Blue Zone Redux – Taro and Greens

If you tuned in last week, then you know our posts this month are inspired by Dan Buettner’s work on the Blue Zones,* specific regions of the world where people lead exceptionally long, active lives.  We love this food because it’s simple, tastes great, and is crazy good for you.  Last week we spotlighted a Sardinian Fava Bean and Almond Soup.  This week our featured performer is a simple dish of Sautéed Taro and Greens, both staples of the Greek island of Ikaria.  By coincidence or culinary karma BBC Radio broadcast yet another story this morning on those frisky 1oo-year-old Ikarians.  So get with the program!  

To be honest, until a couple of weeks ago all of my associations with taro were atoll-centric–Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii.  If you grow up knowing how to tie a lava-lava, there’s a good chance you’ve eaten taro–as poi–right?   But it turns out taro’s way more well-travelled than that.  There are few places in the world where people don’t eat taro (Siberia), and those don’t include North America or Europe, although it tends stay off the culinary radar in the industrialized West because its appeal is greatest in ethnic immigrant communities.

Diana Kochilas, food writer, restaurant critic and award-winning author of The Glorious Foods of Greece,  wrote a column on the diet of Ikaria, one of Buettner’s Blue Zones, where she coincidentally owns a cooking school.  She explains that although taro isn’t commonly eaten in mainland Greece, it is a staple on Greek Aegean islands and in Cyprus, and it’s chock full of nutrients.  I’ll add to those positives with two additional benefits: taro is gluten-free and has a low glycemic index, which means that it keeps you feeling full longer.

Once peeled, taro can have an off-putting slimy texture (if, that is, heh-heh, you’re put off by slime), but the slipperiness disappears with blanching.  Because of its calcium oxalate content, a major component of kidney stones, raw taro is toxic, but cooking takes care of most of the calcium oxalate.  Soaking overnight in cold water and/or blanching also help.   Although Jody does all three in the recipe below, I should note that many of the recipes we looked at didn’t call for anything other than the actual roasting or frying.  If you’re inclined toward kidney stones, then you’re probably already on the lookout for oxalate-rich foods and know to stay away.

But does it taste good?  

Given what I’d read about poi, I was prepared to swallow a mouthful, chase it down with a piña colada, and light out for the nearest sushi bar.  Who knew that sautéed taro would be so delicious?  As a foil to sautéed greens, it worked great.  (Notice the sneaky way another great source of vitamins and anti-oxidants was slipped in there?)  Our teenage daughter is pushing for mashed taro, and although I’m sure it’s culinary blasphemy,  I’m thinking that mashed taro is going to be great with kimchi.

The easiest way of finding fresh taro is to seek out a market that stocks Caribbean or southeast Asian staples, where it may also go by the names dasheen or eddo.  We found ours in a supermarket (Market Basket, Somerville), but I’ve since discovered that large Whole Foods Markets sometimes carry it (locally, Fresh Pond).  The small taro corms, to be botanically precise, in the photos, sometimes called “baby” taro, are preferable to the soft-ball or larger versions, which can be fibrous.  Given the bottomless appetite for novelty in popular food culture I suspect it’s only a matter of time before taro starts appearing on hip restaurant menus and in mainstream markets, especially once people figure out how tasty it can be, and word gets out on its low glycemic index.  Go for it–how often do you get a chance to ride the cutting edge before it hits the beach and improve your eating habits at the same time?  Eat like an Ikarian.  Ken

*The Greek Island of Ikaria; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy and Loma Linda, California.  Blue Zones is a term coined by Dan Buettner and his partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer, for five specific places in the world where people live exceptionally long, healthy lives.  For additional information you can check out our post from last week here.  You can find Dan Buettner’s article in the New York Times Magazine here; and you can find additional information at the Blue Zones® website.

