Sheer Delight: Better Than They Oughta Be Fried Green Tomato Arepas

Fried green tomato arepa with pimento cheese. #FreshParsleyOptional

The Child and I visited my grandmother last week, the one who steals fruit from her assisted living facility. Busy summers and basic malaise have kept us away since the second week in June, but putting off a visit to a 98-year-old person is no good idea. Plus, The Child and I need to feel like we are on the road from time to time; our best conversations happen while the tires eat the miles, even if it’s just a short two-hour jaunt to rural Pennsylvania.

When we pulled up, she was sitting in the sun outside the entrance to the main building. Three young men were spreading mulch in the flower beds, and the day was that kind of almost-fall day where the sky is such a crystalline shade of blue that the trees are outlined in black.

She didn’t recognize my (new to me) car when we pulled in, so when Sicily and I walked up to her and said hello, she looked up with a blank face before she recognized who we were and a look of what can only be described as sheer delight spread across her features.  She said, “I was waiting for someone, and here you are!”

We should all be greeted with such an unabashed and open display of pleasure.

I have an unexpectedly close relationship with my grandmother, as does The Child. Through letters I have learned what her life has been, and in person I get to know this person in whom I see so much of myself. She takes joy in seeing her great-grandchildren and has vowed to live until they are all safely ensconced in college; because of this, we do not share The Child’s plans for a gap year, and we are selective about the information we share in general. She likes to know we are happy and recovered from “Dane’s incident,” “that unfortunate time” when he died in a car accident. We talk about the weather, and food, and she worries about the stock market.

Our visit was short, as it usually is. My grandmother is spry and quick still, but tired in the way that people approaching 100 can be, I suppose, after a long walk outside and a rest in the sun. On the way back to her room, we stopped in the residents’ garden plot to look at the produce, and I ended up with a bellyful of sun-sweet cherry tomatoes and a bag full of green tomatoes for later.

I haven’t had fried green tomatoes in a dog’s age. The last time was in a diner in the south, someplace below the fall line in southern Georgia. I have few fond memories of our 13 years living in that place, but southern food is one of them. It’s a foodway that uses scraps and makes do, and it seems to mesh perfectly with my grandmother’s Depression era philosophy:

Make do;

Do without;

Use it up;

Wear it out.

These recipes are a mash of that sensibility plus new-to-me flavors and foods. I have been mildly obsessed with arepas since White Envelope came to town, and enjoying smoky foods is also new to me. I advise adding any or all of these condiments and toppings liberally to each arepa. You can certainly mix and match. The recipe for Mushroom Bacon is not my own, so I am linking it here.

Fried green tomato arepa with mushroom bacon and chipotle mayonnaise.

For the record, I don’t believe in calling non-meat things a meat name, but this is how the original person wrote the recipe, so I am going with that. It is delicious but does not in any way resemble bacon. I chopped it up after it was all done, and that was the easiest to eat.

There is also the basic recipe for arepas themselves, plus Chipotle Mayonnaise and Fried Green Tomatoes.

I have gone back and forth as to whether or not to include my Pimento Cheese recipe and have decided, at the very last minute, to hold that back. You can use a store-bought variety, or use your own recipe. That shizz deserves its own post, and it’s worth the wait. #Trust

Bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomato arepa with chipotle mayonnaise.

I am pretty sure that when you present your people with any of these combinations they will gaze up at you with sheer delight as well.

Arepas With Assorted Delicious FIllings, Not The Least Of Which Is Fried Green Tomatoes and Chipotle Mayo with Bacon 

If you want to try all of these recipes, make them in the following order: Chipotle Mayonnaise (the night before, even), Pimento Cheese (if making your own), Mushroom Bacon, Arepas, and Fried Green Tomatoes.

Chipotle Mayonnaise

As with everything, adjust amounts to taste, but here’s the basic formula. Make this the night before.

Ingredients

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup whole milk yogurt (or sour cream – whatever is in the ‘fridge)

3 teaspoons lime juice

3/4 teaspoon chipotle chile

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon stone ground prepared mustard

Method

Mix all ingredients together (I use a Mason jar – no clean up). Store in ‘fridge and use on damn near everything.

Arepas (makes 8 arepas)

Ingredients

2 cups masarepa (see Recipe Notes)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/4 cup warm water

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a cooling rack on a baking sheet and set aside.

