The Underrated Canned Ingredient That Makes Easy Vegan Scallops

Not all canned ingredients are created equal. In fact, some are underrated workhorses that can open up new avenues in your kitchen. If you've become tired of your usual canned pantry staples, turn to a less utilized option: hearts of palm. Not only are they a delicious ingredient in their own right, but they shine as a vegan replacement for a common seafood specialty — scallops.

Hearts of palm are cylindrical white stalks with a mild taste reminiscent of artichoke hearts or jackfruit. They are lightly crunchy but fleshy and soft, making them an excellent option for a plant-based spin on seared scallops, with a similarly meaty texture. By slicing hearts of palm into rounds, you can easily mimic the look of scallops as well.

The cooking process is also quite similar to preparing scallops at home. Sear the hearts on medium-high until they form a crust on one side, and then flip them over to get some color on the other end. You can baste them with vegan butter during this process, too, much like you would with a butter-fried steak. Just drop a spoonful of vegan butter into the pan, and use a spoon to baste it on the palms while they cook. This will help the top form an even crust while the bottom heats up.

More about hearts of palm and where to find them

As their name implies, hearts of palm are harvested from palm trees. Specifically, they're found in the very center of these plants, where the innermost stalks are the most tender. Multiple palm tree species have these stalks, including palmetto, coconut, and peach palms. The trees grow in humid climates like the southeastern United States, Central America, and South America. The USDA lists the food as rich in protein and high in minerals like zinc and magnesium.

In the past, harvesting the ingredient led to severe deforestation. When a tree only has one stalk, removing it kills the tree. Fortunately, many palm trees grow multiple stalks, allowing the hearts to be cultivated while letting the rest of the tree live. For this reason, harvesting hearts of palm from single-stalk trees has been outlawed in many places.

Canned options are the most convenient way to go, and can typically be found in the international or canned food aisle of most supermarkets, as well as in specialty stores or online. Fresh ones are more difficult to source and will spoil more quickly. That being said, there are several online vendors selling fresh hearts of palm; they have a creamier texture that is more suited to purees than their canned counterparts.

More uses for the underrated hearts of palm

Hearts of palm are a versatile ingredient that can be used in a number of dishes. Their mild taste pairs well with multiple ingredients, making them a great addition to a range of salads. For this application, the hearts require little preparation; just slice them into rounds or matchsticks and add them to your favorite bowl of greens.

Scallops are also not the only kind of seafood that hearts of palm can replicate. You could also gently push the insides of the hearts out to form a ring, batter them, and fry up vegan hearts of palm "calamari." Similarly, whole stalks can be battered and fried as vegan fish and chips. If you'd prefer to avoid fried foods, you can shred some stalks and swap them in for crab to make a plant-based spin on crab cakes. 

Beyond these vegan options, hearts of palm are a great alternative for pasta for those following a gluten-free diet. If you'd like to skip the process of slivering the noodles yourself, there are multiple brands of grain-free hearts of palm pasta that can be found at grocery stores like Trader Joe's or online. Many of these brands, such as Palmini, are ready to eat right out of the package, so you won't even need to boil water.