Hearts of Palm
By Dennis Linden
I heard a rumor that Hearts of Palm
tasted just like artichoke hearts. Being a certified artichoke-head I was both intrigued and skeptical, so I will admit to approaching this month’s feature with some doubt that there could be anything in the marketplace that could compete with the unique meaty-creamy goodness of the hallowed heart of the artichoke, except for maybe the plant’s tasty leaves. There is! In fact, my first bite of this cylindrical delicacy turned that alleged flavor rumor into fact and spurred me to find out more about my new-found heart. Turns out it’s an interesting crop with even some historical baggage.
Hearts of Palm are exactly that – the inner-most core of the stem of a palm tree. While they definitely have a flavor that is very similar to artichoke heart, by the time they get to the marketplace, usually canned and packed in water, they look like white asparagus stalks without the tops. Each ivory-colored stalk is approximately four inches long and can range in size from a half-inch to about an inch in diameter. In researching the item I found several references on the ‘net claiming that the smaller the diameter, the more tender and flavorful the stalk. However, my own taste test could not distinguish any difference in texture or taste between sizes—delicious every centimeter along the way! In fact, the Internet is filled with misinformation about this crop as will be demonstrated later in this article.
It’s a tedious, very labor-intensive process to get from palm tree to a canned product, which is reflected in this item’s relatively pricey retail cost. No rumor: the purchase price does melt away with each bite! Today, with most all commercial growing operations in Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica, Hearts of Palm starts as a nursery crop in huge greenhouses where 3-inch palm seedlings are tended in individual containers for about three months until they are mature enough (about 36 inches) to be field planted. First harvest comes some 18 months later; by that time the palm is some 8 to 9 foot tall with as many a forty stalks per plant clustered around the central stalk. The first harvest consists of cutting only this “mother stalk” off the plant by hand with a machete and trimming the top couple of feet off. The rest of the palm will continue to grow and be harvested for about ten years.
The field worker uses the same sharp blade to slit and peel the outer layer of the remaining four foot of stalk revealing yet another protective layer of fibrous material that surrounds the center core of the plant, aka the heart. Back at the processing facility this last protective layer is slit by a table saw and removed by hand. The wobbly cylindrical core, about the length of a baseball bat is then washed, sliced into uniform 4-inch lengths, which must be sorted and packed by weight, therefore by hand, into glass jars or cans to be shipped all over the world.
The above overview is the modern story of Hearts of Palm today. There was a time when Hearts of Palm was harvested wild from the single-stalk of the Palmetto palm. Unfortunately the collateral damage of harvesting this palm for its core was the destruction of the entire plant. In Florida, this resulted in almost the complete extinction of this palm species during the 1930s when the Great Depression forced the desperate to cut the palm down for food. It is because of this decimation of the single stemmed palm trees that palm trees with multiple stems were domesticated, making the harvest a much more sustainable process.
And speaking of machetes, I found several statements on the Internet touting the palm heart as being a common foodstuff of the “Pre-Columbian” cultures of the Americas for many centuries. That means any culture before Columbus landed and the influences of Europe began to “modernize” the New World. Then I came across a very convincing article pointing out that it took those conquering Spanish with their swords and axes of steel to provide a sharp blade strong enough to cut through the many layers of the palm’s extremely dense trunk before the tasty core was discovered. The World Wide Web is definitely a two-edged sword when it comes to disseminating both truth and fiction.
Hearts of Palm are best prepared simply so that their subtle flavor can be appreciated. They make an unusual and delicious addition to a vegetable platter, served as whole cylinders seasoned with lemon juice and black pepper. Slice into smaller sections, then lightly sauté in olive oil then and tossed with almost any kind of pasta. Palm Hearts are the perfect salad ingredient, as they take to most all vinaigrettes, again, just like artichoke hearts do. In fact, here’s a wonderful recipe
, created by Melissa’s own Chef Tom Fraker that is guaranteed to make a “palm-head” out of all you fellow artichoke aficionados out there. Enjoy!
Mom's Favorite Salad Recipe
By Chef Tom Fraker
2 (6 ounces) packages Organic Spinach
, washed and dried
1 (14 ounces) jar Melissa’s Hearts of Palm
, drained and sliced into bite sized pieces
1 pint Strawberries
, stemmed and sliced
1 cup Slivered Almonds, lightly toasted
4 tablespoons Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar Dressing
½ teaspoon each Salt and Pepper
In a bowl combine the first 4 ingredients.
At time of service, add the dressing and toss.
Season with salt and pepper, if desired.
If you like onion, add a little red sweet onion to the salad.