Hearts of Palm — Iron Chef America Ingredients 101
In this week’s Kitchen Stadium battle, the Chairman provided not one but a whole cornucopia of ingredients. He challenged the Iron Chef and his challenger to create an inspired tropical meal.
Some of the ingredients on the altar, such as coconuts, pineapples, mangos and green papaya are reasonably well known to regular viewers of Food Network. So, with your permission, I am going to put those to one side and concentrate on one ingredient with which people might not be quite so familiar: hearts of palm.
Hearts of palm are a crunchy and slightly sweet vegetable similar in taste to an artichoke heart. They are the bud or inner core taken from a range of palm trees including coconut, acai, jucara and pejibayes. They are also known by a number of other names including palmitos and palm hearts. In Florida, they were once known as swamp cabbage and are harvested from the Sabal or “cabbage” palmetto tree, which is the official tree of the Sunshine State.
To harvest hearts of palm, a young tree must be felled and the bark (along with the fibrous outer layers) peeled away to reveal the inner softer core. Unfortunately, this process also means that the tree from which the hearts come is killed; the popularity of the vegetable in South America has, in the past, contributed to the rapid destruction of rain forests. In more recent years, however, hearts of palm have begun to be farmed and trees have been bred that develop more than a single stem allowing for a higher yield to be harvested from each tree.
Once the core is removed from the tree, the tubular white heart is cut into smaller sections, each a few inches long, ready to be sold fresh or, as is more often the case, canned. They are also often packed in salt and sometimes in citric acid to preserve them as they travel.
Hearts of palm are a versatile vegetable to have on hand in the kitchen and have reasonably high nutritional values. They are rich in potassium and in vitamin B9 and are very low in calories, with 100 grams of the vegetable yielding only 115 calories, most of which come from carbohydrates. They contain almost no cholesterol and are an excellent source of dietary fiber.
The largest producer of hearts of palm is Brazil and most still come from the jucara palm tree, although increasingly they are being harvested from other palm trees as efforts are made to protect the forests.
Brazil is still responsible for nearly 50 percent of the volume of hearts of palm that are imported into the United States. Other countries such as Ecuador, Costa Rica and Venezuela also produce significant amounts from other types of tree including the acai palm, which is also famous as the source of that fashionable superfood, the acai berry.
Florida and Hawaii also produce hearts of palm.
Hearts of palm have many uses in the kitchen and can be used both as a vegetable in their own right or to supplement in other dishes.
If you are a fan of soups, try simmering hearts of palm gently in chicken or vegetable stock with a little onion, garlic and potato. Blend the vegetables together to make the soup thicker and add a little cream to make it richer. A dusting of fresh nutmeg right at the end will add an earthy note to the final dish.
Thinly sliced hearts of palm can make an excellent topping for pizza and are great in salads, either with other vegetables, such as cucumber and tomatoes, or on their own with just a light dressing of a cilantro and balsamic vinaigrette.
The French import and consume more hearts of palm than any other nation, and one of the most memorable dishes I have encountered was of poached hearts of palm served in a brown butter and lemon sauce topped with a little chervil.
In Florida, hearts of palm are used to make a Millionaire’s Salad along with artichoke hearts and pimentos. The name originally reflected the cost of cutting down a sizeable tree just to get its juicy inner contents.
Finally, if you are looking for an interesting appetizer, try coating slices of hearts of palm with panko bread crumbs and then deep-frying them until golden brown. Top them off with your favorite tomato sauce recipe or even with a sharp tartar sauce made with mayonnaise, capers and diced pickles.
The majority of the hearts of palm you will find in your neighborhood supermarket will be packed in jars or cans and can be of varying quality.
Look for brands that are packed in jars using only water. If you can only find the canned variety, be sure to rinse the contents well as quite a lot of salt may have been used in the preserving process.
Best of all, there are now a number of excellent online sites that supply fresh hearts of palm. Give them a try as once you have tried them in their natural state, there is no turning back.