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UC Food Safety

UC Food Blog

Put down that zucchini! Pick up the ... bittermelon?

These are not zucchini.

Welcome to August. Are you tired of summer squash yet?

If your dinners have been overflowing with zucchini recently (like mine have), now might be a great time to try new varieties of otherwise familiar vegetables.

One of the farm advisors I work with has long touted some varieties of "Asian vegetables" as more flavorful than their traditionally "American" cousins. Here in the U.S., vegetable varieties like these are more likely to be grown by farmers — and sold to customers — who have close ties to Asian immigrant communities. Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Fresno County, works frequently with Hmong farmers and says that he now prefers Hmong cucumber and Japanese eggplant to the varieties you might find in most California supermarkets.

After years of hearing Molinar's claims, I finally had a chance to try some of these new-to-me Asian vegetables during lunch at the Hmong Specialty Crops and Medicinal Herbs conference.

Presenters in the morning talked about crops such as sinqua, luffa (photo above has fresh luffa, in angled and smooth varieties), moqua, snake gourd, bittermelon and donqua — all of which are cucurbits, in the gourd family with other squashes and melons. Other Asian vegetables common in some specialty markets include leafy greens and tender shoots from chayote, amaranth, bittermelon, pumpkin, okra leaf, yam leaf, yucca and sour leaf plants. Discussions at the conference focused on these and other specialty crops, including ways to eat them.

"Maybe we need a recipe to teach customers how to buy these new crops," said Chukuo Thao, CEO of National Hmong American Farmers, who alternated between English and Hmong while speaking at the conference.

A dish of bittermelon stuffed with turkey and noodles was part of the conference's lunch menu.

Some of the vegetables and herbs discussed at the conference were highlights of that day's lunch. The menu included a slushy Hmong cucumber drink, purple sticky rice, salsa made with cherry tomatoes, stir-fried mustard greens with pork skin, Hmong herbal chicken soup and steamed bittermelon stuffed with turkey.

But how did it taste? The stuffed bittermelon was what I was most looking forward to trying. The dish was delicious and wow, was it bitter! That is one appropriately named vegetable. Speakers at the conference suggested bitterness is frequently associated with medicinal qualities in Hmong cuisine.

Not all of the lunch dishes were bitter, of course. The cucumber dish was refreshing and very sweet, a dish with eggplant was spicy, and the mustard greens were salty and pungent. Many of the dishes were also made with lemongrass; Fresno County is where most of the nation's lemongrass comes from, according to Molinar in a recent article from the California Ag Network.

Curious about other Asian vegetables? Check out the Small Farm Program's guides to Asian vegetables, along with tips for farmers about how to grow and sell these niche varieties.

Question: The Small Farm Program has a lot of information about different vegetable varieties, but I'm still finding new vegetables to try. What are some of your favorite Asian vegetables?

P.S. While the conference was my first chance to taste bittermelon, Richard Molinar and Gus Schumacher (former USDA undersecretary) were being honored by Hmong community members for their long-time support of Southeast Asian refugee farmers. The two men were each given Hmong names in a special ceremony.

Audience members tie strings to Molinar's wrists and offer him eggs, cookies and other tokens after he was given a Hmong name.
Posted on Sunday, August 7, 2011 at 12:36 PM

Some hae meat, and canna eat . . .

"Some hae meat, and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it . . ."

The words are old and a little hard to understand, but they tell a story that's as true today as when the poet Robert Burns spoke them back in the 1790s. They were old words even then. Always, it seems, there are those of us who are fortunate enough to eat well and those of us who go hungry, even in a country as rich as ours.

One morning last May, I got to meet some folks who help ease that hunger in the community where I live. That morning I drove with my wife to an industrial area on the northeast side of Woodland, California, where the Food Bank of Yolo County does its business. Outside the warehouse door delivery trucks from local markets, chain stores, farms, and other food sources came and went, mingling with buyers' pickups and trailers from churches and other charitable groups.

The big trucks were there to deliver what many retailers would consider marginal goods: bread, dairy products, meats, and canned and dry goods that were moving too slowly off the shelves or getting too close to their sell-by dates; a cardboard harvest bin of loose carrots in the walk-in, donated by a grower who was getting ready to put in a new crop; 50-pound sacks of potatoes or onions that were either too much for the food service market or were set aside by generous handlers or a government agency for exactly the purpose they were about to serve: to feed the hungry.

