Jicama homely on the outside, tasty on the inside
By SCOTT SMITH
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
Let's be honest: It looks like something that you shouldn't eat.
Like some sort of alien life form. Or a potato grown at Three Mile Island. Or something inherently scary that should never, ever, ever be dug out of the ground, let alone be stacked in a bin in your favorite grocery's produce department.
But mostly, it looks like jicama (pronounced HEE-ka-mah), a homely, brown- or tan-skinned, large, turnip-shaped taproot of a vine native to Latin America.
Contrary to its otherworldly appearance, it's quite edible - even downright tasty in a subtly sweet-and-juicy sort of way. Eaten raw after being peeled and sliced, jicama tastes like a cross between a potato, pear, water chestnut and turnip: fairly bland, but pleasant, with a firm, starchy texture. It's an ideal ingredient in summertime salads and veggie platters - and not just because of its taste and crunch, but because it retains its creamy white color after being exposed to open air for hours.
Widely grown in Mexico and Central America, as well as in China and Southeast Asia, jicama is also known as Mexican potato, Mexican turnip, Mexican yam bean, sengkwang, Chinese turnip and lo bok. The plant's two primary varieties originated in Mexico and South America, and Spanish traders brought it to Asia in the 17th century; it's been a Far East dietary staple ever since.
Not only is jicama a common food throughout Mexico and Central America, it also fills a cultural niche: It's one of the traditional foods eaten and/or displayed during El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in early November.
Jicama also is increasing in popularity in the United States, where it is carried by many major grocery chains and appearing on more and more menus.
Locally, Magpies restaurant uses jicama in its house salad.
"We've been using it for about 20 years," says co-owner Laurie Springfield. "Even today, people still ask what it is - but they like it. I think it adds a different flavor to salads - it's unique, and the flavor is so delicate.
"Usually, when they ask what it is, we tell them the taste is like in between a Jerusalem artichoke and a parsnip, something like that, maybe with a little bit of cabbage flavor. It's real subtle." Although jicama is most often eaten raw in salads and slaws or with dips and sauces, it also can be cooked and used in assorted dishes - everything from soups to stir-fry. Some chefs say that jicama tends to absorb the flavors of foods that it's being cooked with, which makes it an ideal ingredient in recipes that feature spices, seasonings and other stronger-tasting vegetables.
"Some people cook it like a fried potato," says Joanie Grisenti, produce manager at Big D Super Foods in Florence. "And some people cut it up and use it like turnips."
Grisenti says jicama is fairly popular at Big D - and "if it's on sale, it goes really well." But she speculates that some people may be put off by the food's less-than-appetizing appearance.
"Also, I think people look at it (unpeeled) nowadays and think it's something that'll take a long time to prepare. It's not a convenience item - they actually have to cut it up. Maybe if they bagged jicama, it would sell better."
Says Springfield, "I think some people are probably a little taken aback by its presentation in a store. It doesn't look like what it is (inside)."
Actually, jicama comes by its danger-don't-eat-me appearance honestly. The actual plant - a vine that can reach a height of 15 feet - happens to be extremely poisonous. Its seeds contain rotenone, a toxin used to poison fish and insects. Not to worry: the root carries no such toxins.
In fact, the jicama root is relatively nutritious. It boasts a healthy amount of vitamin C (one 120-gram serving contains 40 percent of the recommended daily amount), has a decent amount of dietary fiber (24 percent), is low in sodium and carries a mere 45 calories.
And it's good for hydration, too: Jicama is made up of approximately 90 percent water.
It also stores well - it can remain firm and relatively fresh for up to a month in the refrigerator. When buying jicama, look for tubers that are firm and have dry roots and unblemished skin - and don't be concerned that it looks like a mutated visitor from another planet.
FRESH JICAMA SALAD
3 medium fresh jicama, shredded
1 apple, cored and diced
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh lime peel, grated
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
Combine shredded jicama with apple and nuts. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Mix well. Add dressing to jicama mixture. Mix thoroughly. Chill before serving.
JICAMA SALAD WITH CHILE AND LIME
1 medium jicama, about 1 pound
2 small cucumbers, seeded and sliced into 1/4-inch slices
3 seedless oranges, peeled, halved and sliced
8 radishes, thinly sliced
1/3 cup lime juice (2 limes)
2 to 3 teaspoons ground red chile*
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Peel jicama, cut in half, then slice 1/4-inch thick; cut slices in half diagonally. Toss jicama with cucumbers, oranges, radishes and lime juice. Season to taste with salt. Arrange on a serving platter, sprinkle with chile and garnish with cilantro. Serve immediately.
*Check Mexican markets for ground red chile. Substitute cayenne pepper (for a hot flavor) or chili powder (for a milder flavor) if ground chile is not available
- National Pork Board
JICAMA, GREEN BEAN AND POMEGRANATE SALAD
1 fresh pomegranate
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 1/2 pounds jicama pieces
2 pounds thin French green beans
1/4 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Peel and cut jicama into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Stack 2 or 3 slices on a cutting board and cut into 1/4-inch sticks. Place in a bowl and toss with pomegranate juice. Chill, covered for 30 minutes, tossing occasionally.
Have ready a bowl of ice and cold water, trim green beans. In a saucepan of boiling salted water, blanch beans for 3 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Transfer beans with a slotted spoon into ice water to stop cooking. Drain in colander.
To prepare the pomegranate, use a fork to remove the fresh seeds. Chop the walnuts coarsely. Take out the jicama mixture, and add green beans, pomegranate seeds, and walnuts with salt and pepper to taste. Toss and serve.
- Pomegranate Council
SHRIMP AND JICAMA SALAD WITH CHILE VINEGAR
5 cups water
1 pound small fresh shrimp, unpeeled
2 cups jicama, peeled and shredded
4 large tomatoes, sliced
4 large fresh tomatillos, husked and sliced Fresh cilantro sprigs (optional)
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
2 tablespoons, jalapeno pepper (seeded and minced)
Bring water to a boil; add shrimp and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Drain well; rinse in cold water. Chill. Peel and devein shrimp.
Pour 1/3 cup of chile vinegar over shrimp; toss gently. Pour 1/2 cup chile vinegar over jicama; toss gently. Arrange tomato slices and tomatillo slices on individual salad plates; top evenly with jicama mixture. Place shrimp mixture over jicama mixture. Pour remaining chile vinegar over salads. Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs, if desired.
To make the chile vinegar, combine all vinegar ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; stir with a wire whisk until well blended. Yield: 1 1/4 cups vinegar.
- “Creme de Colorado,” by The Junior League of Denver
TROPICAL BAKED BEANS
8 ounces turkey Italian sausage, casing removed (optional)
1 1/2 cups cubed jicama (1/2-inch cubes)
1 can (15 1/4 ounces) tropical fruit salad, drained
1 can (15 ounces) red beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 ounces) navy or Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
1/2 cup coarsely chopped orange-essence pitted prunes
1/2 cup mango chutney
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
If using sausage, cook in small skillet over medium heat until browned, 5 to 7 minutes; drain sausage thoroughly on paper towels and crumble. Discard all but 1 teaspoon fat from skillet; add jicama to skillet and saute until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
Mix all ingredients in a 2 1/2-quart casserole. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or microwave on medium high for 20 minutes. Makes 6 main dish servings or 12 side-dish servings.
- American Dry Bean Board