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BEYOND BROCCOLI: A COMMONSENSE GUIDE TO UNCOMMON FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

A. CARAMBOLA

a.k.a. starfruit, star appleThese fruits, with star-shaped cross sections, are grown in southeast Asia and other tropical regions and in subtropical regions of Florida. Eaten fresh, carambolas can have a very sour to sweet taste. They are used in green salads, fruit salads and as a garnish. They are light gold and should not be stored below 41 degrees F.

B. CHAYOTE

a.k.a. choko, vegetable pear, mirliton, custard marrow, mango squash, tallote, tallon, christophene.

Native to Mexico, chayotes can be grown in tropical areas of the United States. These fruits belong to the cucumber and gourd families. Chayotes have a pleasant taste, are low in calories and can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be boiled or steamed like a summer squash. Their shape also lends to being served as a stuffed vegetable. Immature fruit will store under refrigeration for long periods.

C. GINGER ROOT

a.k.a. gung gung, jenibre, zingiber.

Ginger roots, the thickened, aromatic rhizomes of ginger plants, are cultivated widely throughout the tropics. Ginger is used fresh or dried to flavor a variety of foods. The roots are brownish-gold on the outside and have grayish-white to creamy white flesh. Roots should be discarded when they develop soft and dry-type rots, bore holes, shriveling or other injuries.

D. CELERIAC

a.k.a. celery root, apio root

Celeriac originally comes from the Mediterranean. These vegetables belong to the Pascal celery family, but are grown for their globe-shaped roots, not their stalks. Celeriac are used to flavor soups and other foods. The roots, which measure up to 4 inches, can be stored for several months at 32 to 34 degrees F. and high humidity.

E. TOMATILLO

a.k.a. ground tomato

Tomatillos resemble small, green tomatoes. They grow on vines along the ground and taste like green plums. They often flavor Mexican sauces and dishes. Tomatillos are walnut-size, bright to yellow-greenish, and have a parchment-like covering.

F. GUAVA

a.k.a. feijoas

Guavas come from evergreens native to the tropical areas of the United States. They have an acid to sweet taste and a distinctive aroma. They may be eaten raw, cooked or processed. Guavas have pale yellow skins and flesh ranging from white to yellow to pink to red. They should be stored at about 46 degrees F.

G. CASSAVA

a.k.a. yuca, manioc, tapioca root, boniato, aypu, camioc.

Originally from Brazil, these roots are grown throughout the tropics as a staple food. There are two species, bitter and sweet. Both are poisonous unless cooked. The long, cylindrical, reddish-brown roots are hard, have white flesh and store for long periods without becoming soft.

H. JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE

a.k.a. sunchoke, topi tamboo, chufle.

These roots are not artichokes and have nothing to do with Jerusalem. They are grown throughout the United States but do best in cool regions. Jerusalem artichokes can be boiled and steamed like potatoes or used as crisp additions to salad and stir fry. The gnarled roots have thin skins that allow storage for only a few weeks. After that, they easily shrivel.

I. TAMARILLO

a.k.a. tree tomatoes.

These egg-shaped natives of New Zealand have a tart flavor and are usu ally served cut in half and with a spoon. They can be used as tomatoes in salads and sandwiches. They also can be sliced, sweetened and served over ice cream. Tamarillos are orangy-yellow to brownish-red and sometimes purple.

J. CHINESE CABBAGE

a.k.a. napa, slew shoy, pak choy, won bok, wong nga paak, patchio.

A native of Asia and related to bok choy, Chinese cabbage is probably the best known Oriental vegetable. It is commonly used in stir fry and salads. There are at least 12 varieties divided into two categories. Varieties in one group produce heads, those in the other do not. The outside of the vegetables are pale green. The insides are yellow ish to white.

K. PLANTAIN

a.k.a. plantano, machos, cooking banana.

A member of the banana family, plantains must be cooked before being eaten. A staple in many Latin American diets, they are versatile fruits that can be used when mature and hard, soft and yellow or when fully ripe and turning black. Plantains are often fried and served as a vegetable side dish.

