What it is: A delicately sweet, ivory-colored vegetable, heart of palm is literally the center of a young palm tree, most commonly Bactris gasipaes, the peach palm. The texture is tender-crisp.
Where it comes from: Peach palms are native to the Amazon. Costa Rica and Ecuador are the principal producers of cultivated palm hearts today.
Although not big commercial producers, Hawaii and Florida also have some palm farms. Floridians used to call heart of palm “swamp cabbage,” harvesting Sabal palmetto, the tall state tree also called “cabbage palm,” in the wild until conservation laws put a stop to the practice and the vegetable moved from being poor people’s foraged fare to “millionaire’s salad.”
Another major source, Brazil, still harvests wild palms, a practice under scrutiny because of concerns about tropical rain forests.
What to do with it: Hearts of palm can sometimes be found fresh at groceries, especially Latin stores, from February to May, but readily available canned palm hearts make great fall and winter dishes, adding an exotic taste of the tropics to your table. Most often, cooks add hearts of palm to salads, but they can also be used in soups and stews or served baked, stir-fried, deep-fried, braised or steamed. Hearts of palm work best in simple preparations that won’t overwhelm their mild flavor.
At Jerry’s in Winnetka, Chef Bridget Burns serves hearts of palm in a warm salad with chopped anchovies, fresh garlic, leeks, chili flakes and shaved parmesan. “The best thing about this flavorful fall dish is that it only involves eight ingredients,” says Burns. “It’s incredibly easy to make but looks and tastes gourmet.”
Jerry’s hearts of palm salad
Chef Bridget Burns
This salad works as a light meal or a savory side dish, ideal for holiday tables.
3 anchovy fillets
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 14-ounce cans hearts of palm, drained and cut into 1-inch discs
Ground black pepper to taste
1 leek, diced, washed really well
1/4 cup vegetable or chicken broth
Parmesan cheese, shaved
By hand or in a food processor, chop together the anchovies, garlic and chili flakes until the mixture forms a paste. Set aside.
Heat a skillet over medium-high heat until the pan is very hot, and add the oil and butter. Brown the hearts of palm (try to turn only once), being careful not to break the hearts of palm.
Add the anchovy mixture and the leeks to the pan and cook until the leeks are soft. Stir in the broth, scraping the sides of the pan. Serve warm, topped with shaved parmesan. 4 side-dish servings.