Cooking the Ugly

January 30th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

root veggiesA fellow Stop & Shop-per was my guide to using some of those particularly ugly veggies today. That’s fair enough. Dozens of times, grocery and Haymarket browsers have rushed to me when I turn with a vegetable or cut of meat and they ask what I do with it. In fact, that is a real community benefit from food shopping.

I have largely looked at the bins of uglies for a long time. Lately, I’ve been buying and then researching this or that. Latino markets, like Hi Lo in JP, the Haymarket, and more recently Stop & Shop have produce bins of the funkiest looking roots — stuff that seems to come out of an animator’s spare cycles.

Unfortunately for us ignorant sorts, the markets are generally not much help. I’ve asked. At Hi Lo, Latino shoppers would say they don’t use something, that their grandmother did but they never liked it or just “boil it.” Haymarket vendors are even less help as is Kenny and the other Italian-American staff at Baby Nat’s at the top of Roslindale.  They sell the stuff because, well, it sells. They don’t know what to do with it.

I’ve been a Haymarket regular for 30 years and Nat’s for over 20. I recall asking owner Kenny about some of the root vegetables and about the huge tins of ackee.  They move many cases of ackee on American Legion Highway to native Jamaicans. “I don’t know what they do with it, but they buy a lot of it,” he said.

My family has its own love of various uglies. After most of them migrated to New Mexico a long time ago, they got me into jimaca.  I used to think this frightening looking thing was a real ugly, like a bloated shrunken head. Yet, Texans, New Mexicans, Mexicans and Californians have it all the time and know just what to do with it. There are even website pages with details.

It’s a generally difficult with the Caribbean roots. Big sites like Epicurious don’t deign to deal with non-European specialty items like batata (top lump in image above; click for detail) or malanga (bottom thingummy). Similarly when I brought home a hunk of nãme, I was stressed and pressed to find out what to do with it. Even the few the Stop & Shop signs had any description of would only uniformly say to boil it. That reads like a stereotypical joke about Irish cooking — “Bile it.” “What if it ain’t done?” “Bile it some more.”

It’s a hard net search, particularly as search engines, as well as Wikipedia and so forth, treat nãme as the word name. That’s about as common in a string as and or the. Adding terms for recipe, Jamaica and so forth didn’t help. Eventually, I stumbled in the Brazilian link to the root (and the root of the word for the root). Nãme is the Portuguese version of nyam from several African languages, where it originally just meant to taste. It’s also were we get our word yam.

Well, sort of…the African, Brazilian and Caribbean yam is nothing like the misapplied term to a sweet potato. These nãme things are big and not at all sweet, and toxic. They can grow to six, eight or more feet long. They are highly starchy. They also require considerable boiling to remove the natural, and even fatal, toxicity, but a simple prolonged boiling neutralizes the poison.

Nãme has long been a subsistence food in Africa and is particularly useful where they don’t have rice or grains for bread or our New World potatoes. It’s grown in tropical regions in all the Americas, is available all year, and having cooked and eaten it, I don’t have to do that again. It is starchy, but neither savory nor sweet. It seems to be a vehicle for herbs, spices and main dishes.

My take-an-ugly-root-home version today was both batata and malanga. Batata is more common and better known. The woman in the store today suggested thinking of it as a white fleshed sweet potato. She boils and slices it before serving it as a side dish, generally tossed in butter. Next up will be the malangas (I bought several). She recommended first peeling and dicing it. Then cook it with chicken or other meat in a spicy stew. She said she also likes to chop it long, boil it until tender and use it with meat in a sauce where you might use noodles.

I intend to go through all the ugly root veggies I can find. Then I’ll give them my best shots at  getting advice in person or online, getting the family to join my adventure and then posting a short list with suggestions and comments. I don’t know that any will be a stand-alone delight. Then again, I haven’t tried them all yet.

Tags: , , , , , ,


7 Responses

  1. joe c says:

    Oh man, I loved malanga as a kid. (My mom was Cuban and a fantastic cook.) Just prepare them like mashed potatoes. Deeeelish!

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Many thanks. I’ll try that tomorrow with the curried goat. Today it’s broiled cod with a side of batata.

  3. Miss Grimke says:

    I’m ready for fun!

  4. Miss Grimke says:

    I am looking forward to learning more.

  5. Uncle says:

    This is sort of a “Euell Gibbons goes to market” thread, eh?

  6. Pete says:

    Thanks for the post! I’ve been curious about all the various root veggies at the local international market and have been building my list of things to try and how to try them!

Leave a Reply