Articles in Fruit
Our forefathers weren’t thinking of holiday fare or locavores when they signed the Declaration of Independence, but the Fourth of July fortuitously falls at a time of fabulous local food abundance. And seeking out local food is the patriotic thing to do. Fresh fruits and vegetables connect us in a literal and visceral way to our land, and buying them is good for our local environment, farmers and economies. Your purchase will support your community, give you an opportunity to interact with your local growers and food artisans, and provide you with the best-tasting food around.
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While the Fourth doesn’t have the same gastronomic weight as the winter holidays, the possibilities are endless, but should start with whatever looks good at your local farmers market. If you don’t want to commit to a wholly local Fourth, just feature one local food — maybe the mint in your julep, the cabbage in your slaw, or the chicken on your grill. Or buy some local tomatoes, herbs, and cheeses and have a localicious pizza party.
Make this the year you declare your independence from high-fat, high-sugar crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and other processed holiday foods. Swap them out for low-calorie, high-nutrition fruits and vegetables from local farms, and this will be your best Fourth ever!
If you need help finding local foods, enter your ZIP code into Local Harvest. In just a few clicks, you’ll find many ways to connect with local producers and celebrate food sovereignty by eating fresh, delicious foods from your local farms and gardens.
Cool Mint Soda
Mint is an all-time favorite for keeping cool in the summer, but chamomile, or lemon verbena, or any herb that strikes your fancy will also work in this recipe. Double it if you’re expecting a crowd.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
Mint sprigs for garnishing
1. Make simple syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat.
2. Turn the heat off and stir in the chopped mint leaves. Let sit for a couple of minutes. When the mixture is cool, strain the mint leaves out.
3. Add two to four tablespoons (to taste) of the mint syrup to a glass of sparkling water. Add a mint sprig as a garnish.
Grilled Stuffed Peppers
Use red, yellow or green bell peppers, or Italian or Hungarian sweet peppers.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
3 sweet peppers, halved
8 ounces mozzarella cheese (sliced)
1 large tomato, chopped
6 sprigs basil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut each pepper in half and remove seeds. Fill each pepper with the chopped tomato, and drizzle olive oil over the top of the tomatoes.
2. Add a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomatoes, and then add a dash of salt and pepper and a sprig of basil.
3. Place the filled pepper halves on a hot grill, but not directly over the flame. Cover and grill for about 30 minutes, or until the pepper is soft.
Parsley Pesto Potatoes, Grilled
Herb pesto is quick and easy to make in a food processor. Make a double batch, and use the extra on crackers or sandwiches.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup fresh parsley, stems and leaves
1 cup pecans (you can substitute walnuts or pine nuts)
¼ cup hard cheese such as romano, grated
¼ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
1 to 2 pounds small new potatoes (or large potatoes cut into chunks)
1. To make the parsley pesto, put all the ingredients, except the potatoes, into a food processor and blend until well mixed.
2. In a large mixing bowl, toss the potatoes with the pesto.
3. Place the potatoes on a piece of foil on a hot grill, away from the direct flame. Cover the grill and cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. When you can easily pierce them with a fork, they’re done. Top with extra pesto if you like.
Grilled Peaches with Tart Cherries
While the grill is still hot, make this quick, easy, and delicious dessert. If you have a big group, slice up some local watermelons, muskmelons, and honeydew melons on the dessert table alongside the grilled peaches.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 cup tart cherries, pitted
½ cup honey
1. Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. Coat the peaches in olive oil. If you have a citrus-infused olive oil, that is particularly nice!
2. Fill each peach half with some cherries, and drizzle with honey.
3. Place the peaches on the medium-hot grill for 10 to 15 minutes, or until soft.
There’s only one thing better than eating berries straight from the bush, and that’s putting them into a buttery pâte sucrée crust. Here are just a few of the blissful berries that can go into your summer berry tart.
Aronia berries: Aronia is in the apple family, and the clusters of dark fruits have an intense tannic flavor that dissipates when they are cooked. Native to North America, aronia is popular in Poland and Russia, where it is used to make juices, jam, syrups and flavored spirits. It is high in vitamin C and has many times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries and pomegranate.
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Blackberries: New varieties of blackberries are larger and sweeter than older varieties, but all are high in vitamins and antioxidants.
Raspberries: In addition to red raspberries, there are golden ones that are also high in vitamins C and K.
Blueberries: Great in pancakes and muffins, blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants.
