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Getting familiar with what's unfamiliar

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Strange-looking produce with odd-sounding names are found these days in even average-sized supermarkets.

Some of these fruits and vegetables are new breeds, such as Sprite melons that taste of honeydew and pear, or the smooth-skinned pluots that are part plum, part apricot.

But many others, such as yuca, cactus leaves, carambola, tomatillos and jicama, are foods that have long been eaten in other parts of the world, although they may be new to the local grocery store.

Here's a short primer on what to do with some of them:

Cactus paddles

These green leaves, sold with or without thorns, look as though they belong in the floral section of the supermarket, not with the produce. But cactus paddles, called nopales in Spanish, have been sold in Hispanic markets for years and are just now gaining a more general following.

When purchasing, look for leaves that are brightly colored and somewhat stiff. Store in the refrigerator. Before cooking, use a peeler to remove the bumps and thorns and any rough edges. The cooked vegetable has a slippery texture, like okra, that might not be to everybody's taste.

One easy recipe calls for brushing the leaves with olive oil, then grilling them for 10 to 12 minutes on each side, brushing occasionally with oil while grilling.

Tomatillos

Those green balls you see in the produce section are not tomatoes picked too soon. They are tomatillos, a popular ingredient in Mexican cooking, now gaining popularity throughout the United States.

Tomatillos, relatives of tomatoes, are about the size of a golf ball and are either green or purplish. They grow inside a husk that can be green or brown, and is not edible. The taste is sweet and tangy, not as sharp as green tomatoes, and the texture is firmer than that of a tomato.

Tomatillos can be used in place of tomatoes in many recipes, especially ones with Mexican flavors, like salsas. They are easy to use because they don't require peeling or seeding.

Carambola

Sometimes called star fruit because of its shape when cut crosswise, carambola is both crisp and juicy, with flavor ranging from tart to sweet. As a general rule, the yellower the fruit the sweeter, and the greener, the tarter. Carambolas don't need to be peeled, but any tough ribs can be pared away.

Fruit with still-green ribs can be ripened at room temperature. Otherwise, store ripe carambolas, wrapped in plastic, in the refrigerator for as long as a week.

Because they are so pretty, slices of carambola make nice garnishes or additions to fruit salads.

Yuca

This dark-brown root isn't much to look at, but yuca, also called cassava, has long been an important dietary staple in many tropical countries. Like its fellow tuber, the potato, is can be mashed, baked or fried. The texture when mashed is pastier than that of a potato, but the taste is richer.

The skin is generally peeled off, though it doesn't have to be; then, the off-white flesh inside can be mashed, baked or fried. An easy way to serve yuca is to peel it, slice it into quarter-inch rounds, dust the rounds with kosher salt and fry them in peanut or vegetable oil until crisp.

Buy yuca that is dry and hard, with inside flesh that is very white. Store in a cool, dark place or refrigerator, and use within a few days of purchase.

Jicama

Some say jicama tastes like water chestnut; others argue it's a cross between an apple and a potato. Either way, these unassuming brown lumps, once sold mainly in Mexico, are delicious.

This cousin of the sweet potato can be mashed, baked, fried or otherwise treated like a potato. It can also be eaten raw, and because it doesn't brown, it provides a lovely, mild addition to both fruit and vegetable salads.

Look for medium-sized jicamas with unblemished skin, and store in a cool, dry place for as long as three weeks. Peel off all the skin before using.

Cuban-Style Yuca Root With Citrus and Garlic

Serves 6

3 pounds yuca, scrubbed, peeled and cut into 3-inch sections

3/4 teaspoon salt, divided use

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, minced

6 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup fresh grapefruit or lime juice

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano

Place yuca in cold water to cover and bring to a boil, adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the water. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, about 30 minutes until the root is easily pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, heat vegetable oil in a skillet and cook the onion until translucent, about 4 minutes. Then stir in the garlic, juices and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Add the herbs.

Drain the yuca, then combine with the sauce and serve.

- "Joy of Cooking " by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion R. Becker (Scribner, 1997)

Jicama Slaw

Serves 4

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1 small jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed, minced

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks (about 5 cups)

In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients except the jicama. Add the jicama and toss well to combine.

- From "The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook" (Clarkson N. Potter, 2000, $35)

Confetti Cactus Salad

Serves 4

SALAD:

1 cup chopped cactus paddles (about 3 paddles)

1 cup chopped red onion

1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears)

1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped

one (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

VINAIGRETTE:

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Cook the paddles in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then drain. Place in a medium bowl and add the onion, corn, cilantro and beans. Toss gently.

Combine vinegar and remaining ingredients in a jar. Cover tightly, and shake vigorously. Pour vinaigrette over salad; toss gently to coat. Cover and chill.

- From www.cooking light.com

Tomatillo Salsa

Serves 4 as an appetizer

8 ounces (five to six medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

fresh hot green chiles, to taste (roughly 2 serranos or 1 jalapeno), stemmed

5 or 6 sprigs cilantro, thick stems removed and roughly chopped

scant 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped

salt to taste

Roast the tomatillos and chiles on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until darkly roasted, even blackened in spots, about 5 minutes. Turn and roast the other side, 4 to 5 minutes, until splotchy-black and blistered.

In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatillos and chiles, plus any juice on the baking sheet. Add the cilantro and 1/4 cup water. Blend to a coarse puree, and scrape into a serving dish. Rinse the onion under cold water, then shake to remove the excess moisture. Stir into the salsa and season with salt, usually a generous 1/4 teaspoon.

- From "Mexico One Plate at a Time" by Rick Bayless (Scribner, 2000, $35)

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