Variety is truly the spice of life, as well as a necessary component to ensure you receive all of the nutrients you need in your diet. If everyone pledged to try at least one new fruit, vegetable, legume, nut or other food item at least once a week, we could spark a revolution in the American food system. Our supermarkets would be forced to sell a larger variety of fruits and vegetables, no longer relegating the American meal to a choice of the “20 most common produce items” sold in most markets. Even the staunchest, habitual, stuck-in-a-rut diner can learn to find variety interesting and maybe even necessary in their daily consumption of comestibles.
For example, before Neri and I met his diet consisted of three main dishes:
- “add water to reconstitute” dried vegan chili (from the Kresge Co-Op) with a tortilla bowl topped with cheese; or
- a mustard sandwich (mustard, bread and nothing else); or
- rice drenched in soy sauce, occasionally with peas (we won’t even mention what a faux pas this is in some Asian cultures)
One or two of these dishes would be his lunch and dinner for an entire week during college. Not because he couldn’t afford to buy food, but because he was a bachelor who had no idea how to cook. I, on the other hand, lived on a tight budget, but needed variety. So I would bake biscuits, make cookies and prepare everything from African peanut stew to miso soup to stretch my dollars and guarantee a variety of tasty meals and treats each week. Once we started living together, he grew less and less fond of his mustard sandwiches and pickier about what he ate. If we miss a week at the Farmers’ Market, my husband laments that dinner will not be as interesting and usually he is correct.
Most people have never heard of or even tasted Toona. I had eaten it in dishes many times before actually discovering what was imparting that wonderful herbal, oniony-garlicy, umami flavor. Toona aka (Toon or Chinese mahogany) is harvested from a tree in the Mahogany family, Toona sinensis. The tender spring leaves and shoots are eaten and used medicinally in China. Locally, I find Toona at the Farmers’ Market sold by farm specializing in Taiwanese vegetables. I find the best way to eat Toona and savor its unique flavor is to add it to scrabbled eggs or a simple salad. There are numerous Chinese recipes that use 4 or more cups of Toon for a sauce or main dish, but at 75¢ or more per branch (which yields 1/4 to 1/2 cup of leaves) I haven’t felt the urge to spend an additional $12 to $20 in cash at the farmers’ market.
Other great ways to savor Toon without blowing your budget :
- toss about a 1/2 cup of leaves into fried rice (we generally pan fry it in a small amount of oil)
- season Chinese and Japanese style cucumber pickles
- toss into a tofu salad in place of other herbs
Toon is one of the underutilized tree leaves used to season dishes in America (with the obvious cultural exceptions). The other two are: Murraya koenigii or curry leaves and Citrus hystrix also known as Kaffir or Makrut lime leaves. [Note that “Kaffir” the term in common usage for the tree, fruit and leaf, is also a derogatory term in parts of Africa (similar to the “N” word in English-speaking countries). Although I have tried to avoid using the term “Kaffir,” it is almost impossible find anyone that knows what you are looking for if you use other terms for the plant such as Makrut or Indonesian lime].