These days about 35 percent of the stock you can see in this Food Bank warehouse has been donated outright. The rest comes from government agencies or direct purchases from the California Association of Food Banks. A few years ago the directors of the Food Bank of Yolo County shifted their focus toward providing clients with fresher, more nutritious food, and since then they have brought their fresh produce sales from about 50,000 pounds a year up to a high of 1 million pounds in 2010. 

That morning in May my wife and I joined other groups of buyers inside the warehouse, each of us picking through the low-priced goods for just the right mix of products to refill the shelves of a soup kitchen or—as in our case—a local food closet. Loaves of bread, a case of canned tomatoes, a box of apples, macaroni and cheese mix, a shrink-wrapped bundle of bags of flour. We loaded our wheeled dolly three times: first came the bread, which a food bank volunteer weighed before we loaded it into the truck; then the produce, likewise weighed on the dolly and loaded; and finally the canned and dry goods, which are priced by the case. Five flats of eggs we put in the pickup's back seat for a smooth ride. For a little less than $100 we got enough food to fill the truck.

A short trip then took us back to the food closet at our church, where 8 or 10 women and men, most of them well into their retirement years, bustled around the edges of the sorting table that filled the middle of the small room, stacking cans on shelves, putting bread, tortillas, and eggs into the refrigerators, doling potatoes, onions, rice, and beans from 50-pound sacks into smaller, consumer-sized bags, and pointing out to me firmly and kindly each time I put a box or bag down in the wrong place. Which was pretty often. Before an hour was up, the closet was stocked and locked up and ready for food distribution the next day. Two distributions a week from our closet alone can serve up to 50 families in need.

There's plenty that you can do, too, to help relieve hunger in your own community. Find your nearest food bank on the California Association of Food Banks website, or ask around to find out about local food closets or soup kitchens.

Then all you need to do is pitch in. If you've got the time, they've got the need.

Posted on Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Putting a spin on baby carrots

A few weeks ago, I attended the California Childhood Obesity Conference, where I heard Bryan Reese, Chief Marketing Officer, of Bolthouse Farms speak about the brilliant marketing campaign launched by "A bunch of carrot farmers."

Baby carrots were "invented" in the 1990s and became an instant hit. Not only did it transform the industry, but American consumers doubled their consumption of carrots in the ensuing decade. Then, a couple of years ago, after this remarkable growth, consumption began to fall.

Reese credits the decline to a number of factors, the economy being a primary one.  Consumers were trying to save money, so they were buying regular carrots. Since those carrots need peeling, washing and cutting at home, a lot of those carrots were relegated to what the industry calls "the drawer of death" - your refrigerator's vegetable bin - where they remained uneaten.

To make a long story short, Bolthouse hired an edgy ad agency with a client list that includes Kraft Foods, Dominos Pizza and Coke Zero. The campaign aimed to turn the brand on its head: Stop marketing baby carrots as a vegetable and start marketing them as a snack.

"The snack food industry was already trying to make their products appear healthy. We're already healthy. Look! One ingredient!" quipped Reese in his presentation.

In two test markets, a $25 million campaign was launched, including media, a web site, vending machines in schools, repackaging of the product, and a marketing tie-in with the animated movie Hop. No longer sitting demurely in the produce aisle, baby carrots were transformed into an extreme snack whose packaging and marketing resemble chips.

The results:  Baby carrot consumption in the test markets increased by 10 to 12 percent, vending machines were dispensing 80 to 90 individual packs per week, schools were inquiring about installing their own machines, and the campaign started generating enviable national PR buzz.

What's next? A national roll out of the campaign. So look for Extreme Baby Carrots in a refrigerated case near you.

Posted on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 8:50 AM

I say tomato!

Here we are, a month into summer, and one of my favorite fruits is starting to emerge: Luscious tomatoes, fresh off the vine.

I know, most of us treat tomatoes like a vegetable in the kitchen, slicing and dicing them into dishes that are savory rather than sweet. Botanically speaking, tomato is a fruit because it’s developed from the ovary in the base of the flowers and contains the seeds of the plant (though cultivated forms may be seedless.)

