by Vince Camillo
What’s the next best thing you never ate?
The staff of Food Network Kitchens might know. We see (taste and smell) ingredients and products just before they make themselves known to the national palate. Sometimes one of our on-air chefs brings them into our kitchen, sometimes we find them during restaurant dinners or in grocery stores, at home and away. Each month we’re going to share one with you, along with tips or recipes. And we know that many of you devote a good amount of time to exploring, tasting or simply getting dinner on the table, so let us know what you find that might just be the next best thing we never ate.
If you’ve ever eaten a vacuum-fried banana chip (or any vacuum-fried fruit or vegetable), you may have been staring into the bag of the next big thing. Though the bag you remember was likely empty, because once you eat one of these puffed little disks of pure banana essence, you’ll realize that you can’t stop — the most important indicator of a successful snack.
What makes these so irresistible is the way they are cooked. Vacuum-frying is exactly what it sounds like: putting food into a machine that pressurizes and cooks it with the use of hot oil, but at much lower temperatures than traditional frying methods. At these temperatures the oil does not decompose so readily, so carcinogens are less present. During a low-heat/high-pressure fry, simple fruits and vegetables become superbly crisp and intense distillations of themselves. Some studies even indicate that vacuum-frying retains more nutrients than traditional frying. And since we’re so enamored of fried foods, yet so aware of the negative health effects of those foods, finding a snack that is a balance between these two can only be extremely appealing to us.
These vacuum-fried snacks may still be a bit hard to find, but we’ve been able to locate them at national grocery stores and even a corner grocer/bodega here in New York City. We have seen everything from whole or sliced green pod vegetables (like green beans and okra) and root vegetable chips (potato, taro and sweet potato) to tropical fruit slices (pineapple and jackfruit), but my favorite by far are the banana chips. It’s the first one I ever tried and now when I’m in a store, I catch myself involuntarily scanning the shelves for them. Far removed from the rocklike, air-dried banana hunks of the bulk aisle, the natural sugars and banana flavor are amplified within a simultaneously crunchy and chewy, yet airy chip that can be added to granola and yogurt for breakfast, top of a banana cream pie (whole or crushed into a crumble) or even be tossed into a salad, to add that crunchy texture normally supplied by croutons. And, of course, they can (and should) be munched directly from their bag, slowly, until they are gone.