How to Buying Perfect Tropical Fruit in Northern Climes

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Buying good tropical fruit in northern climes can get expensive quickly- almost like you bought a round-trip ticket to the sunny destination to pick it yourself. This is why it’s good to know what to look for when you’re buying your exotic fruit and why Food Trends’ readers can count on the support of Chef Norman Van Aken, the founder, partner and Corporate Chef of Norman’s at The Ritz Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando to help make the best fruit choices. Chef Norman, who is the father of New World Cuisine, also just happens to be the author of The Great Exotic Fruit Book (1995, Ten Speed Press), so the man knows his soursop from his grenadilla like the back of his sauté pan!

Tips and recipes courtesy of Chef Norman Van Aken.

Papayas

A sweet tropical fruit that can vary dramatically in size and is available year round. The fruit is used both in its green form, (more so in Asian cooking) as well as in its fully ripe form. They are ripe when the green goes to colors of yellow, orange, gold and even rose in some. The aromas emanating from a ripe papaya include tones of peaches and apricots. The skin is inedible and thin, while the seeds are edible and crunchy and thus appealing- even though they are typically discarded by most. They have a wide range of uses aside from simply desserts to salsas and smoothies, (known in Latin America and the Caribbean as batidos). FYI: The juice of this fruit yields an enzyme that is used as a meat tenderizer, (papain). Chef Norman’s following recipe is perfect for a tender piece of fish, grilled chicken or any other dish that you’d like to infuse with a tropical twist.

Papaya salsa Recipe courtesy of Norman Van Aken

  • 3 papaya, peeled, seeded and diced medium
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon minced lemongrass
  • ½ jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • ¼ red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • 1 orange, peeled, wedged and diced small
  • 25 cilantro leaves
  • ½ Cup ginger simple syrup

Put the papaya in a bowl, sprinkle the sugar on top and gently toss. Fold in the rest of the ingredients. Chill.

Jakfruit

Chef Norman says, “This is a truly stunning fruit to behold on a tree for it is the largest of all tree fruits. I have seen 80-pounders hanging from a tree on the Big Island of Hawaii.” Even though they are relative monsters in size, the same basic common sense prevails when obtaining this fruit: Look for even colors and no bruising in the section of the fruit you intend to purchase. They are sold cut up for obvious reasons – it would take a village to eat one! They are related to breadfruit and figs. When ripe the light green skin turns yellow or brown and it develops an intense fragrance. In areas of the world that folks are accustomed to the jakfruit one can find the unripe fruit treated as a vegetable and roasted or cooked but more often the fruit is harvested from inside the spiny, knobby skinned exterior. Some call a jakfruit the “juicy fruit of fruits” due to its sweet famous gum-like flavors in the ripest specimens.

Guava (GWAH-vah)

Unless you live South Florida, the Caribbean, or Asia (or have access to excellent markets that stock foods from these regions), the subtropical fruit you will find is rarely the ripe, perfumed product it should be. For that reason it more often is found in the form of marmalades and jellies. The Aztecs called guavas “sand plums” because of the many small but edible pips (tiny seeds) found in the fresh fruit. Chef Norman’s Take: “I think guava’s appeal comes from its sweet and sour ‘one-two punch.’”

Dragon fruit (AKA pitaya and pitahaya)

Native to Mexico, Central and South America. The red dragon fruit is the most common currently. Look for brightly colored skin with a firm exterior. The flavor is sub acid and lightly refreshing. They are more dramatic to look at than to taste but having said that they make an exciting addition to the table due to the unique speckled look of the interior flesh.

Rambutans

The word comes from the Malay word for “hair of the head”. The soft spikes on the outside are as soft has thick hair. Beneath that is a shell that is thin but firm and easy to peel away. The fruit lies immediately under it and the juice can spill out as you peel one. The fruit can be enjoyed like a fat grape. It does contain a seed or seeds but they are small and not tannic. Look for plump heavy fruit, (for their relative size).

Chef’s Preparation Tip: This fruit is mostly eaten fresh but you can use pitted rambutans as a garnish for fish and chicken, (delicate foods that would not overwhelm the sweet and translucent fruit).

Plantains

In Spanish they are called Plátanos (PLAH-tah-nos). There are various types of plantains: plátanos verdes , or green plantains; plátanos pintones, green plantains which are just beginning to turn black and are often boiled; plátanos maduros, which are almost totally black and very ripe and sweet; plátanos burros, which hail from Hawaii (where they are called hua moa) and are much fatter than the Latin varieties. Plantains are always eaten cooked. They are extremely durable to ship while still in their green phase. Bananas are not a good substitute for plantains.

  • Green Plantains- Unripe, used to make tostones (twice cooked plantains).
  • Maduros- Almost black, very ripe and sweet.
  • Mariquitas- Little fried plantain chips.
  • Pintones-Green plantains which are just beginning to turn black, with only spots. They are usually boiled (traditional in Puerto Rico) and sometimes soaked in salt water before boiling, and served with mojo.

While you’re here, be sure to check out our kitchen product reviews!

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