If you’ve ever eaten a fried green tomato, that crackly-crusted round of tangy, late summer deliciousness, you already understand the genius of cooking with immature produce. But that’s just the beginning—right now, chefs across the country are challenging the notion that ripe equals right by incorporating all kinds of green fruit, nuts, and vegetables, onto their menus.
Unlike their fully mature counterparts, which are all about sweetness and juice, these tender-footed fruits and vegetables add sour and bitter notes to sweet and savory dishes alike. Here are six unripe ingredients that prove why, sometimes, eating off-peak produce can be just the right thing.
What they are: Crisp, tart, and covered in downy fuzz like a peach, green almonds can be eaten whole, from the sea-foam-green husk to the tender, milky kernel. They have the watery snap and bright, tangy flavor of a green apple, with just a whisper of almond-y bitterness. In the Middle East, where almond trees grow in abundance, the immature drupes are dipped in salt and oil and eaten as a snack.
How chefs use them: At New York City’s Lincoln Ristorante, chef Jonathan Benno batters and fries soft-shell crab, and serves it with pickled fennel, caper berries, lemon aioli, and—the real kicker—pickled green almonds. The almonds, which he sources from growers in California (“the first time I worked with them was at the The French Laundry,” Benno said), add an element of surprise and intrigue. They also bring a unique flavor reminiscent of fresh cucumber, fennel, and celery. Benno extends the almonds’ season by pickling them in a brine made from water, white vinegar, salt, dill, garlic, and jalapeño.
Use them at home: Since green almonds’ growing window is quite short—typically about six to eight weeks in late spring and early summer—Benno suggests that home cooks pickle and preserve them to use at a later date, like he does at Lincoln. Raw or pickled, the almonds can be sliced into salads or fresh salsa. They also make a fantastic addition to a cheese plate, paired with grassy goat cheeses and melty triple crèmes.
What they are: Color-wise, green is a bit of a misnomer here; the unripe version of early summer’s favorite berry is more of a pale, emerald-twinged gold than a true green. But the taste (think the love child of a kiwi and a lemon) and gentle cucumber firmness perfectly embody a sense of bright, ultra-fresh “green-ness.”
Foie gras torchon with green strawberries from Sidney Street Cafe
How chefs use them: Green strawberries are quickly approaching cult-like status amongst chefs. At the Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis, Missouri, chef Kevin Nashan livens up a foie gras torchon with green strawberry leather and pickled green strawberries. “They lend themselves to so many applications, from pickling to grilling and juicing, and give dishes an unexpected pop,” he said. In the foie gras dish, he said, green strawberries add a welcome vegetal flavor that helps cut through the richness.
Use them at home: Nashan said he loves using green strawberries in combination with rhubarb when making a pie. No doubt a cobbler or homemade jam would also benefit from a hit of green strawberry’s tang. Bonus: If you have a dehydrator, Nashan suggests drying out green strawberries and pairing them with fully ripened strawberries and greens for a salad with layered depth.
What they are: Thanks to Americans’ longstanding love affair with Thai food, green papaya has gained notoriety as the base of the slaw-like salad, som tum. As it matures, papaya takes on an aggressive orange color and musky flavor. But early on in its ripening journey, it tastes very mild with just a touch of floral sweetness. Looks-wise, its smooth, waxy skin resembles a lime peel, and the pale flesh is crisp with the slightly spongy texture of zucchini.
How chefs use them: In New Orleans, Commander’s Palace chef Tory McPhail moves beyond salad to create a bold green papaya ceviche. Mixed with snapper or mahi mahi sourced from the Gulf, and tarted up with lime juice and Malibu rum, the green fruit ceviche is served with crispy unripe plantain chips (more on those below) and Louisiana hot sauce. McPhail said he loves using papaya at all of its stages, from green to overly ripe, when its juice is perfect for cocktails. For this dish, he said, green papaya’s firm texture is preferable.
Use them at home: Try your hand at julienning the fruit for a green papaya salad, or use the thin strands in the place of noodles. Green papaya can also act as a killer meat tenderizer: purée it in the food processor, then add a tablespoon or so to a pound of ground meat for extra tender kebabs.
What they are: Unlike their vilified cousin, the dry-mouth-inducing green banana, plantains are beloved in both their ripe and unripe forms. The immature version is firm and starchy with a mild flavor akin to potatoes. Not surprisingly, they are treated similarly to spuds, especially in Latin American cuisine, where they are fried into chips or smashed into mofongo with garlic and other savory ingredients.
How chefs use them: As with papaya, texture is McPhail’s favorite aspect of unripe plantains. In the papaya ceviche dish, they add a crunchy base that perfectly complements the bright, tender fruit. “With so many different textures on one plate, your palate does not get tired,” he said.
Use them at home: McPhail said home cooks should try making green plantain chips and use them as a substitute for corn chips in an updated take on homemade nachos (make sure to use a mandolin to get the slices extra thin). They can also be mashed, filled with cheese, and fried into dumplings.
What they are: As glossy and green as a Granny Smith, but about a fifth of the size, unripe plums are eaten throughout the Middle East and Asia. When raw, they are intensely sour and crunchy. Pickling them softens their flesh and dulls their grassy color, but adds a bright acidity and extends their short early summer season.
How chefs use them: At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chef de cuisine Carl Dooley layers hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack) sashimi with house-made yogurt, fresh mint, and “little sexy slices of pickled green plum,” which he sources from a nearby Armenian market. “Whether they are paired with raw fish or charred lamb, pickled green plums have this way of pushing and pulling other ingredients’ flavors,” he said. “The sour and floral notes balance out fat and richness really well.”
Use them at home: With an ingredient as unusual as pickled green plums, Dooley suggests letting them shine in simple dishes. Try slicing them thin and pairing them with vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey. Green plums can also be added to salads or, like rhubarb, cooked down with sugar into a sweet and sour compote.
What they are: For anyone accustomed to seeing chickpeas dried or poured from a can, fresh chickpeas, which can be found at farmers’ markets across the country, come as a surprise. The first shock: They are as green as new tree leaves, from their wispy edamame-like pods to the inner legume themselves. Their mildly sweet flavor and hint of nuttiness are equally surprising—and delightful.
How chefs use them: Chef Lee Gross at M Café, a contemporary macrobiotic restaurant in Los Angeles, constructs a hearty salad out of blanched green chickpeas, pearl barley, asparagus, and a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. “I love how unusual fresh chickpeas are,” he said. “They have the verdant sweetness of a fresh green pea, but the dense creaminess and rugged good looks of a chickpea.” Thanks to his Cali locale, Gross is able to find fresh chickpeas at the farmers’ market from early spring through midsummer.
Use them at home: “Think of them like English peas,” Gross suggested. “Eat them raw, straight from the pods, or lightly steam them.” Fresh chickpeas add heft to stir-fry and curry dishes, and protein to guacamole and salads.