Grown primarily in Florida, Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica, this versatile vegetable was considered one of the most important sources of food prior to Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. It was also a mainstay of diets during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it’s only been in recent years that the humble hearts of palm have been popping up at specialist food outlets and on restaurant menus around the globe.
Hearts of palm are harvested from the core of the palm tree, which is a long fibrous cylinder that runs through the heart of the tree’s stem. While this process once destroyed the tropical trees, many farms are now dedicated to growing multi-stemmed palms, which produce a perfect sustainable product that doesn’t kill the palm tree.
The vegetable has a pale, straw colour and a tender, delicate taste, similar to artichoke hearts, which makes it particularly versatile in the kitchen. In Florida, hearts of palm are often called ‘swamp cabbage’, referring to the Seminole Indian dish of that name, which resembles cooked cabbage. In Latin America, the hearts of palm are often marinated or tossed with dressing before being added to a salad. You can also use them as a substitute to artichoke hearts – sautée lightly and toss through a quiche or salad, or blend with other favourite ingredients to make a dip. Also known as palmitos, hearts of palm can also be crumbed and fried as a canapé, or used as a subtle addition to a South American-inspired rice dish.
While a limited supply is cultivated in Far North Queensland, providing the product fresh to specialist restaurants, hearts of palm are readily available in jars and cans from delis and Asian food shops around Australia.
Pesto and palmito pasta
Process 1 bunch basil, 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts, 2 garlic cloves, 25 g grated parmesan, 1 tbsp lemon juice, and 60 ml olive oil in a food processor until smooth. Season. Cook 400 g rigatoni. Drain, reserving 80 ml cooking liquid. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan over high heat. Add 400 g drained, sliced palmitos, 1 cup shredded cooked chicken, rigatoni and reserved liquid. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until heated. Stir in pesto and 80 g Ligurian olives.
Pan-fried palmitos with lemon and thyme
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add 2 garlic cloves flattened with the back of a knife and cook for 3 minutes or until golden. Remove and discard garlic. Add 400 g drained palmitos to same pan with 1 tbsp roughly chopped thyme leaves and cook, tossing occasionally, for 8 minutes or until light golden. Stir in zest of 1 lemon and season with salt and pepper. Serves 4 as a side dish.
Process 25 g grated parmesan, 2 cups panko breadcrumbs and 1 cup parsley in a food processor until combined. Season. Place crumbs, ¼ cup flour and 2 beaten eggs in separate bowls. Drain 400 g palmitos, halve lengthwise, dust with flour, dip in egg, then coat in crumbs. Repeat last two steps. Heat a large saucepan one-third full with oil over medium heat to 180°C. Fry palmitos for 5 minutes or until golden. Drain on paper towel. Makes 10.
Heat 2 tbsp hazelnut oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add sliced white part of 1 leek, 2 chopped garlic cloves and 150 g smoked pork cut into lardons. Cook for 5 minutes or until pork is golden. Add 400 g drained, sliced palmitos, 250 ml milk and 500 ml water. Cook for a further 10 minutes or until palmitos are soft. Using a stick blender, roughly blend soup. Season. Serve with chopped
flat-leaf parsley. Serves 2.
As seen in Feast Magazine, Issue 12, pg134.
Photography by John Laurie.