Ingredients

What Are Hearts of Palm? (& How Do I Cook With Them?)

Also known as “swamp cabbage,” "burglar's thigh,” and “the lobster of vegetables.”

March 12, 2020
Photo by thedabblist/Flickr Commons

In the year 2020 we’re used to seeing certain vegetables labeled as “trendy” (looking at you, celery and cabbage). But you know what rarely gets mentioned much at all in mainstream American food media, let alone labeled popular? Hearts of palm. Let’s toss those other guys to the side for a moment so we can discuss hearts of palm.

What Are Hearts of Palm?

Their name might sound like a new reality dating show, but in fact hearts of palm are the edible interiors of certain palm trees. Native to Central and South America, the hearts come from coconut, juçara, Açaí.

In the early 1900s, the vegetable was prevalent among Floridians, who ate the hearts of the wild single-stemmed sabal palm (in A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State, James D. Wright refers to hearts of palm as “swamp cabbage,” “burglar's thigh,” and “the lobster of vegetables”). Due to deforestation concerns (to access the palm’s heart, the tree must be cut down), it’s no longer permissible to harvest single-stemmed wild palms; the majority of hearts of palm we eat today come from multi-stemmed farmed palms in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

The plant sounds incredibly specific, yes, but the vegetable itself couldn’t be more versatile to cook with.

What do hearts of palm taste like?

Heart of palm’s flavor and texture lies somewhere in between white asparagus, artichoke heart, and water chestnut, making it just as welcome in a salad as it is in a stir-fry. Its creamy, tender flesh also makes it ideal for purees and dips. The most unique property, perhaps, is the heart of palm’s ability to mimic the texture of seafood or meat.

A salad of hearts of palm, chicken, red bell peppers, and peaches. Photo by Pseph/Flickr Commons

Where do I buy hearts of palm?

It’s typically sold canned or jarred and suspended in water at most grocery stores (look near the canned artichokes and beans). Fresh hearts of palm do exist, but are much harder to source—like most specialty grocery items, however, you’d probably be able to purchase them online, but it’s certainly not worth the hassle for the average Tuesday night meal, and there’s truly no flavor difference between fresh and canned.

How do I eat hearts of palm?

Hearts of palm are often sliced raw into salads. The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook featured a recipe for “Sardi’s Hearts of Palm Salad,” one originally published in the restaurant’s 1957 cookbook Curtain Up at Sardi’s—it’s a mixture of whole hearts of palm, lettuce, watercress, and pimento served with a vinaigrette of chopped cornichon, onion, capers, and hard-boiled egg, plus oil and white vinegar.

Like asparagus, artichokes, and water chestnuts, hearts of palm are also eaten cooked, be that pan-fried, baked, grilled, or braised (try them in the style of braised leeks!). Alternatively, keep them raw and puree in the food processor with a bit of garlic, salt, and lemon juice for a riff on a white bean dip.

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Top Comment:
“Here in Brazil we often cook with hearts of palm. One of the most traditional is a kind of pie. The hear of palm is used as a filling, along with olives and boiled egg. Also, if raw, they are best char broiled with kosher salt or cooked in salty water until soft and eaten as a salad.”
— Fla C.
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Sort of like jackfruit, hearts of palm can be sliced or torn to mimic chopped crab or pulled pork or chicken—try swapping them in for the meat in your go-to crab cake, barbecued sandwich, or shreddy braise.

In 2017, the fast-casual restaurant franchise ByChloe featured a special “vegan lobster roll,” with a faux-lobster salad made with hearts of palm, vegan mayo, and Old Bay Seasoning, so why not give that a try at home? Jasper White’s Genius lobster roll may not need improving upon, but who are we to tell you not to experiment in the kitchen?

How do you cook with hearts of palm? Let us know in the comments below.
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Rebecca Firkser is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Edible Manhattan, Extra Crispy, The Strategist, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.

5 Comments

Angeline G. March 22, 2020
I haven't had them myself but a local vegan restaurant makes a vegan "calamari" with breaded and deep fried hearts of palm.
 
Blork March 15, 2020
I like the idea of mimicking crab meat. Is there some way to impart a seafoodish flavour without actually adding any seafood? (Aside from Old Bay, which is sort of an abstraction.)
 
Author Comment
Rebecca F. March 16, 2020
If you're vegetarian/vegan, you could add some crumbled nori to the mixture (its briny flavor will add a vaguely fishy sensation); if you're not, you could use a splash or two of fish sauce
 
Fla C. March 14, 2020
Hello. Here in Brazil we often cook with hearts of palm. One of the most traditional is a kind of pie. The hear of palm is used as a filling, along with olives and boiled egg. Also, if raw, they are best char broiled with kosher salt or cooked in salty water until soft and eaten as a salad.
 
So S. March 13, 2020
so... how do we cook with them?