Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Papaya That Changed My Life

Alright. I have a confession to make.

I am a fruit addict.

You think I’m kidding. But this is serious. My whole life I have loved fruit more than anything. I chalk it up mainly to the fact that when I was young if we were hungry before dinner, my parents would allow us to eat fruit but nothing else or we would ruin our dinners. That and the fact that I think fruit is the universal tastiest thing in the world. As a child, I brought fruit in my lunches, ate fruit after school, was treated with fuji apples straight off of a tree in my backyard, have had mango trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees, etc. And if you made me give up fruit for more than a week, I’m pretty sure I’d die. In Mexico last summer, we went about a week without fruit and I started to buy canned fruit because I missed fruit so much. And believe me when I say I don’t like canned fruit.

As far as I’m concerned, fruit is the only thing I need to live off of. Which is why I was so surprised when I met a girl who hated all fruit. She didn’t discriminate. She really disliked it all. And I have to say, I’m pretty sure that’s a testament to our present day food system. I admit that when it comes to fruit, it is very difficult for me to wait for strawberry season (I love them). It’s even harder for me to wait for that precious time of the year when peaches are juicy and sweet since I tend to think of peaches as my favorite fruit (but only at this time of the year). There’s nothing better than a watermelon on a summer day (even though as I stated in my last post they don’t really belong on our plates until late summer). And living a life without bananas would be really difficult for me (since they almost solely come from Ecuador and surrounding countries). But the other thing I have learned from buying these fruits off-season is that they don’t taste the same. In fact, sometimes I ruin an entire fruit for myself by refusing to wait for the right time of the year to partake in it. And this is what I think my elementary school friend was going through.

I don’t think she hated all fruit. I think she thought she did because her parents had fed her fruit that was grown in a country far away with bug repellants, fertilizers, and weed killers;  picked when it was not ripe so that by the time it made it all the way to America it would look correct; and eventually fed to her tasting exactly as you would think given that it was more chemical than fruit. I can honestly say that I am lucky we had fruit trees in our backyard, that my dad would stop at a strawberry stand during strawberry season, and that in summer we would buy crates of peaches that were so delicious they would be gone in a day.

But here’s my secret: I have always disliked one fruit (and no I’m not talking about tomatoes). I couldn’t understand how this fruit was still for sale in markets. It was the papaya. My most dreaded enemy. Papaya in salsas, papaya juice, papaya by itself… I just wasn’t that into it. In fact, the only memory I have of actually enjoying a papaya was when my family vacationed in Hawaii and I had a papaya salsa there.

So imagine my thought process when my neighbor came by with the load of fruit and along with everything else was a papaya as big as my face.

I wasn't kidding. That is the world's largest papaya.

I honestly thought I’d have to give the thing away. Or hide it in something with a really strong taste. But I decided to give it another try… if not solely because I thought I owed a papaya that big some sort of recognition. And here’s the crazy thing… I didn’t hate it… I actually really liked it… And I ate an entire half of that papaya in one sitting (which is a feat I am quite proud of).

So I guess this is the lesson: not that papaya is the most amazing fruit (I still vote for peaches) but instead that the reason your kids, or your friends, or potentially you yourself don’t like a fruit may be that you’re trying to force it to be good in an environment in which it is not accustomed. Either that, or you’re eating it after being sprayed with every chemical you can think of and shipped thousands of miles to get to you. I know I don’t feel or smell so great after a long plane flight. If you do, props to you. But why do we expect any different of fruit?

I am lucky enough to be in a country that has every type of fruit you can imagine year round. But they also have the weather and soil for fruit. I’ve had so many bananas and plantains (the staple foods on the Ecuadorian coast) that I may even have to take a little break from them. But here’s the crazy thing: I really miss vegetables. And yes, I really like vegetables. It’s not like my palate has changed away from fruit. I am a happy little fruit fly in Ecuador. But it’s difficult to find vegetables down here (sometimes they’re even imported from America).

So I guess here’s the thing: we all want what we can’t have. It’s true of heights (I know. I’m 6’0 and would love to shrink a little), hair color, skin color, eye color, houses, and yes. Even fruit. But just as we’re forced to make due with the our skin, eye, and hair colors, we also need to learn to stop pushing fruit season. It’s not helping us rid ourselves of a craving. It’s making us a culture that doesn’t enjoy fruit the way we used to. And if you don’t know what season each fruit is available in… there’s always google OR (and I recommend this method) heading down to your local farmer’s market (where you keep money in your local economy and can talk to farmers about produce and make relationships with them). Chances are, if a fruit is not available at the farmers market, it’s not the correct season for that fruit.