Mix masarepa, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add warm water and mix until smooth. Use 1/3 cup measure to divide dough into eight balls and shape into disks that are 1/2″ thick and about 3″ wide.

Heat a small amount of oil in a non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Working four at a time, fry the arepas on each side until golden brown, about four minutes each side. Transfer to cooling rack and fry the other four arepas.

Place in oven and bake for 10 minutes or until arepas sound hollow. Turn off the oven and leave arepas to cool and crisp.

Recipe Notes

  • You cannot use regular masa for this recipe, and the addition of baking powder makes it not quite traditional. But of the eleventy million times it seems like I have made these, this formula produced a creamy interior with a crispy shell. So there it is. You can find masarepa in most Latino grocery stores, occasional in a mainstream grocery store, and always online.

Fried Green Tomatoes

There really is no better way to use up those stubborn, lingering tomatoes clinging to the vine than Fried Green Tomatoes. If you aren’t a fan, take your green tomatoes, stick them in a cardboard box, and set them someplace cool. Check on them every now and then; they will gradually ripen and be just as sweet and delicious as the ones from the vine. Remove mushy ones fast; they really will spoil the whole bunch.

Ingredients

Green tomatoes (for eight sandwiches, I used four medium ones), sliced into 1/4″ rounds

1 cup soured milk (see Recipe Notes)

1 cup flour (I use gluten-free all-purpose flour)

1 cup cornmeal

Salt and pepper

Method

Slice tomatoes and place on paper towels. Some people salt them at this point to draw out the moisture, but not me. I let them sit on the towels and blot them dry.

Place a cooling rack on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet and set aside.

In a cast iron skillet, heat about 1/2″ of oil over medium heat.

Set up your breading station, left to right (or right to left if you are left handed): one dish of flour, one dish of milk, one dish of cornmeal.

Controversial direction #1: I do not season my flour. I season the tomatoes directly. Many will take issue with this. I don’t care. Do it however you choose. 

When your oil is hot, salt and pepper your tomatoes. Dip into flour, shaking off the excess, then soured milk, and finally cornmeal. Fry until golden brown on both sides (approximately four minutes total, but the temperature of your oil will dictate this a bit).

Controversial direction #2: Do not drain your fried tomatoes on paper towels. This will make them soggy. Remove them from the oil to your cooling rack over a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. If your oil was the correct temperature, the breading will not absorb too much, and this keeps them crispy. My grandmother drains hers on paper towels, but as Oprah says: When you know better, you do better.

Recipe Notes

  • Many recipes call for buttermilk, but if you don’t regularly drink it, you will end up with extra that just sits in the ‘fridge. To make your own, add one tablespoon of white vinegar to each cup of milk, stir, and let sit for ten minutes. Voila.

Assembly

Slice arepas down as you would a pita pocket; it’s up to you if you slice all the way through or treat them like a pocket.

Slip in a fried green tomato or two and then go from there. Favorite combos pictured above are: Bacon, Lettuce, and Fried Green Tomatoes with Chipotle Mayo; Fried Green Tomatoes With Pimento Cheese; Fried Green Tomato With Mushroom Bits, Pimento Cheese, Lettuce, and Chipotle. Any or all of these are delicious. Fresh herbs like maybe a little parsley or cilantro are also delicious.

If you want something simple and don’t have time for any fuss, just use pimento cheese and let it get all melty. So. Freaking. Delicious.

Five Food Trends To Watch in 2017

A food trend for 2017 I can get behind.

Okay, so I am no food prognosticator; I don’t claim to be able to predict what’s going to be The Next Big Kale. I am okay with this. I don’t want to be an influencer or any of that. Mostly I want to cook for people, eat good food, and develop recipes that make sense in the grand scheme of my life.

So it’s quite a lovely happenstance when ingredients I have started to work with suddenly become The Next Big Thing.

For 2017, here are five of those ingredients.

Harissa

Harissa is having a moment. And for good reason – this shizz is delicious, subtly spicy and versatile for preparations both savory and sweet.

Found most often as a paste, harissa is a pantry staple in North Africa and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is made by combining some form of chile pepper, olive oil, spices like coriander, cumin, and caraway. Tomatoes round out this complex flavor profile which can be quite spicy and sometimes a little sweet.

