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When foods mate, shoppers get new fruits and vegetables

Strolling through the grocery store, it's plain to see this is not your grandmother's produce aisle. Beside green heads of lettuce and tucked in between rows of bananas and peaches are fruits and vegetables for a new generation of eaters.

Known as interspecies produce, these hybrid foods are catching on in area markets. Hybrid fruits and vegetables often come with silly sounding names, such as plumcots (a plum crossed with an apricot), broccolini (broccoli and Chinese kale) and nectaplums (nectarines plus plums).

"This is produce that came from the cross-pollination of fruits and vegetables," said Dennis Tarry, general manager of Dave Wilson Nursery in California. "These are totally natural foods, natural genes. We found certain food genes that cross well with other food genes, and then we were able to make whole new foods."

Credited as one of the original cross-breeders, Floyd Zaiger first brought hybrid fruits to the market through his company, Zaiger's Genetics. Though he started mixing foods genes some 50 years ago, the fruits of his labor have only been catching on with buyers in the last decade or so, Tarry said. Dave Wilson Nursery is the sole distributor of Zaiger Genetics fruits in the U.S.

Each mixed breed has its own distinct taste. While a nectaplum, for example, is a cross of a plum and a nectarine, it has a unique flavor not like either parent fruit.

"Interspecies fruits tend to be very sweet and juicy," said Leith Zaiger, Floyd's daughter. "They don't taste like a mix of the two other fruits. Some very observant tasters may notice a hint of each fruit, but for most people, it is a whole new flavor experience."

The case of the Grapple

Shoppers relish in new products, and healthy, tasty hybrid fruits and vegetables have energized the produce industry, Tarry said. Just take a look at what the Grapple did to the apple industry.

C & O Nursery in Washington brought the Grapple to market about three years ago. Pronounced "grape-ple," the fruit has the look and texture of a Washington Fuji apple, but the flavor of a Concord grape. Grapples are not an interspecies fruit, but rather a unique blend of two fruits. They're becoming a trendy purchase among fruit-buyers.

"We saw that the apple market was flat. It was doing OK, but we needed something to broaden its buyer base," said Todd Snyder, manager and marketing director of C & O Nursery. "Grapples have the sweetness of the grape, and the crunchiness of the apple. We didn't play Dr. Frankenstein with two fruits. It's still apples to apples, but a new and unique blend of apple."

Sold in about a third of supermarkets across the United States, the Grapple took about three years to develop, and has been selling exceedingly well where it is available, Snyder said.

The Grapple was an exception - fully developing a new produce product isn't always an overnight accomplishment. It can take 12 to 15 years to fully develop and test a new interspecies product, Zaiger said.

"It's a long process, and it takes a lot of patience," she said. "In the end, though, all the work is worth it to know we have made a new food."

These new flavors have also helped strengthen the farming industry. Hybrid fruits are bred to be hardier and easily adaptable, so they can be grown in a wider variety of areas.

"A lot of the trouble with fruits was you couldn't develop it in all areas," Tarry said. "It wouldn't get cold enough in the South, for one thing, but it would be too cold in the North. With hybrids, it takes the best qualities of two foods and makes it more accessible and easier to grow."

For the at-home green thumb, interspecies plants can be a friendly addition to the garden, said Mark Czarnota, assistant horticulture professor at the University of Georgia.

"I have a few plumcot trees and, let me tell you, the flavor is just incredible," he said. "They can be a great addition to a fruit tree garden. Everybody is looking for something different and you get that with these plants."

What's in a Name?

They may sound silly, but these blended fruits and vegetables pack a seriously tasty punch. Next time you stroll down the produce aisle, be sure to check for these mixed foods:

•Broccolini - cross between broccoli and Chinese kale

•Aprium - a hybrid of an apricot and a plum

•Nectaplum - a hybrid of a nectarine and a plum

•Nectarcot - a hybrid of a nectarine and an apricot

•Peacotum - a hybrid of a peach, an apricot and a plum

•Pluot - a hybrid of a plum and an apricot

•Grapple - a Washington Fuji apple grown to taste like a grape

Sources: www.davewilson.com,

www.grapplefruits.com

Chilled Broccolini with Caribbean Chile Lime Dip

1 bunch (8 ounces) broccolini

1⁄3 cup peaches or mangoes, pureed (fresh or bottled)

3 tablespoons mango chutney, finely chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon serrano chiles, finely chopped

2 tablespoons red chiles, finely chopped

3⁄4 teaspoon cumin, ground

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Blanch broccolini. Set aside in refrigerator. Combine all ingredients for dip. Chill until needed and serve with whole broccolini spears. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Mann Packing Company

Linguine

Broccolini

2 bunches (16 ounces) broccolini

9 ounces fresh linguine, uncooked

Vegetable oil

3⁄4 cup butter or margarine

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups dry white wine

11⁄2 cups half-and-half

1 cup cherry tomatoes

21⁄2 cups (4 ounces) fresh basil leaves

1 cup Romano cheese, coarsely grated

Drop broccolini into a saucepan of boiling water. After 3 minutes, drain. Rinse with cold water and set aside. Drop linguine into saucepan of boiling water. Return to boil and cook 1 minute. Drain and toss with a little vegetable oil.

For sauce, melt butter. Whisk in flour and cook until bubbly. Whisk in wine and half-and-half and cook, stirring, until thickened. This may be made ahead of time (or you could use store-bought Alfredo sauce). When ready to serve, heat sauce to a boil in large kettle.

Add tomatoes and basil and cook 11⁄2 minutes or until limp. Add linguine and broccolini and heat, stirring with large spoon, until hot. Add cheese, heat through and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once with Romano cheese and/or ground black pepper on top. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Mann Packing Company

Sweet and Spicy

Chicken Stir Fry

1 bunch broccolini, cut in half

1⁄2 cup red onion, diced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3⁄4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed

1 can water chestnuts, drained

2⁄3 cup Lawry's Sweet and Spicy Stir Fry Seasoning

1 can (8 ounces) pineapple, drained

In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and stir-fry until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add broccolini, red onion and water chestnuts; stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add sweet and spicy stir-fry seasoning and pineapple chunks; heat through and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Mann Packing Company