So yes. Papaya did change my life a little. I think next winter I’ll stick to the winter apples that are available, and enjoy eating some vegetables for a change.

To stop you from being too jealous of my land of plenty, I will admit that the land of plentiful fruit is also the land of plentiful hormigas (ants) which I really hate and which daily find their way into my apartment. So don’t get too jealous. But here’s a tip I learned down here: they really really really really really hate white vinegar. 

UPDATE: I have also been having way too much fun making fruit juices. So far: watermelon, watermelon-mint, watermelon-cantaloupe-mint, papaya, papaya-cantaloupe, and the cantaloupe, cantaloupe-mint concoctions of last post.

Fruit Juice

…and you thought that my next post would be about limes (so did I but I’m still trying to figure them out).

I can’t be sure without first asking my parents, but I am almost positive that my love of fruit juice started the day I was born. My sister and I were definitely the kids on the street with the lemonade stand (Koolaid too I will admit), I would beg my mom for jugo de manzana (apple juice-> yes I spoke Spanish… too bad I forgot everything until college-> it would be really helpful these days), I had a phase with fresh-squeezed orange juice (until I drank so much my tongue hurt), and though I will drink tea and the occasional soda, I would give them up in a heartbeat to save my precious fruit juices. So imagine my surprise when I get to Ecuador and find a variety of juices that I hadn’t even considered before. During almuerzo (lunch) restaurants here have pre-fixed menus (which is a bummer since it’s normally the meal I eat out) but each menu includes a daily juice (which is not a bummer at all). I’ve tried grapefruit, naranjilla (different than naranja which is orange juice), cherimoya, apple, orange (gotta have the normal ones), peach, raspberry, guava, oat (it was actually good), papaya, and my personal favorite cantaloupe.

Here’s the thing about cantaloupe… I love it. It’s refreshing and yummy and if you have a lot of it it doesn’t burn your tongue. When I was little, I’d eat around it and honeydew and head straight for the watermelon in melon dishes. These days, I still pick around the honeydew (solely because I don’t think it has much flavor), but I dive right for the cantaloupe. And here in Ecuador, it’s warm enough year round for local cantaloupe. But despite my love of cantaloupe, I’ve never considered having it in juice before. I’m sure it happens in the U.S. as well, but it’s just nothing I’d ever really thought about. And once I’d had it once, I was addicted. I had to get my hands on jugo de melón (cantaloupe juice).

I headed to the grocery store and beelined for the juice aisle but no matter where I looked in the shelves, I could only find orange, apple, and peach juice. It didn’t make sense! I’d had jugo de melón in friends’ houses, restaurants, it was everywhere! So of course I had to ask where to find it. I’m pretty sure the grocery worker was close to peeing his pants. He was trying to keep a straight face but kept breaking into a huge grin and finally called a coworker over to ask whether they carried jugo de melón. I’m pretty sure he just wanted to share the joke. They informed me that they did not carry cantaloupe juice and I was embarrassed for whatever joke I was not getting so I quickly headed out.

When I met some Americans working for the Peace Corps the next day, I asked them about this encounter. They all started laughing before informing me that here, they make all of the juices that they drink. I am still a little shocked that I had not thought of this possibility  but I’m from America. The land of the waste and prepackaged goods. When I want cranberry juice, I don’t squeeze cranberries… I head to the store.

Not to give in easily, I decided to learn how to make cantaloupe juice (since I assumed you couldn’t just squeeze the juice out of it). It turns out the process is quite simple:

Jugo de Melón

  1. 1/4 Cantaloupe, cubed
  2. 5 Ice Cubes
  3. A dash of water
  4. Sugar, to taste (they like to add a lot here but I kept it minimal so the flavors really popped).
Blend all of the ingredients together. Strain out the pulp. Enjoy. Makes 1 cup.
Like I said. Really simple. But not to be had, I decided to make the juice even better. Here are my additions:
  • In lieu of sugar, ice, and water, heat 1/4 cup water with 1/4 cup sugar until the sugar melts. While still over low heat, add fresh mint and muddle for a minute. Let reach room temperature and then mix with other ingredients and 1 ice cube. May need extra cantaloupe. 
And yes. It is better. It’s refreshing with an air of superiority. So ha grocery man. And see if I help you find the juice aisle when you visit my grocery store.