L. CHERIMOYA

a.k.a. sweet sop, sugar apple.

Native to the tropics, these fruits are now grown in Southern California. They are heart-shaped, have white or pink skins and creamy, custard-like textures. Cherimoyas can be eaten alone or in combination with other fruits and salads. They taste like a blend of papaya, banana and pineapple, and are fully ripe when their skins blacken.

M. DAIKON

a.k.a. Chinese turnip, Japanese rad ish, mullang.

Native to China and Japan, these roots are in season all year. There are three distinct types: spherical, oblong and cylindrical. Daikons are similar to radishes. They can be eaten raw in sal ads or cooked in soups. The white roots keep well in cool temperatures for very long periods.

N. JICAMA

a.k.a. yam bean root, Chinese yam, Mexican potato, sicama.

Pronounced hick'-a-ma, these tubers grow in the tropics and resemble turnips in appearance and water chestnuts in flavor. They are often used as a less expensive alternative for water chestnuts. Mexicans use them as the U.S. potato is used. They have light brown to straw-colored skins and white flesh and stay fresh for a few weeks under refrigeration.

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(Additional information)

Immigrants, health opened door to variety

Broccoli, now considered among the most mainstream of vegetables, was once only an ethnic specialty used mostly by Italian cooks. But between 1968 and 1988 broccoli consumption in this country increased by 940 percent.

Kiwi, once an exotic fruit that hardly made it beyond New Zealand, is now standard fare in salads and desserts all over the country.

The same thing could happen to carambola or chayote or cherimoya or any number of other uncommon fruits and vegetables that are moving into U.S. markets.

In fact, says author Elizabeth Schneider, we are now experiencing an introduction of new produce that is only slightly less significant than the one that occurred following Columbus' journeys to the New World.

"During the last dozen years, there has been a four-to-sevenfold increase in the number of produce items sold in supermarkets nationwide," she told participants in a journalists seminar held in connection with the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando recently.

One of the main reasons for the increase in produce, of course, is the influx of immigrants we have seen in the last decade. Between 1980 and 1990, according to census figures, the Asian population of the United States grew 108 percent and the Hispanic population expanded by 53 percent.

"Food represents culture in a way nothing else does," said Schneider, and many of these immigrants have brought demand for fruits and vegetables from their homelands with them to their adopted country.

But that is not the only reason for the increase.

"Health and fitness awareness has contributed to an upswing in the consumption of fruits and vegetables in general," she said. "As more people discover the benefits of a produce-rich diet, they seek a wider range of varieties."

On a national survey reported by the Packer, an industry trade publication, 39 percent of the respondents said they have increased their fresh product consumption in the past 12 months, said seminar speaker Stephanie Johnson, director of consumer relations for J.S. Books and Son, Inc., a shipper of tropical fruits and vegetables. And, says Johnson, two-thirds of those surveyed said they had tried a new produce item in the past year.

Travel and residence abroad have broadened American tastes, and increased travel in this country has promoted interest in regional specialties. Regional cuisines - Southwestern, Cajun, Floridian and others - have flourished, encouraging the growing and gathering of traditional specialties as well.

And specialty produce has also become popular with restaurants and chefs, and many of the new imports have joined the "swanky salad" bunch.

As demand for exotic produce has grown, so has its availability. For example, if you wanted a carambola or starfruit in 1983, you'd have had to search, said Johnson. In that year, a Florida grower planted seven acres of starfruit, despite claims she was crazy. Today 600 acres of starfruit are in production in the state and the fruit is much more widely available.

In 1986, J.R. Brooks packed 107 boxes of malanga. This was the company's entire Hispanic vegetable crop. In 1991, the company packed 1.1 million boxes of Hispanic vegetables, including not only malanga, but calabaza, chayote, eddos and yuca.

The guide at right lists some of the more common of the uncommon fruits and vegetables, with information on use and storage prepared by the USDA. And the next time you visit the supermarket, you might want to check out the exotic produce section to see what you can identify and might want to try. Who knows which of these new taste experiences will be the broccoli of tomorrow?