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Indulging my interest in food and flavor, I love to write about cooking, gardening and life's bounty. My new book - "Discover Cooking with Lavender"- is now available

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Discovering Yuca in America’s Heartland

“I thought we would stay home for dinner tonight.” Patty said. “I am going to make a light Southwestern-style chicken soup and a salad.” My sister Patty and her husband, Stan, had picked me up at the Airport in Grand Rapids and we were driving to their home. The early evening sun was still hot and the air felt sticky. I had come to Grand Rapids for Patty’s book launch party at a local bookstore. She Walks into the Sea, Patty’s third book of poetry, had been published by Michigan State University Press in July. I was thrilled to be here for this special occasion.

Sipping cold Sauvignon Blanc, I watched Patty standing near her stove cooking the soup. Occasionally, she would stop and check the recipe in her cookbook, Canyon Ranch: Nourish: Indulgently Healthy Cuisine. The soup recipe called for yuca. If yuca was not available, the author suggested potatoes as a substitute.“What’s yuca?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Patty replied. “Tomorrow when we visit the Farmers Market, let’s see if we can find out.” Patty diced potatoes and added them to the soup.

The farmers market in Grand Rapids attracts crowds. Patty, Stan and I were lucky to find parking about a block away. The morning air felt fresh and the bright blue sky and sunshine filled the market with vitality. We walked past tables loaded with September’s abundance – blueberries, tomatoes, string beans, potatoes, carrots, kale and more. Turning towards a young fresh-faced woman with long, shiny black hair, I asked, “Do you sell edible yuca?”

The expression on her face was one of confusion and disbelief. “What?”

I repeated my question and she said, “Never heard of it.”

Patty laughed and said under her breath, “I knew she wouldn’t know.”

We went on like this, putting the question to farmers selected randomly. Finally we got a clue from a friendly, talkative man standing behind a counter filled with potatoes. Wearing a sweatshirt with GVSU (for Grand Valley State University) on the front and smiling with a gap-toothed grin, he told us yuca was the root of the plant. He had never eaten it, and did not grow it, however he suggested we talk with another farmer from Turtle Island Farms. “If anyone knows, this guy will. Look for him a couple stalls down on the right.” He pointed toward a booth.

Patty, Stan and I headed right over to ask our question of the day. “Do you grow yuca?”
The farmer had thick shaggy brown hair. Tall and meaty, he was dressed in denim overalls like my grandpa used to wear. He told us he didn’t know. Patty started giving him clues. She told him about her soup recipe. “I think it must be a tuber something like a potato.”

“Yeah, that’s right, it’s a large root. I’m a chef, and I’ve made yuca chips.” He told us. “I slice the yuca and deep fry it. Very good.”

Patty and I wondered about his credibility; how come his story had changed?

After buying blueberries, two types of cherry tomatoes and two flower bouquets, we left the market.

Several hours later, lunch at the Blue Water Grill handed us another venue for our yuca research. Our 20-something perky waitress said, “I don’t know for sure. I think it’s like a potato.” Patty repeated her soup saga and the young woman said “Would you like me to check with the sous chef? He may know more about yuca.”

In just minutes, the waitress returned to our table with a victorious expression. “He said it‘s like a potato and you can buy it at Horrocks Market, a specialty market here in Grand Rapids.”

We couldn’t resist. Off we went to Horrocks Market. As we drove into the store parking lot, we commented on the flower baskets filled with bright green hops and deep purple petunias. Patty and I walked past Halloween merchandise, heading directly for the fresh produce section. Not sure that we would recognize yuca even if we met it face-to-face, we called out to a young man wearing an apron with the Horrocks logo. “Can you tell us where to find yuca?” I asked.

Speaking with an accent, the dark-haired man pointed to a bin full of dark brown tubers. The sign read “Yucca Root, 99¢ lb.” It offered preparation ideas: “prepared similar to a potato, fried, mashed, baked or added to soups.” Health benefits were also itemized on the sign: “The saponins in yuca are similar to steroids like cortisone. It reduces inflammation of the joints, and so is primarily used for arthritis and rheumatoid conditions. Yuca is often included in formulas designed to “break up obstructions,” especially when it comes to reducing inflammation in joints and rheumatism.”

“Excuse me, can you tell us more about yuca?” I asked. “Where does it come from? How does it taste? Have you cooked it?”

First he gave us a pronunciation lesson. “It is yooca,” he said, using a hard U sound rhyming with ‘you’. Not yucka,” he went on, using a short vowel sound like in duck. Then, he told us the root is popular in South America and Mexico. He said it tastes good and is very filling like potatoes.”

“I notice you have an accent, what country are you from?” I asked.

With a warm smile, he replied, “Mexico”.

We selected one yuca, headed for the check out and were on our way.

When we returned to Patty’s house, I googled yuca and discovered it is also called cassava and manioc. The starchy substance when extracted from the cassava root and then dried is called cassava flour to tapioca.

The rest of the weekend we did not give much thought to yuca, but when I was packing my bag for my trip home to Seattle, I did not want to leave it behind. “Patty, would your heart be broken if I took the yuca home?”

“Take it, I am not going to have time to do anything with it. I have more reading this weekend.”

So I put it my suitcase, wondering what homeland security would say when they inspected my bag. I was disappointed when I boarded the plane without even one question. I settled in to my seat and pulled out my Barbara Walters memoir. In the chapter I was reading, she’d been in Cuba interviewing Fidel Castro. After the interview, he’d said, “What do you want to have for dinner tomorrow night when we’re in Sierra Maestra? Is roast pork and yuca okay?”

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