THOSE tropical fruits and vegetables you see in the supermarkets are not always from faraway places. Passion fruit, papaya, mangoes, malanga, and many others are now grown in south Florida, where farmers are replacing citrus groves with crops once grown only in distant countries.
When I visited the annual exposition of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association last month, tropical foods made an impact, along with other familiar items in new combinations. Watermelon Fire & Ice Salsa, Fried Green Tomatoes, and a new vegetable called Salad Savoy were sampled from among thousands of local and imported fruits and vegetables on exhibit.
"Precut" was the name of the game on everything from carrots to cauliflower to fruit. Packages of produce were presented shredded, peeled, or chopped to make preparation easier and quicker for busy consumers. Mushrooms and other foods were packaged and ready for the microwave.
The new generation of Florida's edible exotica - growing alongside tomatoes, avocados, and sweet corn - include root vegetables such as malanga, boniato, yuca, calabaza, and taro. Some of these will be assimilated into the food habits of mainstream America; others will be "niche marketed" to specific ethnic groups.
"South Florida has become the most horticulturally dynamic area in the world," says Mary Lamberts, specialist in tropical plants at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Dade County. "After three years in Thailand, I was amazed to come to work here in Florida and find so much tropical fruit being grown and marketed: The large Tahiti or Persian limes, papayas, two kinds of carambola, sweet and tart." Florida produces about 90 percent of the mangoes consumed in the US, she
"South Florida is the only subtropical area on the US mainland where many of the new fruits and vegetables can be grown," says Stephanie Johnson, marketing director of J.R. Brooks & Son, who worked with Lamberts to arrange a tropical-food-tasting workshop for food press at the exposition.
Ms. Lamberts agrees with Ms. Johnson, adding that some of these tropicals are also happy in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
"Fresh lychees, the favorite for centuries in the Orient, are now available during mid-summer. And longan, cousin of the lychee, was introduced to Florida in the '40s and is usually harvested in July and August," Lamberts notes.
"The mamey-sapote, with a flavor like a pumpkin custard and a hint of toasted almond, is a Cuban favorite that has been grown in Florida a long time," Lamberts says. New foods to look for in the future include tindora, a vegetable from India that looks like a small cucumber. "It tastes very good. I like it," Lamberts says. "It has been grown here for seven or eight years on small farms and back-yard gardens."
Latinos and Asians are responsible for creating a demand for much of the new produce available in large supermarkets. Often an immigrant family will grow a favorite vegetable in a small family garden. If it grows well and people like it, other farmers will start growing it.
Other interesting vegetables are the cherry eggplant, with clusters of fruit; parvar, another cucumber-like, striped vegetable from India; and a flat green bean with one crinkly edge called the "hyacinth" bean.
"Today we're eating fruits, vegetables, and spices our grandparents never heard of," says Tim Rosendahl, who prepared and cooked several tropical dishes at a workshop. Chef Rosendahl is director of the Disney Culinary Apprenticeship, a three-year earn-as-you-learn program for high school graduates at the Walt Disney World Resort.
"Take the carambola, the star fruit. It is very versatile," he says of the yellow, five-ridged, waxy fruit during a cooking demonstration. "It makes refreshing beverages, but we're using it today for a salad with cucumber, papaya, and fresh pineapple for a sweet-sour combination of fruits and vegetables. (See recipe at left.)
"Carambola will ripen after it's been refrigerated. You can ripen it at home," he says, slicing a large carambola into perfect star shapes. Some star fruit are very sweet, while another variety can be sour and used for cooking.
"A fully ripe star fruit can be very sweet. Cut in half like an orange, it can be squeezed on a citrus juicer. Delicious combined with orange or other fruit juices. And, incidentally, the carambola is a true palate cleanser," he says.
Rosendahl makes wedges of a bright orange calabaza squash, and slices white daikon radish into translucent circles. "The simpler the recipe, the more important it is to follow directions, " he says as he prepares shrimp with key lime juice to go with pepper linguini.
"Shrimp tells you when it's cooked by turning translucent. Undercook slightly, since it will continue cooking a bit more off the heat," he advises.
The chef recommends making chips for snack foods from boniato, malanga, and several other root vegetables as he slices them for a vegetable stew.
Although all the fruits and vegetables the chef is using are tropicals grown in South Florida, he mentions corn, not a tropical but grown here for many years. He describes an unusual way to use it:
"On the bottom of the roasting pan make a layer of green plantains, then a layer of popped popcorn. Place the roast on the popcorn and bake in the oven. Popcorn is also good as a garnish for cheddar cheese soup."
All of the tropical fruits and vegetables Rosendahl used in making 11 dishes during the demonstration were grown in Florida, noted Johnson of J.R. Brooks & Son Inc., a south Florida grower and shipper.
"There has been more emphasis in what are called 'niche markets' in the last few years," Johnson says.
"At one time, supermarket chains were buying only foods they could order in large truckloads for all their stores. Today, owners realize they can target certain foods to ethnic groups in particular stores."
There may be fewer "new" exotics coming on the market right now, but the focus is on flavorful produce that is ripe and in season, according to reports from this grower and shipper.