Cooking in the Tropics: Palmito and Pejibaye
I love hearts of palm. They are the artichokes of Costa Rica. One of my most delicious memories is sitting next to a waterfall near the Rio Celeste, eating the heart of a young palm fresh from the forest. It peeled like string cheese.
Hearts of palm are harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees, including coconut, acai palm, sabal, and juçara. (I once was invited to try purple hearts of palm, a delicacy not included on the menu but available to regular customers of La Cascada in Escazu. The source of that palmito is a closely guarded secret – they wouldn’t even tell me the name of the palm.)
Harvesting of wild single-stemmed palms results in the trees’ death. An alternative to the wild heart of palm is palm varieties which have undergone a process of adaptation to become a domesticated farm species. The main variety that has been domesticated is the botanical species Bactris gasipaes, known as the peach palm that is cultivated for both its fruit (known as pejibaye in Costa Rica) and for the hearts of palm (palmito).
Pejibaye is native to the Amazonian region of South America, but has been cultivated and widely distributed by indigenous Americans throughout the tropics. It was introduced into Costa Rica during prehistoric times and now grows wild in the forests on the Atlantic side of the country. Macaws and parrots feast on the fruits of the tree, and every indigenous dwelling has a patch of pejibaye palms. The palm has also been planted as partial shade for coffee. Peach palms are self-suckering and produce up to 40 stems on one plant. Several stems can be harvested without killing the tree. Another advantage pejibaye has over other palms is that it has been selectively bred to eliminate the vicious thorns of its wild cousins. Since harvesting is still a labor-intensive task, palm hearts are regarded as a delicacy.
As of 2008, Costa Rica is the primary source of fresh palm hearts in the US. Peach palm is also cultivated in Hawaii, and now has limited distribution on the mainland, primarily to the restaurant trade. Florida‘s wild Sabal palmetto or cabbage palm was once a source of hearts of palm but is now protected by conservation law. In Costa Rica, the flowers appear in April, May, and June in the lowlands, later in the highlands, and fruits mature from September to April.
The fruit, hanging in clusters of 50 to 100 or sometimes as many as 300, weighing 25 lbs (11 kg) or more, is yellow to orange or scarlet, yellow-and-red, or brownish at first, turning purple when fully ripe. It is sold on a stem and undamaged, raw fruits keep in a dry atmosphere for a long time, gradually dehydrating. Damp and bruised fruits ferment in only 3 to 4 days.
In Costa Rica you will probably see pejibaye in supermarkets, stewing in salted water. Boiling causes the flesh to separate easily from the seed and usually loosens the skin as well. The cooked fruits have a nutty flavor with the texture of a chestnut. They are commonly served peeled and dipped in mayonnaise or wrapped in bacon and are one of the most common bocas or appetizers in Costa Rica. (To find recipes for pejibaye, or for any other fruit or vegetable cultivated in Costa Rica, visit this excellent blog: http://recetasdecostarica.blogspot.com/2009/02/pejibayes.html)
Unlike the pejibaye, which has a whopping average of 1096 calories per fruit, hearts of palm are low in calories, have no cholesterol, hardly any fat content and are an excellent source of fiber. Palmito is traditionally served in salads, with a green goddess dressing. It is also a great addition to a shrimp salad. Picadillo de palmito and arroz con palmito are traditional dishes during Semana Santa.
Palmito gratinada – palmito baked in an oven and topped with cheese – is one of my favorite side dishes. If you are using fresh palmito, boil it in salted water until it softens, then cut it in half and in three-inch pieces, toss with salt and pepper and then spread the pieces in a single layer to cover a buttered 6×10 casserole dish. Pour in ½ cup heavy cream, cover the dish with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle with ½ cup of grated cheese (I like gruyere) and cook it under the broiler until the cheese browns (about 3 minutes). To make a great dip, dice up the palmito and cook it in the same manner, then serve with your favorite bread.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.