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Sautéed Taro and Greens

Makes 2 quarts

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound taro root
  • 2 pounds assorted greens–spinach, dandelion greens, arugula, turnip greens, swiss chard, beet greens, mustard greens, sorrel, watercress, wild fennel or fennel tops and other organic wild greens you may find in your garden like purslane and lambs quarters.
  • Kosher salt
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek
  • 1 large onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
  • 2 stalks celery, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped garlic
  • 4 sun dried tomato halves, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes and then chopped into ¼-inch dice
  • 1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
  • 2 cups assorted herb leaves, trimmed of stems, washed and dried–dill, mint, sage, parsley, cilantro, basil, thyme, celery
  • 1 lemon, zested and cut in half

Directions

  1. Peel the taro root, cut into ½-inch cubes, put into a bowl, cover with cold water, and soak overnight in the fridge.
  2. Wash the greens separately and thoroughly.  Strip off stem if appropriate.  You should have about 1½ pounds of cleaned greens.  Group greens according to texture, i.e. sturdy greens like kale and rape in one group; more delicate greens like spinach and arugula in another
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the sturdy greens first and cook until tender, 5 – 8 minutes.  Scoop the greens from the water and drain well.  Add the tender greens and cook until tender, 3 – 5 minutes.  Scoop out and drain.  Don’t discard the water – you’re going to use it to blanch the taro.
  4. Drain and rinse the taro root.  Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the taro root and cook until al dente, about 2 minutes.  Drain and dry in a clean dish towel.  After the taro is blanched and dried, some pieces will look a little mealy.  This is normal.
  5. Heat half the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat.  Add the taro and cook until browned on one side.  It will take about 5 minutes.  Remove from the pan to a plate.
  6. Reduce the heat to medium, add the remaining oil to the pan with the onions and celery, and cook 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, add the garlic, tomatoes and coriander, reduce the heat to low  and cook 3 minutes more.
  7. Add the greens with the lemon zest and toss until heated through, 2-3 minutes. Add the herbs and taro and heat through.  Add a squeeze of  lemon juice just before serving.  Save the rest of the lemon for another use.

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Jody Notes:

I’ve never been to Ikaria, and I’d never eaten taro cooked in a Mediterranean style.  When I was trying to find out as much as I could about the food on the island, I came across an article by Diana Konchilas, whom I admire enormously, that included taro.  She claims it’s an Ikarian staple.  It can replace potatoes and because it has a lower glycemic index, it’s better for you.  It also seems to be very high in fiber, another plus.

The oxalates in raw taro are bad for you.  Soaking reduces the oxalates,  as does cooking.  So… do not eat this stuff RAW.  I’ve taken super precautions by soaking, blanching and then frying.  Some suggest adding baking soda and/or salt when soaking, but I didn’t do either.

If you’ve glanced at more than one or two of our posts you already know I adore greens and herbs, and think everyone should eat them as often as possible.  I used to embarrass my kids by insisting that no one left the table, kid friends included, unless they ate something green.  After a long day without a chance to sit down for a real meal, I’ll have a big bowl of greens with garlic, olive oil and hot red pepper flakes to recalibrate.  It works.  It’s better than an apple.

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Go ahead; click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

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25 thoughts

  1. Taro is ‘토란(tolan)’ in Korean. I’ve never cooked it myself, but my gr mom did for me Korean taro soup with beef and something else – as this ; http://blog.naver.com/PostView.nhn?blogId=chaihyoun&logNo=110148166708, it’s from internet randomly –

    She told me that preparation of Taro is absolutely important as you mentioned above. Additionally if people have very sensitive skin, better wear gloves before handling :-D.
    By the way, I enjoyed BBC video so much! ha~ ciao, Bella

    • Bella! How nice to hear from you! Thanks for the soup link – I’ll check it out. Taro isn’t a food I would automatically associate with Korea, but as I discovered in the course of writing this piece, there are many many places where taro is eaten that I hadn’t considered before. Thanks for the comment. Ken

  2. I’ve only had taro in its less healthy, but oh so good, dim sum incarnations, and, of course, as poi. This recipe looks so soul satisfying. I’m with Jody on the soothing properties of a plate of greens after a long day. And thanks to Ken, I’m a better person because I am now armed with lots of taro facts to wow people with at cocktail parties. Win-win all around. Thanks for the Friday pick-me-up.

