In Passionate Pursuit of the Exotic

If it weren't for Frieda Caplan, we might still be satisfied with eating only those common, dreary, mundane fruits and vegetables.

Ms. Caplan, originator of the Los Alamitos, Calif. specialty produce market, Frieda's, has made the exotic accessible, introducing little-known produce to the American consumer since 1962.

In the early '60s, Caplan wanted a business with flexibility. An anomaly in the male-dominated produce industry, Caplan listened to what the customers wanted at a time when only the retailers determined what the food market would bear.

"I asked around at the market looking for Chinese gooseberries for a shopper at a big retail store who really missed those New Zealand specialties. A couple of months later, a new broker approached me, and was looking for somebody to carry the Chinese gooseberry. I said I'll take what you've got. And what I got was more than I anticipated."

Ms. Caplan looked at the little brown fuzzballs that resembled a tiny New Zealand bird without its beak and discarded its name. She renamed them kiwi fruit, and the rest is gastronomic history.

The well-dressed matriarch who is founder and chairman of the board, is now semiretired. Caplan, who works with her two daughters, says that it's "rare to get the three of us together."

Taste has been the driving force of their business, and doing a lot of things that other people wouldn't have done. For example, Caplan says, when a farmer would come down and offer items that other people wouldn't even consider, we always said, 'Hey, we'll try it.' "

They weren't particularly interested in sunchokes, rhubarb, papayas, and mangoes. "But we tested all these things, and we knew that here were truly wonderful tastes."

It's hard to believe that we ever had to rely on canned, pland, button mushrooms, when today the fresh mushroom section is filled with crimini, oyster, shiitake, wood ear, portabello, chanterelle, enoki, and morels.

Caplan laughs at the subject of mushrooms. "The crimini mushroom, so 'in' today, just used to be known as old 'California brown.' And today's fancy big portabellos used to be known as 'choppers' or 'No. 2's' - they were sold wholesale for 25 cents a pound."

Caplan helped develop the market for these oversized mushrooms. Retailers didn't want to carry them, but chefs and consumers loved them. The going rate this year for the meaty portabellos is between $5.99 and $7.50 a pound.

To give the business more perspective, 20 years ago there was an average of 65 to 75 items in the produce section of a market. Now the average supermarket carries 275. However, Frieda's Inc., carries 400 to 450 produce items.

The Caplans are constantly introducing new products and concepts, and educating the consumer as they go.

An example of this is a product line called "Lost Crops of the Americas." The ancestral foods of the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, and native Americans include highly nutritious fruits, vegetables, and grains and nuts.

Beans, corn, and squash could be economically grown all together (the corn stalk acting as a trellis for the beans, the squash acting as moisture-retaining ground cover).

These crops were replaced over time by those more common to the Europeans, hence the word "lost."

But now both black and white quinoa (KEEN-wa), the nutty, chewy grain that is full of both flavor and protein, can be found in supermarkets across the country.

And jicama (HEE-kah-mah) is Frieda's No. 1 selling fresh vegetable. This is a crunchy, potato-like root that is eaten raw with a little lime and salt, or used in a salad as a foil for citrus and greens.

THE upswing of Americans traveling overseas, the increase of immigrants in this country who are hungry for native foods, plus the popularity of ethnic and fusion foods have fueled the hunger for more exotic produce.

"People thought we were nuts when we brought out plantain bananas 17 years ago, but the product caught on as the public became aware of Cuban and Caribbean foods," said Caplan.

Latin American, Asian, and Mediterranean cuisines continue to infiltrate American tastes and are increasing in popularity - and Frieda's is right there with more than 21 types of fresh and dried chilies.

"For the first 18 years we were in business," Ms. Caplan explains, "there was nobody else in the country with their eye on this kind of opportunity. Now, of course, we have loads of people selling, all over the country."

Food From Frieda's

Items introduced to the American palate by Frieda Caplan.

1962: Alfalfa sprouts, kiwi fruit, red seedless watermelon

1964: Macadamia nuts

1966: Cocktail avocados, elephant garlic

1970: Fresh Maui onions

1975: Spaghetti squash

1977: Dried mushrooms (many varieties)

1979: Sugar snap peas

1980: Hydroponic limestone bib lettuce

1982: Yellow Finnish potatoes

1991: Dried bing cherries, dried blueberries

1993: Sun-dried yellow tomatoes, dried strawberries

1994: Carnival squash

RECIPES

Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti squash was introduced by Frieda's 13 years ago. The following recipe comes from Karen Schluntz, chef at Zuxuz Restaurant, in Brookline, Mass.

1 medium-sized spaghetti squash (about 3-4 pounds)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/3-cup chopped onion

1/3-cup packed fresh basil leaves

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

Cut squash in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds, place both halves flesh-side down in roasting pan with 1/2 inch of water. Roast in 350 degree F oven for 45-60 minutes. Scrape spaghetti squash from skin with a fork into a bowl, and continue to fluff and separate strands with fork.

Heat olive oil in large skillet and saute garlic and onion until translucent. Finely chop the basil leaves.

Add cooked squash to skillet with garlic and onion, and pour in about 1/4 cup water to keep moist. Add basil and stir well. Salt and pepper to taste. Add maple syrup, mix well

Serves 4.

Pear and Apple Crisp With Dried Blueberries and Chinese Five-Spice

The following recipe uses dried blueberries, introduced by Frieda in 1991. For a more exotic fruit crisp, Asian pears could be substituted for both apples and pears.

4 cups cored, peeled, and sliced Macintosh apples (5-6 apples)

4 cups cored and sliced Bartlett pears (5-6, mixed red and green are nice if leaving skins on)

1/2 cup golden raisins (plumped in hot water)

1/2 cup dried blueberries

Topping:

1 cup light brown sugar

1 cup white flour

1/4 pound (1stick) butter

2 to 3 teaspoons Chinese Five-Spice powder

Core and slice apples and pears (can leave skin on or peel; works best to peel apples and leave red and green skins on pears), and place in a lightly greased 12" x 8" Pyrex or enamel baking dish. Plump golden raisins in hot water for a few minutes, drain, and add to fruit mixture. Add dried blueberries; mix well. Place brown sugar and flour in mixing bowl, and add butter cut into little pieces. Cut with two knives to blend. Add Chinese Five-Spice powder, and spread mixture over apples and pears.

Bake in pre-heated 375 degree F oven for 35-45 minutes.

Serve hot or cold topped with vanilla ice cream, or whipped cream.

Serves 6 to 8.

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