Do you ever think about how the fresh produce you find in your neighborhood grocery store is actually processed, packaged and delivered? I never thought much about this, but now I will. Recently, I joined a group of food writers who were invited to sample and learn about spring vegetables at Melissa’s World Variety Produce, a huge fresh produce distributor located in Vernon, California, just minutes from Los Angeles.
Melissa’s is a stopping place for vegetables and fruit as they move from growers to retail outlets to consumers. In Melissa’s 280,000 square feet of warehouse space, fresh produce items are packaged with the customer in mind. One of Melissa’s goals is to make produce convenient and accessible for us—the ultimate consumers. This is done through creative packaging and ongoing education aimed at both retail outlets and end users.
The reality is that many times we are hesitant to purchase certain vegetables because they are too time-consuming to prepare or perhaps we don’t even know how to prepare them. So it was enlightening to spend a few hours at Melissa’s learning how to easily prepare and serve a tempting variety of spring vegetables and fruit.
During our visit to Melissa’s test kitchen, Robert Schueller, Melissa’s knowledgeable director of Public Relations, gave us a tour of a variety of his favorite spring vegetables and fruits while Chef Tom Fraker, Manager of Melissa’s Corporate Kitchen, showed us how to prepare some of these vegetables and then served us some delectable dishes.
We began our tour with an introduction to different varieties of kale, a healthy, tasty, leafy vegetable that has been trendy for quite a while. Kale, which comes in several varieties, including flowering and Tuscan (also called Black or Dino), can be prepared and savored in so many different ways. We learned that kale sprouts are a new product on the market and are especially tender and delicious. We tried some tangy kale chips that are made by cutting up and seasoning kale that is then roasted in the oven at high temperatures. At home, since our Melissa’s visit, we have mixed Kale in scrambled eggs, salads and stirfrys—and we are becoming big fans of this nutritious vegetable.
Robert Schueller gave us a mini-lesson on preparing leeks for cooking. Big Belgian-style leeks are a new product distributed by Melissa’s. I have always enjoyed leeks because they are milder and sweeter than onions, but cleaning them can be a challenge because dirt accumulates between layers. Robert advised us that it is easier to clean leeks by cutting them up before washing them. (Only the white part is edible.) Making preparation even easier for the consumer, Melissa’s provides leeks already trimmed, peeled and pre-washed. I was happy to learn that leeks can be successfully frozen after cleaning them. So right now our freezer has lots of leeks awaiting soups, sauces, and stirfrying.
Robert also had good advice for preparing beets, another vegetable many people avoid because of the difficulty in peeling them. He suggests washing them, leaving on the peel, and then wrapping them in foil with a few drops of water. Then bake them on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for about an hour. The peels on the cooked beets will come right off if you rub them between your hands, although you might want to wear plastic gloves to avoid staining. Beet greens are also nutritious, tasty, and work well in salads or cooked with other vegetables.
The most innovative produce packaging award of the day goes to the large, whole artichokes with pop up buttons, such as what you find on some turkeys. Put the artichoke in the microwave and when it’s ready the button just pops up. I love this because it is so hard to know when an artichoke is ready to eat but not overdone.
In the company’s pioneering efforts to make serving fresh vegetables easier, they also offer a line of table-ready, vacuum-sealed, steamed vegetables, such as baby beets, artichoke hearts, black-eyed peas, and fava beans.
The packaged fava beans are especially handy since fava beans in their pods are labor intensive to prepare (yet so delicious and nutritious). Chef Tom Fraker showed us how to first remove the beans from the pod by “unzipping” the seam and taking out the beans, which still need to have their outer shells removed before they are ready to eat. But with Melissa’s packaging, all that work is done for you. After our Melissa’s visit, we sautéed fava beans at home with onion and kale for a delicious dish. Fava beans also add a tasty crunch to salads . . . and how about fava bean soup?
I also found the packaged baby parsnips very appealing. They just need to be peeled like carrots and can be roasted or added raw to salads. We had them one night for dinner last week and loved them. Also, a friend recently made truffled parsnips, which were uniquely flavorful and delicious.
We were also introduced to the sweet and juicy Ojai Pixie Tangerines, which thrive in the Ojai Valley and are abundantly available right now in supermarkets. But my favorite fruit was the vibrantly colorful, fresh rhubarb. Following Robert’s suggestion, at home I heated cut and cleaned rhubarb in a pan on the stove until it melted and then added sugar. The result was a delectable rhubarb syrup to pour on ice cream or even use as a topping for pork or lamb. Robert warned us that, unlike beet greens which are edible, rhubarb greens are poisonous.
Our experience at Melissa’s wasn’t all just looking at the lovely vegetables. Chef Tom prepared a variety of creative dishes for us to taste, including a unique bruschetta using a roasted golden beet slice instead of bread. On top were avocado and kumquat slices, sautéed leeks and a mint garnish. (I will definitely be serving this at a dinner party soon.) The chef also served two unique salads: one made with Melissa’s ready-to-eat, French Country Style Beets, artichoke hearts, and tomatoes with Roquefort dressing, and the other with grilled shrimp, fava beans, and roasted parsnips served on arugula and sprinkled with fresh basil and Italian vinaigrette. Delicious strawberry-rhubarb muffins were another special treat with a slice of Ojai Pixie tangerine atop buttercream frosting. We loved actually tasting dishes using the fresh vegetables and fruit we had been discussing.
Not only did we leave Melissa’s with bags of fresh vegetables, we left with newfound knowledge and inspiration about being creative in our preparation of wonderful spring produce. We certainly had a healthy and tasty week ahead of us. And it’s nice to know Melissa’s can continue to be a resource through its website with lots of great cooking tips and recipes.