I had a hell of a time finding harissa and ended up finding one jar tucked away in the mustard section of the local Whole Foods. I expect this will change as the year progresses, especially since The Splendid Table just did a story on harissa this weekend on NPR (just FTR, I started this blog post on Thursday. So there). You can also make your own harissa if you are so inclined. I am, and will make it after I finish the jar I have on hand.

I love harissa for an absurd number of applications, from roasting sweet potatoes to spicy salad dressings to harissa cauliflower, baked in the oven and served with a yogurt and garlic dip that features, unsurprisingly, one of the other food trends to watch in 2017.

Za’atar

Contrary to what is sold on shelves, za’atar is less a spice blend and more a family of spices that are frequently used together, with many regions in the Middle East having a region-specific combination.

Think of za’atar as the bouquet garni of Middle Eastern spices in that once you have your particular combination it is as ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking as the famous French bundle of herbs.

Spices that make up za’atar can included oregano, cumin, savory, thyme, and sumac. Sold as a blend, za’atar also often includes sesame seeds, fennel, and salt.

Families guard their particular blends with their lives, passing them down orally and only to those who might deserve it.

My experience with za’atar is rather limited at this juncture, but I have added it to roasted cauliflower (Vegetable of the Year, 2017) and soups. Khristian says he has had it spread with olive oil as a paste on naan, something that I might actually eat my weight in, were I able to consume gluten. Plans in 2017 include making either gluten-free naan or gluten-free focaccia so that I can, in fact, test this theory.

I would also like to make my own za’atar, but sumac is a pain in the ass to find locally. I am sure that Amazon can help me out with that. I also think it would be great to come up with my own blend – a food project that only requires excellent record-keeping.

Honey – Specifically, Hot Honey

No matter where you live, it seems you can no longer swing a dead cat without hitting a hot chicken joint.

Full disclosure: I did contribute to Carla Hall’s hot chicken joint in Brooklyn and was honored with not only my name on a plaque in the restaurant but also recipe cards for the chicken itself and a treat card that is good for life. As I don’t live in Brooklyn, I will not be redeeming that last item, and that makes me a little sad.

If I can’t travel up to New York for my monthly dose of hot chicken, then I can at least stay down here in Charm City and spread hot honey over errthang. Paulie Gee’s down the street from me uses hot honey on their pizza pies but are less than welcoming to the gluten-free set, so I will go ahead and just steal that idea thankyouverymuch and load up my own pizza with some. Think sausage and thin lemon slices with a drizzle of hot honey.

Or a hot honey yogurt dip.

Or hot honey on biscuits with bacon.

Hot honey popcorn.

Hot honey roasted carrots.

Hot honey stir fry with tofu and broccoli (I got you, vegetarians).

You get the idea.

Make your own, or buy some of Mike’s Hot Honey, one of the brands that made this ingredient famous.

Amaro

Technically not a food, amaro falls under the category “Food/Drink” and thus counts as in the running for a food trend to watch in 2017.

I won’t lie or pretend to be an expert; my first real foray into amaro (other than accidentally in a cocktail) was in writing about the Black Manhattan. Research on that and my general love of the bitter, sweetish, herby flavor profile, plus the distinct undercurrent of flavors and the complexity from amaro to amaro, makes me want to use this more in various applications.

Brad Thomas Parsons literally wrote the book on amaro, and it’s on my winter reading list.

Turmeric

Also not a food but rather a spice, turmeric is experiencing a renaissance in food culture that has been going on for at least a couple of years already, with no signs of slowing down.

At first glance, the bright yellow color of powdered turmeric is mildly alarming. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it’s also bright and intimidating. That shit gets everywhere and stains everything (#LearnedTheHardWay), so dedicate a side towel to use when you are working with this spice.

Turmeric can be found in a powder, a paste, or a ginger-looking root. I recently experimented with turmeric in golden milk and realized quickly that although powdered turmeric is easy to come by, fresh turmeric is the way to go in liquid applications.

Regardless of form, the taste of turmeric is deeply earthy and soulful; there is really no other way to describe it. I would imagine that turmeric, as a root, has a distinct terroir, just as other foods do, but I am certainly not close to being that sensitive to subtle variations in flavor.

When you eat something with turmeric you get a deep sense of doing something very good for you, and not just in the standard way of low-fat, low-calorie, no-sugar bullshit. Turmeric is a warming spice, so perfect for long, dark winters. It is also a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic spice. Practitioners of ayurveda believe that it balances intestinal fire and can help with digestion, joint pain, and many other ills (including lowering blood pressure and fighting cancer).