Red, white or black currants: Very high in vitamin C, currants are used in jams, pies, ice creams and tarts. Black currants have more intense flavors than the red or white currants, and are packed with iron, potassium, phosphorous, iron and vitamin B5.
Gooseberries: These small berries can be red, green and purple and are good in tarts, pies, puddings and fruit salads. Gooseberries are high in vitamins C and A, potassium and manganese.
Strawberries: Go for whichever strawberries have the strongest aroma and you won’t be disappointed. They contain high vitamin C, manganese and folic acid levels.
Mulberries: These soft fruits have zero shelf life, but you can often find them growing wild at the edges of woods or parking lots. If you do, eat them right away or put them in a pie or tart.
All these berries are nutritional powerhouses, offering many phytonutrients, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, quercetin and catechins, that provide deep colors, rich flavors and disease-fighting attributes.
You can double, triple or quadruple the tart crust recipe below, portion it into one-tart amounts, then freeze it for up to two months. As each new berry comes into season, thaw and roll out the dough for that week’s tart. By the end of the season, you will be a pro at making berry tarts, and you will most likely have a lot of new friends!
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ Santa Rosa Plum Tart in “Chez Panisse Fruit.”
- Summer berries of your choice, about one quart (I use a mix of blueberries, raspberries, aronia berries and red currants)
- 1 pre-baked 10-inch pâte sucrée tart shell (recipe below)
- ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons of plum brandy, grappa or kirsch
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Put the berries in a single layer in the tart shell, or arrange them in concentric circles.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Let it bubble gently and cook until the milk solids turn light brown. Remove the butter from the heat and add the lemon juice. Set aside.
- Beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is thick and forms a ribbon when dropped from the beaters, about five minutes. Add the butter, brandy, vanilla, salt, flour and cream. Stir just until mixed. Gently pour the mixture over the berries, filling the shell, and just barely covering the berries.
- Bake in the top third of the oven until the top is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature
The following recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” If you’ve never made a tart before, read her section on tarts, where she walks you through the process step by step.
Pâte Sucrée Tart Crust
Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus 4 hours chill time
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes (4 hours 35 minutes including chill time)
Yield: 1 (10-inch) tart crust
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
1¼ cups flour
1. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy. Mix in the salt, vanilla and egg yolk. Add the flour, stir and fold in gently until there are no dry patches. The dough will be soft and sticky. Gather it up into a ball and wrap in plastic. Flatten into a disk, and chill for at least 4 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
3. Take the dough out of the refrigerator. If it is very hard, let it sit 10 to 20 minutes to soften. Roll it out between two sheets of wax paper or parchment paper until it is about ⅛-inch thick and about 12 inches in diameter.
4. Put the dough into the tart pan and press gently into the sides. Trim any excess dough, and lightly prick all over with a fork. Bake for 5 minutes at 425 F, and then reduce temperature to 350 F and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes or until light gold.
Main photo: The red, white and blue hues of Summer Berry Tart before baking. Credit: Terra Brockman
Superfood status aside, there is nothing more seductive than the sweet and spicy scent of the first gold-spangled ruby-red strawberries of the season. The uninitiated may wonder what on earth I’m talking about, since the fruit section of most grocery stores is as aroma-free as the canned goods section. But every Saturday in June, I watch a stream of savvy shoppers make a beeline to certain local farm stands where perfume still pervades the air.
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The strawberries at a farmers market are generally not the largest, nor the longest-lasting, nor the most perfectly shaped. But there is a reason customers are standing six-deep, waiting their turn: When you bite into the soft flesh, juices and flavors ricochet around your mouth and your brain until you are in a delirium of pleasure. “This,” I hear people say again and again, “is what strawberries used to taste like!”
Indeed, this is how they tasted, before they were bred for color, size and shelf-life, before synthetic chemical fertilizers, fumigants, insecticides and herbicides. Contrary to industrial belief, there are simple ways to control pests in the strawberry patch, the most time-tested being organic straw mulch (hence the straw in strawberries), which obviates the need for a host of chemicals. Straw keeps the berries off the moist ground (no need for fungicides), prevents weed seeds from germinating (no need for herbicides), and adds nutrients to the soil as the straw decomposes (no need for chemical fertilizers) — all the while enhancing the diversity of soil microorganisms that keep the farm ecosystem on an even keel.
