Food & Drink

Bahamian Fresh Hearts of Palm Salad


"Lady." The voice shouted from somewhere outside the galley.

"Hey, lady."

It wasn't the first time I had heard it. I hoped it would not be the last. I dried my hands and stepped on deck. The Bahamian sun sizzled against my delicate northern skin. I was going to have to remember to wear sunscreen, even inside the boat. I raised a hand to my brow to shield my face from the shimmering bright light and smiled.

"Good morning, Swannee." I peered over the rail into the worn wooden skiff below. "What have you got for me this morning?""

We had been in the Bahamas for the last few days and each morning, like an alarm clock, Swannee's boat would putter up to ours loaded with conch, grouper, lobsters, and yellowtail. I had been cooking my way through the local recipes of conch salad, guava duff, and Johnnycakes, using Swannee's daily visit as my recipe book. "'dis mornin', I gots you something special." He twisted his upper body to reach behind him. Each bone of his ribcage rippled down his dark skin. His hand-me-down shorts were cinched tight with a length of fisherman's line. Bare feet and a Gilligan's hat, frayed at the rim, completed his uniform. Life was simpler here in the islands. From behind his back, Swannee pulled two slender white stalks, looking like thick white asparagus without their heads. Swannee looked at me with all seriousness. His eyes squinted, his voice lowered. "You ever ate fresh hearts of palm?"

Fresh hearts of palm? Did he mean those soggy, smushy things in a can? I shook my head.

Swannee twisted again on his gnarled, weather-beaten stoop. If he was pricked by the inevitable splinters, he did not wince.

He pointed. Along the white-sand beach in the distance, beyond the sulight sparkling off the still water like sapphires and aquamarines, stood half a dozen coconut trees curved low over the shore.

"I just gots them for you." He held the stalks out for inspection. I knew hearts of palm were, like the name inferred, the heart of the coconut palm tree, but hadn't ever had a fresh one.

Swannee pulled a machete from under his seat and with the palm heart in his left hand, he began shucking the tough outer sheath to get to the delicate inner core. He shaved a thin slice across the diameter, miraculously not cutting into his thumb with the blade, and handed it up to me.I let the new experience sit on my tongue, feeling the velvety flesh before chewing. This was not the same thing as what  came out of a can. This vegetable had a soft creamy bite and was delicate and firm, all at the same time, crunchy with a  mild nutty flavor, similar to an artichoke. I loved it. My mind whirled with the possibilities for salads. I smiled at Swannee and  he grinned a toothless smile back at me.

"You like?"

I looked across the intricate pattern of clear turquoise water to the trees along the steamy tropical beach, and back to my new friend from the island. I nodded. "I like."

Hearts of palm come from the palmetto palm. Traditionally, harvesting in the wild kills the tree, but Costa Rica is now sustainably farming fresh hearts of palm from the self-regenerating peach palm. They are available through Whole Foods.

Fresh Hearts of Palm Salad

  • 4 six-inch stalks hearts of palm
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped finely
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Using a Japanese mandoline, slice the hearts of palm into thin matchsticks.Whisk together shallot, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, sea salt, sugar, and black pepper. Toss with hearts of palm and serve. Serve as a salad, or as a side with fish or chicken.

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