Go far beyond curry and use turmeric in tea, scrambled eggs, sprinkled on popcorn, and more.

Runners-up on my food trends to watch include cauliflower and a resurgence of snacking before dinner, what my kid calls a “French nibbler” (cheese, nuts, olives, etc). I think snacking before dinner will become the new dinner (or maybe that’s just going to happen in my house). I am looking at you, bleu cheese with a hot honey drizzle!

What food trends do you want to see gone forever? What would you like to see more of in 2017?

(image source)

Gratitude, Day 4: Lettuce Soup, Or How I Realized I Was Rich

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

Luxurious abundance.
Luxurious abundance.

In 1996 when I moved to Seattle, I rolled into town with just $200 in cash (and no credit to speak of, plus one black cat and a car of dubious quality). Even back in 1996, before the construction boom that is currently overtaking the Pacific Northwest, this small change didn’t get me very far. I slept on the floor of a friend’s cousin’s house for a couple weeks, then moved quickly onto another floor of a stranger’s house in West Seattle after the cousin began to hit on me.

At that time, I had just a college degree, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and about $75 left, so I applied at a local temp agency and quickly found work that paid every Friday.

Temp work was steady but didn’t pay well, and the end of the week often found me short of cash and hungry. Too proud at that point to apply for any kind of financial assistance from my new city, I solved the problem with what I had at hand: coffee.

Every morning I would drink a fortifying cup of coffee for the commute to work, then continue to drink copious amounts of coffee throughout the day, lightened with a considerable amount of milk and sugar. This got me through the day without lunch (except for the days when someone would bring in doughnuts or bagels), saved tons of money, and allowed me to pay my bills without applying for any kind of financial assistance (from the state or from my parents).

These days, I can still stretch a dollar until it screams, but as I look back on that time I realize how rich I actually was. I was educated and had a job and a safe place to sleep at night. These days in Baltimore, 20% of Baltimore’s children face food insecurity in that they have no idea where their next meal is coming from. They may not have a safe place to sleep, and their parents may not have the educational resources (or, let’s be real, the skin color) to easily secure even a temporary job.

A couple months ago, I learned about a local organization that helps remediate food insecurity and works to alleviate food deserts: Gather Baltimore. This organization uses volunteer labor in the fields and on the street to gather food that would otherwise rot or be thrown out. The food is sorted (with decomposing or inedible food going to compost) and packed into big blue Ikea bags to be sold for $7 to anyone who wants one.

These bags generally contain between 30 and 40 pounds of produce and are designed to feed a family of four for one week. Bags also often contain bread, crackers, and occasionally, chips.

While this amount of food can be a lifesaver, one considerable issue can arise: what do you do with ten pounds of lettuce? Or five pounds of jalapeños? Or that crazy, lumpy brown thing that you know is a vegetable but you have no idea how to actually cook it?

For people who lack basic cooking skills or too many extra ingredients, this can be a considerable challenge. I have used the Gather bag to make some delicious things I would not have otherwise made, including a spicy corn relish that I could eat my bodyweight in.

The lettuce thing actually happened once when I got a bag that  contained not only two heads of butter lettuce but also a two-pound bag of shredded iceberg lettuce. From this, lettuce soup was born. Overall, this entire recipe cost me about $2, as I made the vegetable stock from peelings and vegetables from the previous Gather bag, and the spices were purchased from the bulk section at MOM’s in Hampden for less than a quarter.

It may sound crazy, but lettuce soup has French roots and is often a light course in a sumptuous French meal. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped (at least one cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon allspice
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
5 cups vegetable stock
8 cups of lettuce, any kind, but tender-leafed lettuce (e.g. butter lettuce) works best
4 tablespoons of butter
Optional garnish: Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped cashews, mild white cheese

Method

Heat two tablespoons of butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for two minutes, then add garlic and cook for one minute more.

Season with salt and pepper, then add coriander and allspice and cook for one minute more.

Add potato, lettuce, and stock. Bring to a low boil, then turn heat down and simmer. Cook until potato is tender.

Puree the soup in one of two ways:

1. Working in batches, use a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Use a handheld immersion blender and puree in the pot.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with optional garnish.

Image source.

