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May, 2009

Jicama Reminder

By Dennis Linden

Recently I served dinner guests a main course that included a tropical salsa as a component of the main entrée.

Though this salsa had a dozen different ingredients including several fruits, chile peppers, herbs and vegetables, everyone at the table detected and commented on the Jicama in the dish. I have noticed the same double take when serving Jicama as part of a raw vegetable platter; it’s an item that people outside of the Hispanic community tend to forget about until it is served to them, at which point most resolve to use more of this tasty root in their own cooking. If Jicama is not now a part of your usual suspects of ingredients, you are missing a plethora of culinary options that this very versatile vegetable offers your plate and palate.

While we equate Jicama with the Latin community, it is very much a staple in Southeast Asian cuisines too. This is because it grows so well in the tropical climate of this part of the world, which provides the very long and warm growing season that this crop demands. More importantly, Jicama easily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients that it is being combined with, which makes it a great addition to any stir-fry dish. Jicama is truly the Jack of all trades in the kitchen. To cook it, treat this root just like a potato; that is, it can be baked, boiled, mashed, or fried. However, unlike the potato, it is very often served raw in salads or singularly as an appetizer. In its raw form, Jicama has a similar texture and juicy sweet crunch as an apple or Asian pear with the added hint of water chestnut flavor. In fact, many Asian recipes suggest Jicama as a very close taste alternative to the much pricier water chestnut when it is diced into small cubes. Jicama must be peeled. However, while researching this article I came across a few preparation cautions that advised never to attempt this task with a potato peeler, suggesting that a sharp knife works better against the “tough” skin. I tried it anyway and found that a good, sharp peeler was much safer and resulted in more useable Jicama (and fingers) with less precision than the knife method requires. So peel away!

Getting back to that vegetable platter, one of the easiest preparations for this flavorsome tuber is to simply peel and slice it into long, one inch wide sticks, marinate in lemon or lime juice, then sprinkle with chili powder. This finger food can be enhanced with a little salt, but lightly and just before serving; salting Jicama ahead of time will pull out and spread much of this watery tuber’s juices to other veggies on the platter, which greatly detracts from presentation. Speaking of appearances, this root is a great fit for any hors d’oeuvre tray because Jicama does not discolor when exposed to air for a time like an apple. In fact, try a refreshing change of pace by serving Jicama instead of apple slices with a selection of cheeses for an altogether new flavor and texture combination.

The month of May is a great time to try Jicama for the first time or get reacquainted with this great veggie as it is definitely one of the many fresh bargains referred to in this month’s Cooking with the Kids feature that is always included in retail Cinco de Mayo produce promotions. However, since it’s available year round, you will soon discover that Jicama can be counted on to please palates twelve months of the year, served hot or cold.