By Sandy Hu
Robert Schueller is more knowledgeable about exotic produce than anyone I know. He lives it and loves it, and is as enthusiastic today as he was when he started work 15 years ago at Melissa's/World Variety Produce, Inc., the largest distributor of specialty produce in the U.S. Melissa’s is a global produce purveyor, providing a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables from every corner of the world – over 1,000 different items at any given moment.
Schueller is a valuable resource to many national magazines, introducing editorial test kitchens to new varieties of fruits and vegetables; providing selection, storage and usage information; and sharing the latest trends in exotic produce. I caught up with him at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference last week in New York City.
I’ve always wondered how he became the produce guru. “I’m a foodie just like you,” he said. “I had to focus and learn. When I first started, I read every produce book available to me. I went to the growing fields, to food shows, professional meetings sponsored by IACP, the James Beard Foundation, Produce Marketing Association – and I absorbed it all and tried to learn new stuff every single day.”
Incessant learning is a key part of Schueller’s job. Melissa’s introduces an ambitious 10 to 30 new items annually. While some are added value products, each year’s new offerings include produce items that have never been seen in the U.S. or been available commercially. Growing regions, seasonality, flavor descriptors – that’s a lot to learn about each new introduction to communicate to the media.
What’s hot in produce right now? Schueller ticked off the trends:
- Cherimoyas – this coastal fruit, now in peak season, flourishes during April and May. Cherimoyas are juicy and creamy when ripe, with a tutti fruitti flavor reminiscent of passion fruit, guava, papaya and mango rolled into one. It’s found in high-end supermarkets, or in Latin or Asian markets.
- Seedless lemons – already popular with chefs, Schueller predicts that within five years, all lemons as we know them will be free of seeds.
- Young coconut – white coconut trimmed into a parking cone shape is purchased for the coconut water inside. Melissa’s has developed a tool that will punch a hole in the young coconut so you can stick a straw in to extract the coconut water. If hacked with a machete or a big, sharp knife, the flesh inside will reveal soft and pudding-like coconut meat.
- Ojai pixie tangerines – available March to June, with a peak of April and May, these sweet gems were originally only available in local farmers’ markets around Ojai, California. Melissa’s first introduced them nationally 10 years ago.
- Passion fruit – originally imported by Melissa’s from New Zealand, California plantings now extend the growing season. Passion fruit is especially popular with mixologists for making fancy drinks. The purple variety is sweet; when the skin wrinkles up, it’s ready to cut open and enjoy. Yellow ones are puckery-tart.
- Mangoes – this fruit is available year-round, with different varieties going in and out of season throughout the year. Yellow Mexican Ataulfo, available February to October, is smaller, sweeter and not as fibrous as some of the other varieties.
- Finger limes – they’re called citrus caviar because their juice sacs are quite firm and they burst in the mouth like caviar, releasing a flavor of lemon and lime with an aromatic hint of fresh herbs. Finger limes are shaped like small pickling cucumbers. When introduced three years ago, they were only available for a precious few weeks. The season was extended to five months last year.
With the growing number and variety of exotic produce and consumers eager to try the next new thing, technology has provided a good source of education, Schueller said, with websites like Melissa’s delivering product descriptions, recipes, and selection, storage and usage information. Melissa’s also supplies additional information via QR codes on packaging.
For a more conventional resource, the company has published two books, Melissa’s Great Book of Produce and Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce. The third book, Melissa’s Great Wellness Book, will be published by Chronicle Books and will be available in produce departments by December and in book stores in the spring of 2013.
To start your own exploration of exotic produce, try this recipe for Melissa’s Cherimoya Crème Brûlée.
To get the recipe and shopping list on your smartphone (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android device) or PC, click here.
Melissa’s Cherimoya Crème Brûlée
Makes 4 servings
1 ripe cherimoya
1 vanilla bean
16 ounces (2 cups) heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
Peel and seed cherimoya. Separate pulp and chop very fine; you will need 6 tablespoons pulp. Preheat oven to 325°F. Split vanilla bean lengthwise down the center and scrape out seeds. Combine cream, vanilla bean seeds and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove mixture from heat, add orange zest and the 6 tablespoons of cherimoya pulp; set aside. Whisk by hand the egg yolks and ½ cup of the sugar in a large bowl until just combined, then slowly pour in the warm cream mixture and mix thoroughly.
Place 4 ramekins (about 6-ounce capacity each) in a large baking dish. Pour crème brûlée mixture into the ramekins and fill almost to top. Pour water into the baking dish so water is about 2/3 up the side of the ramekins and bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until set. Remove ramekins from water bath and allow to cool 30 minutes. Refrigerate 6 hours or overnight. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the remaining sugar over top of each custard. Place under broiler until sugar caramelizes (turns a light golden brown).
Recipe adapted from Melissa’s/World Variety Produce.
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