Local Ingredients: Your Own Personal Hominy

You totally want this. For real.
You totally want this. For real.

Let’s talk about hominy, y’all.

My past perception of this humble little nugget was simple: a little trashy, a little low-rent, a little flavorless.

In short, I was a total douche about this particular ingredient.

Why?

Who knows?

As a quote from a long-forgotten character in a novel whose name I also forget said, “Sometimes it bees that way.”

But I digress. Point is, I was a snob about this humble little kernel of corn for no good reason.

That perception changed with a recent birthday dinner for my particular friend at Woodberry Kitchen.

My particular friend is a vegetarian who has been flirting with the idea of fish for quite some time. Although both of us believe that vegetarians can get plenty of plant-based protein, thankyouverymuch, there comes a time when it is simply easier to get animal-based protein (like, say, eating out).

Plus, fish is DELICIOUS.

So he figured that he would give fish another go at Woodberry, which, if I am being honest (as I always try to be), is potentially the best place to try anything new for the first time because Spike Gjerde and his brigade is the bees’ knees and you know whatever you order is going to be delicious.

So my particular friend ordered seared Maryland rockfish on a bed of hominy (among other things) and OH MY GOD.

Seriously.

That shit was good. Like, plate-mopping-with-homemade-bread-good. Eat-real-slow-to-make-it-last good.

Since that dinner I have become mildly obsessed with hominy. The word itself has been bumping around in my brain and, no lie, I had dreams about it once last week. I gave in and did some research then headed to the kitchen.

Hominy is basically corn that has had a good, long soak in a bath of something lime-y. In some applications, that bath is lye, which is tremendously terrible for you to actually eat and which this blog can absolutely not get behind. Lutefisk be damned – lye is not what you should be putting in your body.

In other cases, that bath is some mixture of wood ash and lime. Still sounds pretty scary. I like local, and since dried hominy was not available IMMEDIATELY (which is when I like things to be available), I picked up a can of Manning’s Hominy from the local Giant. Since nobody really knows what hominy is (except for Spike Gjerde, bless his heart), I wandered up and down the aisles until I reached that thin sliver of overlap that is “soul food” and “Hispanic food” in Giant.

It’s a thin sliver, but it exists. I should have taken a picture.

Manning’s Hominy has a Baltimore history and remains local to this day. It also happens to be the name of the road we used to live on in Georgia. #Destiny

Plus, bonus: it is steam-peeled and no additives (like lye) are included.

So I accidentally picked up this can of local hominy because truthfully it was the first one I saw in that little sliver of an aisle, and I just wanted to get my mitts on some of it to see what was what.

The contents of the can are patently unappetizing. The hominy is ghost-white and covered with slimy mush; the contents are “congealed” as the can itself says, and no one wants to hear “congealed” in  conjunction for what they are about to eat.

Pressing on, I used a fork to separate the little kernels and proceeded to prepare it two ways: toasted and served with Maryland rockfish (thanks, Spike) and roasted fennel, tomatoes and oil-cured olives (pictured above); and in a roasted chicken and hominy stew.

The corn flavor is subtle in both dishes, but the texture of the hominy adds something that is difficult to describe. It’s chewy without being sticky, and when toasted (it actually pops in the oven, which is unfortunate as my oven ceiling is now somewhat covered in hominy) it gets a nutty flavor that deepens the longer it cooks.

Dried out, it’s like Corn-Nuts, which are far too crunchy for their own good (plus too loud, which for someone who has misophonia like me is a nightmare).

Slowly simmered in stew, hominy picks up all of the flavors of the stew while still retaining its innate corn-ness.

SOLD.

Pictured above is one of  two specials using hominy in  this week’s dinner line-up.

They are both delicious, and you should definitely order them if you live in Baltimore, but this blog is not about that even though it sounds like a straight-up advertisement.

I love you too much for that.

This blog is really about the stupid preconceived notions that we hold on to for no apparent reason. This one has to do with food, but if you think really hard I bet there are other things you believe that you can’t even identify why you believe them.

Food is a powerful belief system tied to its role in our lives growing up, but other things – politics, sex, relationships, for example – are no less powerful examples of how we cling stubbornly to something because “sometimes it bees that way.”

Something as simple as tasting hominy – this humble little kernel of corn – after dismissing it for so many years makes me think about what else I have dismissed for no reason. What else have I written off? Who else have I dismissed?

What have you cast aside for reasons you can’t name? What is your own personal hominy?

 

 

Local Ingredients: Way Down Yonder In The Pawpaw Patch

Where oh where is Susie?
Where oh where is Susie?

I have been minorly obsessed lately with pawpaws.

My particular friend and I were visiting friends Luke and Keveney at Redwing Farm in West Virginia when Keveney mentioned pawpaws in passing; her family grows apples commercially and she mentioned something about someone mentioning pawpaws (this is how my brain works, which is why I write everything down. #Senile).

You know those times when something just lodges itself in your brain and you can’t shake it loose? It’s like a tiny little worm, wiggling its way into your brain, burrowing deep.

For me, this was the pawpaw conversation.

It also doesn’t help when you become a bit like a dog with a bone about it and the little worm in your brain turns into a minor obsession that isn’t really able to be alleviated because the thing you are obsessed about is not really anywhere you can physically put your hands on it. Not yet anyway. So you think about it and roll it over in your mind and in the meantime summer turns to fall and you become aware that, at least for pawpaws, TIME IS RUNNING OUT.

Pawpaws are a very, very strange fruit. They are the largest indigenous fruit tree in North America, but they are tropical. They are the only tropical fruit tree found in a temperate climate, and the tree is deciduous. Harvest time is short, from mid-August to the end of October. They are native to 26 states from the Great Lakes to the Florida panhandle (and even now in Medford, Oregon).

In addition to being very confused about where they should actually be growing in the world, pawpaws are alternately temperamental as hell and ridiculously easy to grow. They can go from rock hard to ripe in 24 hours and once ripe have an on-the-counter shelf life of only a day or two (or a week in the ‘fridge).

But pawpaws thrive in low sunlight and are often found underneath the canopy, which makes them an easy harvest (they can even be maintained as dwarf trees for easiest picking, as the largest commercial cultivator of pawpaws right here in Maryland – Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard – does). The evidence of their ease of cultivation is apparent in the huge groves of trees located along the Susquehanna and Alleghany rivers as well as by the two pawpaw seedlings I currently have growing in pots in my backyard (which were germinated accidentally by a landscaper I met at the Hampden farmer’s market here in Baltimore). Most people who experience pawpaws do so quite accidentally, stumbling upon a grove of wild trees and sampling the fruit (which it should be said is generally a stupid thing to do, randomly sampling something that looks like fruit. #BeCarefulOutThere).

The history of the pawpaw finds First People using pawpaw’s fibrous branches for rope, Lewis and Clark relying on them for sustenance when their food ran out in 1806, and Thomas Jefferson cultivating them at Monticello. John James Audubon perched his yellow-billed cuckoo on a branch laden with pawpaws, and zebra swallowtail butterflies eat their leaves exclusively.

Cuckoo on a pawpaw tree, JJ Audubon.
Cuckoo on a pawpaw tree, JJ Audubon.

All well and good. History is lovely, but what do they taste like?

To find out, I headed to Two Boots Farm in Hampstead, Maryland. There is a pawpaw festival in Ohio that sounded like it could be interesting, but I didn’t particularly feel like driving six and a half hours to chase down a taste – I will never be Anthony Bourdain (which is good because, turns out, he has become something of a massive douche and pretentious fuck. So there’s that). Two Boots is located just 40 minutes from where I am currently typing this, and their little festival (partnered with Slow Food Baltimore) offered tastings and a tour of their orchard, plus the opportunity to purchase some pawpaws.

I sampled five varieties of pawpaw at Two Boots: Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna, PA Golden, and a small unknown variety called Wildcard (tasted like bubblegum).

And to be perfectly honest, which I always try to be, I am not sure how I feel about them.

Their texture may be off-putting to some. The fruits, which range in size from the two-inch Wildcard variety to the much larger four+ inch Shenandoah, have a strange custard-like texture (which is why they are often referred to incorrectly as a “custard apple” which has an entirely different botanical name altogether). This texture is broken up by large seeds that don’t separate cleanly from the flesh (I had visions of choking on the seed as we sampled – the flesh clings to the seed like mango strands cling to the pit and I could see myself inhaling a pit).

The taste is like nothing I have ever tasted before. It is most often compared to a cross between a mild-flavored mango and a banana (hence the nickname “Hoosier banana” or “Indiana banana,”which makes me laugh and think about sex in the Midwest, which may or may not be a laughing matter). I found this comparison to be true, with one additional sensation: astringency. If the pawpaw is not completely ripe, the closest part of the peel offers the slight sensation of astringency, as if you have mistakenly licked an anti-perspirant-slathered armpit.

This is not the sensation you want to experience in fruit.

But there is something deeply intriguing about the pawpaw for me, and it wasn’t until I purchased six pounds (three pounds each of the Shenandoah and Allegheny) that I figured out why.

It’s not the taste or the rarity or the fact that preparing pawpaws is a total pain in the ass (see below).

As I looked into the history behind this fruit, I suddenly remembered that my cousin Teddy used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch” to me as a child (when I went by “Suzie” instead of Suzannah). Theodore Litovitz was a cousin but many decades older than me and a true genius. Growing up, he was the only person in my family to speak to me as if what I had to say mattered; he asked deep questions and listened when I answered, even when I was young. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we didn’t see him often, but he never seemed annoyed by what I had to say, never treated me like I was foolish or childish or in the way.

I remember sitting with Teddy on the lawnchairs that looked out over the Chesapeake Bay at his house in Annapolis, talking about school and watching the sunset. He always had time for me. He always listened. I always felt heard.

But he was mischievous and often a pain in the ass himself. Once when I was around six or seven, he told me about a magical chocolate bar he had at his house, one that grew back with every bite. It was late when he started this story, and we were leaving his house after Passover seder for a long drive back home. Thinking I had found a new permanent home with people who not only understoood me but would also feed me what was generally forbidden otherwise and not wanting to leave behind a special article of clothing I had just purchased, I turned to my mother and said, “Bring my long dress.”

That was probably the longest car ride home ever.

So Teddy and the pawpaws and being just slightly troublesome are deeply woven together in a way that makes the nature of my obsession over pawpaws more understandable. As I started to work with them, I found myself slowing down a bit, as one must when dealing with this fruit. Something about working with an ingredient that holds a deeply personal connection as well as a connection to the history of the nation in which I live made the experience of pawpaws more profound for me.

But pawpaws, as with many things worth doing and as previously mentioned, are a bit of a pain in the ass.

Choosing the proper one comes first: pawpaws are ripe when they separate from the tree with no resistance. Their flesh gives slightly, and as they ripen the flesh begins to deepen in color. Of the Shenandoah and the Alleghany varieties, I found the former easiest to work with as they are larger and offer more pulp.

Flavor-wise, pawpaws work best with tropical, mild flavors. In the three recipes I made, I paired them with pineapple, coconut, and fresh corn (the ice cream below, pawpaw fritters with fresh corn, and pawpaw-pineapple chia seed pie). The subtle flavor of pawpaws changes somewhat when they are heated, and I found that cold applications made for the best clean pawpaw flavor.

I started each recipe with a basic puree that can be used immediately or frozen. This puree used six Shenandoah pawpaws and the juice of one lime (lime prevents oxidation). Slice the pawpaws in half and remove the seeds. Place the pulp and the lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth. Press through a sieve, then use immediately or freeze in one-cup portions. Makes two and a half cups of puree.

I did also make a puree with the Allegheny pawpaws, but the same three pounds of fruit yielded less than two cups of puree. Best to eat these in hand.

My favorite application thus far was the ice cream. This ice cream has a subtle, delicate flavor that is not overshadowed by any one of the ingredients, which allows the pawpaws’ complexity to shine through. Plus, it’s easy, which makes the work to get the puree seem less.

Pawpaw Ice Cream With Toasted Cashews

Ingredients

1 cup pawpaw puree

1 can unsweetened coconut milk

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sugar

splash of vanilla

1/2 cup of chopped cashews, toasted and lightly salted

Method

Combine all ingredients except for the cashews in a large bowl and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is smooth.

Place in ice cream machine and process according to directions.

In the last five minutes of churning, add the toasted cashews and allow them to mix in completely.

Full disclosure: I cannot resist a small bowl of this before it freezes completely. It’s like a milkshake rather than straight-up ice cream. I also like to place this between two gluten-free graham crackers for an ice cream sandwich.

As I worked with them pawpaws changed from an obsessive curiosity to something that connected me to someone I loved dearly and miss terribly. Which foods connect you to a time, place, or person?