    • …and of course all of us know that the real purpose of education is to make oneself the sharpest most amusing knife in the drawer at cocktail parties. :-) You may be one of the few people I know who’s actually consumed poi. I’m going to have to look up those dim sum. This morning in Brooklyn my son informed me that the only form of taro he’s ever eaten is a Japanese taro bubble tea. Ken

  3. This looks great. I love finding new ways to eat my dark, leafy greens.

    Side note: the fava bean and almond soup was a total failure in my kitchen. We couldn’t find dried fava beans and tried the recipe with canned fava beans, adjusting the recipe to account for the change, and the beans lacked the flavor I’m sure the dried beans would have. I’ll have to give the soup another go in the future. In other words, your recipe=good. My substitutions in the kitchen=bad bad bad.

    • Oh, that sounds dreadful – I don’t think I’ve ever even seen canned fava beans. Please, please, please order some dried ones online. I promise to buy them from you if they don’t taste fabulous. Taro, on the other hand, is more of an adventure, but if you’re at all like us I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Good luck. Ken

  4. The only use for taro of which I was aware was for poi — and that hardly wins praise. Using it here, though, with greens has piqued my curiosity. And with that mix of herbs, I can only imagine how fragrant that dish smells as it’s brought to the table. The question now is whether I can find taro.

    • It’s going to be a keeper for us. I admit that when I first learned we were going to be using taro I secretly thought, “Taro? Really?” But it’s quite tasty when seasoned properly, and I love shaking up the usual cast of culinary suspects just to keep life interesting. Thanks for commenting. Ken

    • Hi, Ayako–that’s fascinating! First, I’m going to have to tray that maple syrup-miso combination. Second, I’m intrigued that you don’t peel them. I don’t think that the exterior of ours would be anything you’d want to eat. Yours look as if the skin is thinner, more delicate. Of course that could also have to do with the particular variety of taro. Finally, with satoimo, is there any of the same concern about eating them raw? Thanks. Ken

      • No, we do not eat the skin either; too unpleasant. The recipe for the ones on my page instructs that you steam them with the skin, make a cross-shape incision at one end before you do so so that they’re easier to peel when you eat. You just have to gently push from one end and it will pop right out.

        I don’t think we are ever supposed to eat satoimo raw. We do yamaimo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dioscorea_japonica) often (or mostly) which we tend to think is a similar vegetable but which is a kind of yam and not taro.

        The maple syrup-miso combo is surprisingly good. As mentioned in my post, some miso would go better than others and I guess you just have to keep trying for the best combo. (Any Japanese supermarket would have almost an entire row dedicated to miso.) Good luck!

      • Ayako, that sounds like a great technique. Thanks for the tip. Jody steamed our last batch while I was out of town this weekend, but the next time we buy it I’m going to try both your miso/maple syrup sauce and the technique for slipping them out of their skins. I’m already thinking about how to photograph the latter. Thanks again. Ken

  5. Hi Ken and Jody, I’ve never come across Taro but it looks and sounds intriguing so will see if I can seek them out. Finding it fascinating reading about ‘The Blue Zones’, clearly a lot we can learn from these communities. Going back to basics and keeping life simple seems to be the answer, with sunshine thrown in. Best Torie

    • Thanks, Torie! The responses have been as interesting as the posts. I’m in absolute agreement about the back to basics and keeping things as simple as possible. And lots of sunshine and blue water doesn’t hurt either. :-) Ken

  6. This post is very interesting Ken, and this blog is just getting better everytime i check it out.
    Good on you and ..i wish you to get even older than 100 while eating the best food of course..
    All the best.
    Rocco

    • Ah, but Rocco, there’s too types of living to 100–there’s living to 100 in Puglia, and there’s living to 100 anywhere else. I’ll take the living to 100 in Puglia! Thank you for the kind words. Ken

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