Palm hearts, also known as hearts of palm or palmitos, are the edible buds and tips on top of a palm tree that produce new palm fronds. The hearts look like a white, thick cylinder with rings throughout the middle like an onion. They are crunchy and have a mild flavor similar to artichokes. Fresh hearts can often be purchased surrounded by newborn leaves. These leaves are also edible, and the entire package is called "palm cabbage" or "swamp cabbage." The "cabbage" can be pickled or fermented before eating, turning it into what's known as "palm cheese."
Palm hearts are harvested from young palm trees about 4 to 5 years old. Several palm trees this age will be needed to obtain enough hearts to make a pound. Older palm trees have hearts that can be from four to seven pounds, but they tend to be less tender and sweet. About twenty different species of palm are grown for their hearts. Different species produce hearts that vary in sweetness, size, and tenderness. Most of the palm species have only one heart per tree, and removing the heart will kill the plant. However, one species called the Peach Palm (Guilielma gasipae) can live after the heart is removed and even produce new hearts. This species is therefore ideal for mass production of hearts. The palm trees that are used to produce hearts are found predominantly in Central and Southern America. Costa Rica, Hawaii, and Florida all grow palm hearts for the United States.
Palm hearts are most commonly available canned, however due to their increasing popularity they can also be found fresh in limited areas. The best place to find fresh palm hearts in the United States is in Florida, where they are available year-round. When purchasing fresh hearts, look for ones that are moist and unblemished. The hearts are very perishable, so store them in plastic bags in the fridge and use quickly.
Palm hearts can be served raw or cooked. To prepare fresh hearts, rinse them and remove any fibrous, tough material surrounding the heart. If you are going to serve the hearts raw, slice them into pieces and soak them in cold water for about an hour. They are commonly served with a dip or in a salad. The hearts can be cooked by steaming for about seven minutes or until tender. They have a mild flavor and should be served with only minimal flavorings such as lemon, garlic, or olive oil. They are also good pureed and added to soups. Artichoke hearts or asparagus can be used as a substitute for palm hearts.
The Joy of Cooking, revised edition, 1997