This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:
If you have been to an Asian grocery lately, you may have noticed shiso. With large tear-shaped, jagged leaves, shiso resembles mint in appearance though the tenderness of its leaves might make one think basil. Though shiso is a member of the mint family, it actually tastes of cinnamon, coriander and citrus.
Shiso is of Chinese origin, but is used more commonly in Japanese cuisine. It is also known as perilla, cinnamon plant, beefsteak plant and Japanese basil. It comes in two varieties: aojiso (green) and akajiso (purple). The green is mild and and the purple spicier, with a sharper fragrance and bite.
HOW TO SELECT: Look for shiny, dry leaves that are firm and crisp. Fresh leaves will release a spicy aroma with a gentle rub of the fingers.
The leaves are sold either on the stalk in bunches like most herbs or bundled together in stacks like tobacco leaves. Shiso with the stems still attached will last longer.
Shiso is harvested in the spring and summer months and is typically available at Asian grocery stores.
HOW TO STORE: Treat the tender leaves like any other fresh herb or lettuce. Wrap the unwashed leaves in a moistened paper towel or a sealed plastic bag and keep in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for no more than four days.
HOW TO PREPARE: Shiso has an intense and complex flavor that can be overwhelming. Use it prudently, whether torn into large pieces to toss into salad greens, thinly sliced to strew into fruit salads or finely chopped to season a vinaigrette.
Because of its range of flavors, shiso can enliven many cuisines. The Japanese wrap a piece of fish or vegetable in shiso before dipping it in tempura batter and frying. Koreans make a summer salad of blanched leaves and a sweetened sesame seed and chili pepper dressing. Shiso is also great in fresh Vietnamese summer rolls or homemade maki rolls.
Outside of traditional Asian cuisine, shiso can be substituted for basil, cilantro and mint. I like to steam cockles, clams or mussels in sake and throw in handfuls of chopped shiso at the last minute. For whole fish, line a steamer with the larger leaves and stuff some inside the cavity. For a quick salad, layer orange segments and sliced radishes with small shiso leaves instead of lettuce greens; it really makes the orange pop in your mouth.
On the sweeter side, toss shiso with cubed Mexican papaya, bananas, lime juice and chili peppers. Shiso is also lovely with strawberries and melons of all kinds.
-- Dawn Woodward
Dawn Woodward is a chef and cooking instructor from Washington who recently moved to Philadelphia. She last wrote for Food about galangal.