Even in our hot and humid Illinois summers, delicious strawberry varieties such as Jewel, Honey-oye, and Earliglo do very well. But my new favorite is Mara des Bois. It is a small, somewhat elongated berry, with an intoxicating fragrance, unusual red-orange color, and deep, complex and varied flavors. In fact, different berries, even from the same plant, can have remarkably different flavors. This may be because it is a combination of four heirloom varieties that the French strawberry breeder Jacques Marionnet crossed to get the Mara des Bois. Each variety contributes a layer of flavor and in some berries, one or another flavor predominates, with some sweeter, some more citrusy, some more perfumey.
I confirmed my suspicion of the berry-to-berry variations when I brought over a big bowl of them as a treat for friends, and each one brought a different accolade, from “tangerine!” to “Kool-Aid!” to “strawberry ice cream!” And so another and another disappeared until the bowl was empty.
And these bright bursts of flavor contain potent packages of nutrition. An average strawberry has only 4 calories, but packed in those few calories are 11% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. This means that eight to 10 strawberries give you more vitamin C than an orange. In addition, strawberries are high in fiber and antioxidants, and a good source of potassium and manganese.
While nothing says “welcome to summer” like strawberry shortcake, there are many other ways to use strawberries — if you can manage to get them home without eating them all on the way. This easy salad combines the best of the rich flavors of early summer — spicy arugula with sweet/tart strawberries.
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 4 cups torn arugula leaves
- 2 cups sliced strawberries
- 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, shaved and crumbled into small pieces (½ cup)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Toast walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned and aromatic, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large salad bowl; let cool for 5 minutes.
- Add arugula, strawberries, Parmesan, pepper and salt. Sprinkle vinegar and oil over the salad; toss gently and serve at once.
Main photo: The carmine-orange color and alluring aroma of wild strawberries (fraises des bois) are clues that this is a Mara des Bois. Credit: Terra Brockman
One of the first indicators of spring’s emergence is a visit to your local farmers market, and being greeted with fresh, vibrant stalls overflowing with farmed and foraged spring green vegetables such as asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps and pea shoots. For me living in Vietnam or for shoppers at Asian and Latin grocers, abundant displays of green mangoes signify spring’s arrival and that summer’s heat is rapidly approaching.
Unlike the short-lived availability of delicate spring vegetables, the green mango season lasts several months — from April to September depending on where the mangoes are from. Mangoes are cultivated in tropical and subtropical locales from South Florida to Central America to South and Southeast Asia. Ripe mangoes are prized for their sweet, fragrant flesh, but the inclusion of a green mango in a recipe brings a crisp tartness to the plate.
My North American and European friends in Asia rave about the ambrosia of a perfectly ripe mango, yet too many are unfamiliar with the numerous ways a green mango can be transformed. In places such as India and the Caribbean, green mangoes are often used to prepare chutneys, spiced pickles or tart sauces. They are also add a touch of sourness to regional curry dishes.
Green mangoes commonly used in India
In India, green mangoes are boiled or roasted, and the resulting puréed pulp is sweetened and enlivened with cumin and sometimes mint to make a refreshing, cooling drink called aam panna. Indian dishes that sometimes require additional tartness benefit from a last-minute sprinkle of amchur, dried and powdered green mango.
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Southeast Asian cooks prefer to use the raw flesh in salads, often producing an addictive dish by combining a handful of sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients. Occasionally, a little bit of grated green mango will be added to a meat marinade because its flesh contains an enzyme that helps tenderize meat. Most recently, I have started to use it as a substitute for apples, peaches and even rhubarb in baked desserts such as crisps and pies.
Although cooks in each of these regions have found different culinary uses for green mangoes, a common sight in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia is street-food vendors selling finger-sized lengths of green mangoes tossed with a seasoning of salt, chilies, sugar and lime prepared with and adjusted to local ingredients and tastes.
Half-ripe or under-ripe mangoes are purposely found and sold in Asian or Latin grocers. However, many of the mangoes imported to the United States that are intended to be eaten ripe are in fact under-ripe upon arrival at chain grocery stores and can still be used in a recipe calling for green mangoes, such as the Vietnamese green mango salad included in this story.
When looking for green mangoes, select fruits that are hard and firm and do not give when pressed with your thumb. Green mangoes have a uniform green skin and a pale flesh that ranges from cream to pale yellow. Likewise, the level of tartness of the flesh is dependent upon the variety of the mango.
On your next trip to the grocer, consider how hard it must be for green mangoes to be regularly passed over for their sweet siblings. Purchase a few and discover just how versatile, flashy and delicious they can be.
