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.
Sautéed Taro and Greens
Makes 2 quarts
- 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
- Peel the taro root, cut into ½-inch cubes, put into a bowl, cover with cold water, and soak overnight in the fridge.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Go ahead; click on something to see it with a little more detail. Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.