This week's look at what's bountiful, new or even mysterious in the produce aisle.
"If I brought a jicama home to my wife and put it on the counter she wouldn't know what it was," says Richard Horil, executive chef of the Hyatt Reston hotel.
She's not alone. Most Americans aren't familiar with the homely jicama (pronounced HEE-kah-mah). It doesn't advertise itself well. The thin skin of this sandy-brown, turnip-shaped tuber is often blemished. The nubby, pointed ends, which once sent a vine up and roots down, may appear withered.
A surprise is inside. Jicama has a crisp, sweet and very moist white flesh that brings to mind apple or watermelon. Refreshing and mild, it's great in summer salads.
Almost every supermarket stocks jicama, a root vegetable imported year-round from Mexico. Look in the specialty produce section.
Landover-based Keany Produce, one of the largest distributors of fresh produce in the Washington area, ships 3,000 pounds of jicama per week to restaurants and hotels in the area. The bulk of the jicama tubers are purchased by hotels, according to co-owner Ted Keany; Latin American restaurants buy the rest.
HOW TO BUY AND STORE THEM
Look for smooth-skinned, firm tubers that feel as if they are heavy with moisture. Avoid specimens that are wrinkled and pock-marked. Mold is okay on cheese, but discolored spots on the jicama skin often mean that a tuber is past its prime or has been held at an improper temperature. They are best stored in a cool, dry area of the refrigerator. An uncut jicama will keep for two to three weeks. Sliced pieces should be wrapped in plastic wrap and used within a week.
HOW TO USE THEM
Chefs like jicama because it is a resilent vegetable that holds its texture and crunch for a long period after it is peeled and sliced. Oxidation is not a problem. Cut jicama stays white and moist. Fresh, raw jicama is excellent in salads. Horil often serves julienne strips with diced avocado and tomato as well as sprigs of cilantro tossed with an olive oil and fresh lime juice vinaigrette. Or he cuts grilled chicken and jicama into a large dice ("The textures are great together") and tosses them with wild rice and a lime vinaigrette. Caterers use julienne sticks of jicama in crudites with a dipping sauce. A classic Mexican appetizer is slices of crisp jicama tossed with lime juice with a sprinkle of chili powder and salt.