Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region
You may have seen hearts of palm in recipes of fancy-pants food magazines. You may have eaten them and not even known it. Or maybe you stumbled up on them, canned or jarred in the grocery store and wondered, what’s the deal with this? Until someone comes up with the equivalent of the Dewey Decimal system for supermarkets (this is my husband’s dream), finding them—even by accident—can be elusive; they’re not always in the same place, from supermarket to supermarket. In my grocery travels, chasing them down for a recipe in a fancy-pants magazine, I’ve spied them in the canned goods aisle and the international aisle. I’ve even seen them stocked next to artichoke hearts. What gives, retailers?
Anyway, have no fear. Enter Paste’s new column, What’s Up with This Food? Here, we seek to demystify, explain and perhaps even inspire you to try something different.
Hearts of Palm
A.K.A.: Palm heart, chonta, cabbage palm, swamp cabbage or, my favorite “burglar’s thigh.”
Type of food: Vegetable
Origins: Hearts of palm are harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees, including coconut, palmito, acai and sabal, among others. It’s a labor intensive-process, and most of what we see in supermarkets comes from Costa Rica, Brazil or Florida. “All palms have a fruit with a pit in the middle, but not all of them taste good,” says Robert Schueller, produce expert at Melissa’s Produce. It’s that inner core, or the “heart,” of the palm, that we’re talking about here. Melissa’s harvests domesticated hearts of palm sustainably on farms in Costa Rica; they’re not clear-cutting forests. In fact, the heart of the palm, once it’s cut, will regenerate in 2-3 years, he says. “It kind of regenerates like asparagus or scallions,” he says.
Why/how did we start eating it: Cultivation and consumption of hearts of palm dates back to Mayan civilization in Central America.
How it’s used: It’s considered something of a delicacy, but it’s often used in salads, and stir fries, or drizzled with a bright vinaigrette; sometimes it’s even deep-fried. Melissa’s suggests wrapping the stalks in prosciutto or Serrano ham.
How to purchase: It’s widely distributed in 14.5-ounce jars and cans, preserved in a light pickling brine. The cans have longer shelf life but the jarred variety tends to have a firmer texture that’s closer to fresh. It’s rare to find fresh hearts of palm; it’s highly perishable and very expensive, “probably upwards of $15 a pound,” says Schueller.
Sensory Experience: It looks a bit like white asparagus, minus the tips. The texture is firm and crisp, with a taste somewhat reminiscent of an artichoke (Still, grocers! C’mon! They don’t belong next to artichoke hearts).
Nutrition: It’s a decent source of both fiber and protein, offering 4 grams of both per one cup serving, and 25 percent of your RDA for iron. You’ll also find Vitamin C, zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium and calcium.
Did You Know: The cabbage palm (also known as Sabal palmetto) is Florida’s state tree.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.