struck down with a dreadful stomach bug for the duration of the trip. Flying into the tiny airport of the Andean town Merida was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my life (the plane flew straight down a valley in the Andes, the miniature airstrip visible beneath the wing), apart from taking a bus with balding tyres up into the Himalayas when I was travelling in Indian as a student....

There used to be a Brazilian restaurant in Hammersmith (called Paolo's, I think) which also served heart of palm salad; now you can buy them tinned in Waitrose. According to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, heart of palm, which is also called palmito, burglar's thigh, chonta, palm cabbage or swamp cabbage, is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees (including the coconut). It's difficult to explain their flavour and texture: slightly nutty, slightly sweet and exotic, while the texture on first sampling them is not unlike avocado or asparagus, in that it is unexpected. Something of an acquired taste, I'd say.

Heart of palm can be used in a variety of dishes, both hot and cold. I tend to eat them cold, sliced in a salad with avocado and tomatoes, and plenty of fresh coriander and lime juice, for a slightly South American twist. I have also seen recipes for gratin of heart of palm: baked in a cheese sauce. Somehow, this does not appeal to me.

You can find heart of palm (Green Giant brand) in the tinned vegetable aisle of the supermarket. I was surprised to discover that even my local Tesco Metro, which seems to specialise in 30 different kinds of tinned tuna (do the good people of Teddington really need that much tuna?), now stocks heart of palm, which perhaps says something about the demographic of Teddington!

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