Straight home from the Red Cross. Gross but so stoked on my Cantaloupe/Mint Juice.

I do ask that you promise to wait until cantaloupe season in the states. Which is the same as watermelon season. And since I know you know watermelons come out in summer, let me tell you a little secret: if you’re over the age of 30 and you wonder why watermelons are no longer as tasty as during your childhood, it is because the season for watermelons is not summer. It is late summer. The overly waterey watermelons you’re getting right now are actually sent to you from places like Ecuador where it is hot enough for them to grow. And since you’re satisfying your watermelon craving now, you’re going to miss the brief period at the end of summer where the watermelons taste so much better.
So promise me that you’ll wait to make this juice. I promise it’s going to taste even fresher in just another month (plus you won’t have extra oil attached to its transportation).

A Bushel of Plantains

As a person who enjoys cooking, I’ve learned that you never know when creativity and inspiration will strike. Which also means that, like a writer, there can be periods of time where you’re just completely blocked (welcome to my last year). And during those times, it’s ok to follow the recipes you know and to think inside the box because you can’t choose the be inspired. What this has meant for me is that for awhile I haven’t been cooking with heart as much as out of a need for food to eat. And it’s been a little disheartening to say the least. But as I stated, you never know when creativity will hit you and for me it was when I was gifted the world’s largest papaya…. oh ya… and a tree of plantains and about 100 of the largest limes you’ve ever set your eyes on.

You may think I’m kidding about the papaya being the largest ever. But I’m pretty certain that if it’s not the largest, it’s definitely somewhere near the top. The thing was literally the size of my head. I did, however, over-exaggerate a tiny bit when I said a tree of plantains and 100 limes (there were probably 10 plantains and probably 20 limes). But regardless of the size of the papaya or the number of limes, it is important to note that I was overwhelmed.

You see, about a week ago, I set out for a two and a half month journey to Guayaquil, Ecuador where I will be working for the Red Cross for the vast majority of my summer. And though I have taken some Spanish courses and have tried to bone up on the language for my trip, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of entering a country where very few people speak the language. And maybe more importantly, nothing could prepare me for a country where people order food for you without asking your preferences (after five years I ate my first meat on my first day in the country->luckily it was steak…. mmmm… my favorite). But the thing about that is it also shows just how amazing the people here are. They may not realize I was a pescetarian for five years and a vegetarian for seven months,  but they’re the type of people who take you to lunch and want to show you the food of their culture. I have no regrets having eaten that steak nor the many others, chicken, and fish that have followed in the past week. I am here not only to work for the Red Cross, but also to fully experience the culture of this amazing country. And if that means eating some meat (and what seemed to be stomach-> I didn’t want to know) while I’m here, I have no qualms with that. Plus, the food is pretty darn good. Fried plantains left and right, bananas like you’ve never tasted before, cherimoyas, GIANT papaya (and I didn’t like papaya… but down here it really has flavor), fruit I’ve never seen before, yuca bread, cheesy everything, fresh-caught fish, and yes… rice and beans.

Like I said, the people here are also amazing. I came down here knowing no one and although I live in my own apartment, I feel like I’m a part of an Ecuadorian family. My friend (whose mom I work for) has a girlfriend whose aunt found me my apartment and it happens to be in the building where her mother and daughter and daughter’s adorable family live. I’ve been to two birthdays, multiple lunches, and I’ve really seen the city from the eyes of someone who lives here. My coworkers have taken me walking through beautiful parts of the city, make sure I get home safely every day, and have introduced me to exotic and crazy foods. And everyone here has made sure that I know how to stay safe.

I know this is a food blog, but I’m really in love with it here and it’s hard to stay on subject. Finding my inspiration. Going back quickly to how nice the people are here, yesterday my neighbor/landlord dropped by just to give me the world’s largest papaya, a tree of plantains (verde) and a giant bag of gigantic limes. I thanked him before heading back into my apartment wondering what the heck I was going to do will all of the limes (seriously I could’ve made ceviche for a 300 person party and would still have left-over limes). And I’ve loved the fried plantains I’ve been getting everywhere, but they’re normally breaded and I have very limited supplies in my little kitchen (and I keep forgetting to pick up pepper and salt and sugar when I’m at the store->though I do have my staples of cayenne and paprika). And like I said… I really didn’t think I liked papaya.

