Here at the Oldways Vegetarian Network we find it easy to gush about fresh fruits and vegetables at peak ripeness. So beautiful! So delicious! So easy to prepare!
But truth be told, we’ve had to work a bit to feel the same way about the unripe produce that inevitably finds its way onto our kitchen counters: the cantaloupe that passes the sniff test but turns out to be rock hard when you slice it; the avocado that feels ripe enough but that just isn’t salad worthy when you open it; the rock hard pears in your fruit bowl you want to use before you head off on vacation; the basket of green tomatoes you brought in before the frost claimed them.
Experiment! A few easy tricks can help you avoid food waste (an issue that’s very important to us) and bring bright, bold, bitter, and sour flavors that can wake up your cooking. As you play you’ll discover that unripe produce holds up to techniques such as grating and dicing that don't work with riper foods, making it possible to slip tidbits into baked goods, salads, sauces, and other dishes.
No need to worry that you’re shortchanging yourself. In fact, some unripe produce may deliver stellar benefits. “There are still nutrients present in unripe foods,” explained OVN consultant, Sharon Palmer, RD. “They just may not be at their full potential. Interestingly, studies have found that ripening can impact the glycemic response of fruits such as apples and bananas (less ripe, less impact) and green bananas contain more of a fiber type that may help with weight loss. There are interesting examples of benefits of unripe produce. We need to do more research!”
Some cultures count on unripe produce for particular dishes (i.e. green papaya salad in Asia). This story is but one example of what you can discover as you study foodways around the world.
Here’s a quick look at our recent experiments. Please share your suggestions with us and join us in a campaign to leave no fruit uneaten in your house.
Avocados. We haven’t tried it but love this idea of a quick pickle for an avocado that isn’t ripe. (It would probably work nicely for all kinds of unripe produce, as would longer, more traditional pickling.) We did, however, try tossing a diced, unripe avocado into a stir-fry and quite liked the result.
Cantaloupes. When you cut into one that’s sullen and hard, chop it into small chunks, toss with maple syrup or cider syrup, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400°F for about 20 minutes. Serve warm as a dessert, topped with yogurt and toasted nuts. Or shock it into edibility by slicing (leave the peel on) and grilling until slightly charred.
Pears. We’ve yet to meet an unripe, peeled pear (left whole or sliced) that didn’t take well to a slow saucepan bath in a mixture of wine (dilute with water if you wish), grated ginger, a few cinnamon sticks, a star anise or two, a spoonful of agave nectar, and juice from 1 lemon. Simmer until easy to pierce with the tip of a knife and enjoy warm or chilled. Or slice rock hard pears very thin and bake them in a pear crisp. Hard pears also add great flavor to chutney.
Strawberries. They may look fine in the box, but hard unripe strawberries showing too much white flesh can lurk in the most promising packages. Slice them and toss into a blender as a stand in for vinegar in your favorite dressing. Or add to those pears in the chutney.
Tomatoes. Entire books have been devoted to ideas for using green tomatoes. A web search will turn up lots of options. Our favorite is to spray them lightly with oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and dried thyme or oregano, and fry them in a big hot skillet for about 4 minutes per side. If you dare, grate a few green tomatoes and use in place of zucchini in your favorite zucchini bread or zucchini cake recipe.
Best of all, cut unripe fruits or veggies into thin slices, melt some very good chocolate, and get dipping!
Georgia Orcutt, Oldways Vegetarian Network Program Director