Preparing and cutting the firm flesh for a salad can be quick and easy. A vegetable peeler is the best way to peel a green mango. Try to resist using the large holes of a cheese grater because it is preferable to have long, thin strands instead of short, stubby pieces.
Techniques for cutting the unripe mango
In addition, you can cut an unripe mango into matchstick-sized pieces in three ways. In my opinion, the easiest and quickest way is to use a Japanese mandoline, with the middle-sized exchangeable blade securely fastened.
The second method is to use a Southeast Asian handheld grater. The graters are multipurpose tools with a peeler on one end, a rippled blade on the other and a sharp medium-sized zester in the middle. They are perfect for julienning green mangoes, green papayas, carrots and other fruits and vegetables. They are sometimes sold in Asian grocers and are easily found at fresh-food markets throughout Asia, making a great culinary souvenir of your trip.
To cut a mango using one, hold the mango in your hand at a 45-degree angle and firmly pull the zester tool down along the flesh of the fruit. Continue this motion, regularly rotating the mango, until the majority of the flesh is removed from around the pit.
The final option is great if you do not have either of the tools needed for the other two methods. Traditionally in Asia this is done by holding the mango in one hand while cutting the flesh with the other. A safer way is to use a cutting board. Place the peeled green mango on a cutting board and starting from the bottom stem and ending at the top, make a cut all the way to the pit. Repeat this type of cut every ⅛ of an inch all the way around the mango. You will have to flip the mango over during the cutting. Use a vegetable peeler to slice the cut mango from top to bottom resulting in rustic julienned mango pieces.
Vietnamese Green Mango Salad
Although this recipe is a vegetarian salad, fish sauce can easily be used by omitting the rice vinegar, adding 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and reducing the water to 1 tablespoon. No matter what version you choose to make, first taste a piece of the mango. The variety of mango and time of the season will affect its sweetness, and you may need to adjust the amounts of lime, sugar and vinegar/fish sauce to balance the dressing. It is also recommended that you first make the crispy shallots before dressing and mixing the salad.
Serves 4 as a side dish
For the mango salad:
1 green mango, peeled and cut into matchsticks
½ cup jicama, cut into matchsticks
½ red pepper, seeded and julienned
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1 or 2 Thai red bird’s-eye chilies, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cup Thai basil leaves, roughly cut or torn if the leaves are a large size
¼ cup coriander leaves
¼ cup mint, roughly cut or torn if leaves are a large size
2 tablespoons fried crispy shallots (see instructions below)
2 tablespoons peanuts, roasted
For the crispy shallots:
½ cup shallots
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the mango salad:
1. Place the green mango, jicama and red pepper in a medium-sized bowl.
2. Spoon the sugar, water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice and salt in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add and mix the chopped chilies and garlic into the dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
3. Toss the herbs into the bowl and pour the dressing over the mango mixture. Mix well.
4. Place the salad into a serving dish and garnish with the crispy shallots and peanuts.
For the crispy shallots:
The instinctive reaction to get shallots crispy is to fry them over high heat. But cooking them slowly and gradually over a medium to medium-low heat gets the best results.
1. Thinly slice the shallots across the grain to get small shallot rings. Use your fingertips to separate the rings from one another.
2. Line a plate or baking sheet with some paper towels.
3. Heat the oil in a medium-sized frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add the shallots and gently fry, stirring occasionally.
4. After about 5 minutes, some of the edges of the shallots will begin to take on some color. For the next 5 to 7 minutes, stir more regularly to move the shallots around. Once the shallots are uniformly golden brown, remove them by briefly tilting a spider or spoon against the side of the wok or pan to let any excess oil drip back into the pan. The shallots will continue to cook out of the oil, so it is best to take them out when they are a light golden brown instead of a darker color, which may make them taste bitter.
5. Place the fried shallots on the paper towels and spread them out. Over the next 5 to 10 minutes they will cool, crisp up and be ready to use.
Main photo: Vietnamese Green Mango Salad. Credit: Cameron Stauch
With Persephone’s return, comes the spring. But there’s a catch. Starving and unimpressed with Hades’ attempts to woo her, Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds while in the underworld. Those six seeds require her to return to the underworld during pomegranate season (roughly September through February in the Northern Hemisphere). Repeated year after year, Persephone’s place creates our annual seasonal cycle of death in the fall and winter and rebirth in the spring.
