Hearts of palm are vegetables harvested from the soft core of a palm tree. They are extremely popular in Latin American cuisine, and are exported both fresh and canned to other parts of the world. France is the largest importer, with centers of export in several Latin American nations including Puerto Rico and Brazil. Many vegetarians use hearts of palm in their recipes, blending the vegetables to make spreads, eating them plain, or adding them to salads.
Many wild species of palm serve as sources for hearts of palm, including coconut palms, Acai palms, and sabal palms. Unfortunately, the harvesting process kills these trees, because they only have one stem, and extracting the inner core essentially destroys the plant. In response to this issue, several palms were domesticated and bred specifically for production of this vegetable. These trees have multiple stems, allowing farmers to harvest the hearts while allowing the rest of the tree to live.
Palmito and swamp cabbage are two alternate names for hearts of palm. The vegetable has a pale straw color, and a tender, delicate flavor. When fresh, it can be a bit crisp and crunchy, although canned ones tend to soften. The most prized section of the vegetable is the core, which is especially sweet and tender. Both fresh and canned varieties are usually cut into chunks before being sold to make them easy to manage.
In Latin American cuisine, hearts of palm are often marinated or tossed with dressing before being added to a salad or dish. They can also be used in fruit desserts to add an unusual flavor and texture. The vegetable can also be lightly sauteed and tossed with pasta. Some cooks use them like artichoke hearts, adding them to salads, pasta, quiches, and other dishes. Since the flavor is remarkably similar to that of an artichoke, the substitution often works rather well. They can also be blended with other ingredients for a dip.
For a zesty and unusual salad with hearts of palm, cooks can toss them with spinach, strawberries, and walnuts in a large salad bowl. A dressing can be made by cooking cider vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a saucepan on low heat, whisking continually, until the sugar melts. The chef can then pull the dressing off the heat and add flax seed oil, poppy seeds, dry mustard, paprika, and a small amount of grated onion. This can be drizzled over the salad, which should be served immediately. This salad also pairs well with a creamy or blue cheese dressing.