So today, after the jelly debacle of 2011, I was forced to call into work and tell them I could not make it. Since they don’t need my help with patients until tomorrow (I do desk work too), it went over smoothly and I went back to cleaning up the mess (since those of you who read this are my family or friends I assume you already know about the jelly debacle of 2011). This clean-up inspired me to clean my whole apartment and soon I was facing the giant bag of limes and the question of what the hell I was supposed to do with them. So I started to google. Key lime pie, key lime pie ice cream, fish tacos, ginger lime salad dressing, cilantro lime mayonnaise, etc. Well, since my oven is not working yet and I don’t have an ice cream maker… and I don’t have fish or ginger or cilantro or mayonnaise…. maybe I’d look into plantains. Fried plantains, sweet fried plantains, breaded fried plantains, coconut shrimp and fried plantains, plantain chips, etc. Alright then, looks like I’ll fry some plantains. But once again a lot of the recipes called for a flour coating and I don’t have flour. And at the very least they call for salt. So I decided to brave my limited resources and throw the recipes out the window for the first time in almost a year. What I came up with was a hodge podge of different options for plantains, all fried (I’m going to try to mash them up later) and all in need of a little salt or sugar (next time I go to the store I won’t forget). They’re not the best things I’ve ever made, but I’m happy to say my block has finally lifted. Up next, finding a way to use a thousand limes.

Fried Plantains

It is important to makes sure the oil is steaming before you put the plantains in. You don’t want them to be oily when you go to eat them. On that note, remember to put them on a paper towel when you take them out of the oil to get any excess oil off of them.

Option 1

Sprinkle cayenne pepper on one side of the plantain slices (to taste). When the oil (I used olive but I think vegetable would work as well or better) is smoking hot, drop them in cayenne side down and wait until a light golden. Flip them over until lightly golden on both sides. Serve with hot sauce (I like Cholula) and cheese (dairy eliminates the spice factor plus added the salt I didn’t have myself).

Option 2

Mix lime juice, cayenne, and paprika and coat the plantains. Fry (but be careful-> the water in the lime juice and oil do not mix well) until golden brown on both sides. Less cayenne will stick to these, so just add salt.

Option 3

This was my favorite decision because it allowed me to do so much with the plantains. Fry the plantain slices in oil until golden brown on both sides. Serve with fruit for a delicious fruit salad (I ate it with part of my papaya grande), a light white cheese for an Ecuadorian favorite, the lime/paprika/cayenne sauce from the previous option, or anything you have lying around. But don’t forget the salt :).

Option 4

I did not get to make them this way, but I will as soon as I get to the store and I’ll update you all on how they tasted: rub the plantain slices with cinnamon and sugar and fry until golden brown for platano dulce mmmm.

Eco-Benefits

I’ll admit that in the states, plantains are not going to be grown locally and will have some long food miles attached to them. I could get off saying that at least you’re not eating fish or meat and therefore you’re being more sustainable, but I’ve used that a number of times and each time I do I feel a cringe of guilt for leading you to believe that food miles don’t count as much. Plus, this is a side dish and I can promise it’d taste good with a macadamia nut crusted halibut with a papaya salsa. So instead, I’m just going to tell you this: one of the great things about traveling is that you get the chance to try exotic foods like plantains, cherimoyas, and damn good papayas. And as in the case with the papaya and the banana (and all fruits and vegetables), they taste better when they’re locally grown and in season because they are not picked early so they can be shipped, they’re fresher, they’re juicier, and they’re just freaking amazing. So maybe instead of trying to recreate this dish, which is only really sustainable where I am, you’ll be inspired to go check out some of your local fruits and vegetables and find a couple of new options for how you can cook them and really enjoy them the way and at the time they’re meant to be enjoyed. Plus, when you’re on vacation, you’ll really appreciate the produce that comes from the location you’re visiting. It will be another experience of your trip instead of just a side note. I’ve been reading a boo,, Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, who speaks to this. Americans have lost their love of food because we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. Our grocery stores are stocked with fruits and vegetables from around the world and though we get them at any time of the year, we’re not really experiencing them because they’re don’t taste up to par with the flavor they could have if we would wait until the right season.

Happy Summer and I wish you all amazing travels and amazing food experiences.