That is the ancient Greek myth that many of us learned as children, but nearly every culture in which pomegranates are traditionally enjoyed has incorporated them into their myths and symbols. Pomegranates have been used to conjure everything from lust and sexual abandon, to fertility and prosperity, to blood and national identity, and even, as in Persephone’s case, death and rebirth. Pomegranates have been with us since the beginnings of civilization and their image has meanings that span the entirety of human existence.
The pomegranate’s many seeds have led to its use as a symbol for fertility and fecundity in a wide variety of cultures from ancient Persia to Japan. Newly married couples or married women trying to conceive often ate pomegranates or drank the fruit’s juice to increase the chances of a healthy birth. Some North African Berber women also use the seeds in divination rituals to predict the number of children they will bear in their lifetimes.
Pomegranates with coins inserted are also given as pre-nuptial gifts from the groom to the bride in the South Asian Parsi culture to symbolize fertility and prosperity in the marriage. Pomegranates prepared with coins are also used on the Zoroastrian Nowruz table for longevity and good health in the coming year.
Persian epic hero, Isfandyar was said to have enjoyed pomegranate juice before battle to make himself and his armies invincible. This practice was also followed by the Uzbek-born emperor Timur (Tamerlane) as he swept across central and western Asia in the 13th century. Today, a large stone vessel stands outside of Timur’s tomb in Samarkand to commemorate the practice.
The Quran also states that pomegranates grow in the garden of paradise, and some religious scholars believe that it was the pomegranate, not the apple, that was the fruit of temptation in Judeo-Christian scripture.
Origins and cultivation
Domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia by the third millennium B.C. (and possibly well before), pomegranates have also been recovered from later Bronze Age archaeological sites in Israel and Cyprus. The Egyptians had orchards full of pomegranate trees by the time of Hatshepsut’s rule (1479-1458 B.C.), and the Phoenicians were an important force in spreading the fruit across North Africa and into Southern Europe as their seaward empire grew toward Carthage and beyond. It is just this connection that lies behind the pomegranate’s original Latin name, Punicum malum, or Punic apple.
Pomegranates made their way to China by the first few centuries of the Common Era, and from there onto Japan and Korea, where they are today widespread.
As the fruit has been traded and adopted, hundreds of cultivars have been created that vary in fruit and seed color, sweetness, acidity and astringency. The fruits themselves vary in color from a creamy off-white to yellow; to the familiar shades of pink and red; to a dark, almost-black purple. Seeds (sometimes called arils) also vary in color from crimson to a clearish-white color. Cultivars have also been bred to allow them to grow in extreme weather conditions, such as the pomegranates in China’s far western Xingjian province, which regularly endure drought and winter temperatures as low minus-40 F.
Pomegranate’s culinary uses
Throughout western Asia and the Caucasus, pomegranate juice and syrup are used extensively to bring sweet and sour flavors to meat and vegetables. Meats are marinated in the juice, or sauces are prepared to use at the grill or table. Additionally, pomegranate syrup is used in the preparation of mixed condiments, often using walnuts or roasted peppers and garlic to complement a wide variety of dishes. Some Iranians and Azeris also use pomegranates as the center of a savory soup. Pomegranate seeds are also used to stuff vegetables and fish, and the juice is used in place of vinegar to pickle vegetables, especially garlic and pearl onions.
On the subcontinent and in parts of the Himalaya, pomegranate seeds are used as souring and flavoring agents in curries and chutneys. In central Asia, juice and syrup are used much as in western Asia and the Caucasus, but pomegranate seeds are also used in a wide variety of rice and millet pilafs. Mongolia and western China use pomegranate juice in lamb stews along with cinnamon, but sometimes add rice vinegar or asafetida to lend a more eastern Asian flavor to them.
Pomegranate seeds also are used in a variety of liquors throughout Asia. In the Caucasus, they are used in mixed fruit wines along with grapes or cherries, and in eastern Asia they are used to flavor local grain-based homebrews and other medicinal preparations.
I created this lamb recipe by adapting a traditional Persian fesenjān recipe originally used on fowl. Instead of roasting the meat, I braise and add butternut squash for a nearly perfect one-pot meal.
Main photo: Pomegranate ripening on the tree. Credit: Laura Kelley
My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.
But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.
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With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”
Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”
“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla, faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.
Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.
Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.
“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.
Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness
The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.
Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.
My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.
The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico. By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.
I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.
Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.
How to select and use frozen berries
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1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.
What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.
2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’ flavor and health protective components.”
3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.
Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off. She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.
4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.
5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.
Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.
6. How to select and use dried berries.
Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.
The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.
Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.
Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.
That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?
Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett