Posts Tagged ‘fruit’

Pitaya: the Drag Queen of Exotic Fruit

February 7, 2010

Slice open a dragonfruit and this is what you'll find.

This essay originally appeared Oct. 13, 2009, at

Amidst the piles of bok choy, gai lan, and other Asian vegetables at last Wednesday’s farmers’ market at San Francisco’s Civic Center was a box filled with what appeared to be several kohlrabi in full drag. Brilliant fuschia, I picked one up in amazement. The look on my face must have tipped off the vendor because she asked me “Do you know what that is?”

I had no idea.

“Dragon fruit,” she replied. “They’re very sweet.”

Sounded good to me and suitably exotic, to boot. Standing nearby was an older woman with a heavy Russian accent. “They are very, very nutritious,” she chimed in. “I eat them often.”

Well, that pretty much settled it. I’ll give it a shot, I told the vendor. How much?

“Five dollars,” she replied. OK, by that point, I was committed and my curiosity too aroused to ignore. I pulled the last five ones from my wallet and handed them over, depositing my flashy fruit into my grocery bags with the other produce I had purchased at other stands.

Once I got the dragon fruit home, I began looking for information on line. As it turns out, dragon fruit – also known as pitaya, pitahaya, and thang loy – is immensely popular in much of Asia. The vendor, who had grown the fruit on her farm near Sacramento, had said as much, adding that her father had planted the trees from seed back in 1989. Despite its popularity in Asia, it’s actually native to Central America.

Pitaya is rich in vitamins – C, most notably – as well as numerous other nutrients including B vitamins, phosphorous and, surprisingly, calcium. It’s a good source of fiber and, like watermelon, it’s a watery fruit and quite refreshing.

In California, pitaya is in season from September through November. When ripe (the skin should give gently but remain firm) the inedible skin peels away easily to reveal either white, bright red, or even yellow flesh underneath. Like kiwi, to which it’s similar in taste, it’s filled with hundreds of tiny, black, edible seeds. The flesh is firm but easy to cut, which makes it a natural for fruit salads. It will hold its shape nicely cut into cubes or other shapes, and remain firm enough to provide a wonderful contrast with other ingredients. Pitaya chills nicely; store it in the refrigerator.

Pitaya seems to inspire flamboyance – or silliness, depending upon your viewpoint – in its fans. Those who have helped to develop new strains of the fruit seem to find that normal adjectives simply aren’t descriptive enough. One Florida grower offers David Bowie, Bloody Mary, Purple Haze, Seoul Kitchen, Cosmic Charlie, and L.A. Woman among his selections. I can only imagine what it must be like to ask for five pounds of Purple Haze at a market.

Quinces: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

February 7, 2010

This essay originally appeared Nov. 9, 2009, at

Quince. For the longest time, I really had no idea what to do with this enigmatic fruit. It’s enjoyed in many other parts of the world and, while it grows quite nicely here in a number of regions of the United States, it seems only slightly more common than, say, durian or pitaya.

Quince is lovely to look at (it also sports a fuzzy outer skin not dissimilar to peaches) and has a fresh, almost citrusy scent. When raw, it’s largely inedible. No, let me take that back: it is inedible. Hard and grainy, it’s a bit like biting into a very under-ripe pear that’s been dusted with alum, but not as appealing. In the English-speaking world, someone in a difficult predicament finds themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Turks, on the other hand, find themselves eating quinces.

Florin Bleiceanu, Stock.xchng

The source of legendary problems and a nice addition to apple pie.

Once quite common in Britain, the quince fell out of favor but seems to be enjoying a minor revival. It never really caught on in the United States, although the late Edna Lewis wrote that they were once grown “on every homestead in the South.” Perhaps it’s a matter of convenience: unlike apples or pears, of which it appears to be a cross (but is not) you simply can’t just pull one from the tree and eat it. One wonders what it was that convinced the first person to try quince to persevere.

According to legend, Paris gave Aphrodite a quince – the golden apple – because she was so beautiful (actually, it was because she bribed him which lead, eventually, to that whole mess with Helen of Troy). Somewhere else, I’ve run across mention of quince being the fruit that caused so much trouble for Adam and Eve; there’s a pattern evolving here.

So, for all the terrible things I’ve just said about quince and for all the trouble they seem to cause, I should state that quince cooks up beautifully. It is delicious, especially when cooked much as one would apples or pears, for that matter. It also takes considerably longer to cook than either apples or pears and it’s a good idea to sauté them even before baking them into pies. I sautéed them in butter with apples and cinnamon and sugar just a week or so ago and served it over pancakes, and taking a cue from a Turkish recipe, I cooked quince with pomegranate juice, garlic, shallots, and cinnamon as a sauce for lamb. I recall another recipe that pairs them with beef, but I can’t find it at the moment.

Quinces keep forever – I just cooked one that had been hanging about for the past month in a fruit bowl in the kitchen. They’re great sources of Vitamin C and, unsurprisingly, fiber. They smell good. I rather like the sound of them, too. Now that we’re into November, we should have them around for a few more weeks but only a for a few more weeks. If only Paris had waited until winter.