No matter, the tomato is a nutritional powerhouse any way you cut it, loaded with vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium and lycopene, an antioxidant credited with preventing both cancer and heart disease.

The UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences devotes many resources to tomato production, helping large- and small-scale growers, organic and otherwise, control weeds, manage pests, fight disease and tackle all the other adventures farming can bring. The department is also home to the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetic Resource Center, the largest known collection of tomato seeds in the world. You can’t breed a better tomato without diversity of genetic tissues, and the repository and its abundance of wild species are the sources of resistance to 44 major tomato diseases and at least 20 insect pets – not to mention improved fruit traits like tolerance to saline conditions and drought.

Of course, growing or buying a tomato is only part of the equation. How do you make sure the fruit of your labor is tasty and safe? Here are some helpful hints from the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, a handy resource for all your postharvest technology needs:

How to choose: A ripe tomato will be plump, vibrant in color and fairly firm to the touch. You want it to have a little give, but not much. Ageism aside, avoid a tomato with wrinkles.

How to store: Keep tomatoes at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, with the stem scar (the belly button, if you will) facing up to reduce softening and darkening of the fruit. It’s best to eat them within two or three days, though some tomatoes are perfectly fine for about five days. Store tomatoes unwashed and then rinse them under running water before eating.

How to prepare: After rinsing your tomato well, wipe it dry and cut away the stem scar and surrounding area before slicing into it. Don’t wash tomatoes in a sink filled with water (nor use soap or detergent) because tomatoes can absorb contaminated water and soap residue through its stem scar. Cut or chopped tomatoes (and dishes like salsa) should always be covered and refrigerated if not consumed within two hours or preparation. Cut tomatoes will last one or two days in the refrigerator.

How to enjoy: Enjoy them every which way! It would be hard pick my favorite tomato recipe, but you can’t go wrong with this fast, fresh salad:

Tomato platter special

Four fresh tomatoes of any color or variety
Two red onions
Two orange, yellow or red bell peppers
A few sprigs of basil
Your favorite vinaigrette
Four ounces Feta cheese

Slice the produce into circles and fan them out on a platter in an attractive, alternating order. If you have fresh cucumbers, they fit nicely in this flower, as well. Drizzle with vinaigrette, crumble on some Feta cheese, give a few grinds of fresh pepper and few shakes of salt and place basil sprigs on top.


You can read more tomato tips from the Postharvest Technology Center here and explore many more of their practical publications here.

Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 8:13 AM

There's a new avocado in town

GEM avocado.

The UC Riverside avocado breeding program has identified a promising new avocado variety, which scientists believe will soon take off commercially.

The GEM avocado is the great-granddaughter of Hass avocado, which is currently the industry standard in California. GEM has all the excellent characteristics of Hass avocados - creamy, nutty flesh; dark, pebbly skin when ripe - and it has additional benefits for the grower, according to Mary Lu Arpaia, a UC Cooperative Extension subtropical horticulturist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Calif.

"Hass avocados are alternate bearing - they will produce a big crop one year, and a small crop the next. GEM is more consistent, so growers can make money every year," Arpaia said. "The trees are also more compact, which means growers have less costs for harvesting and tree maintenance."

GEM was part of an extensive avocado variety breeding program led since the 1950s by UC Riverside plant breeder Bob Bergh. Arpaia took over the program in 1996.

In the early 1980s, Bergh released a variety he called the Gwen. However, Gwen didn't turn black when it ripened, a disadvantage because consumers are accustomed to Hass. In the mid 80s, Bergh planted more than 60,000 avocado variety seedlings on farms across Southern California. GEM, a daughter of Gwen, was one.

There are GEM trees growing at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. Fruit samples are sent to the Kearney Sensory Laboratory, where volunteers judge the fruit's outward appearance and compare the flavor with Hass.

Recently, UC Riverside signed an exclusive license agreement with Westfalia Fruit Estates, a South African company, to market GEM around the world, the university announced. In the United States, the California–based Brokaw Nursery has non-exclusive rights to the GEM avocado.

For information on GEM avocado sensory testing, see the one-minute video below.

Read a transcript of the video.

Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 7:47 AM

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