Life has moved on from the days when a kiwi slice on your cheesecake was the height of fructose-based sophistication, when mangoes were only acquired in sorbet form and when pineapples were the ultimate status symbol at parties. While I bemoan the fact that grand buildings no longer come with a dedicated 'pineapple house', I do love the fact that we can choose from a growing variety of exotic and tropical imports at the supermarkets these days. Yet it seems that although we're well-versed in mangoes, kiwi and grapefruit, there are some newer fruits that we shy away from, unsure of what to do with them in the kitchen or daunted by the task of preparing them for consumption (if you're wondering, you just cut a dragon fruit in half and scoop out the flesh. Far easier than all those hot-pink spiky tendrils would have you believe). Ottolenghi has popularised the pomegranate (for which you only need one recipe, and it goes thus: throw the seeds on all foods to make them pretty), while Nigel Slater and garnish-happy chefs around the world have induced a taste for figs, but what about those other weird and wonderful, vibrant-coloured delights we so often shun in favour of the familiar, the safe, the bunch of grapes or the six-pack of kiwi? Here are my top five slightly more unusual fruits: what they are, how to prepare them, and how to use them in both sweet and savoury dishes. If I've inspired you to try something new after this, I'll be very happy.
What is it? I've written before about the fact that this fruit still carries something of a novelty factor, finding itself described by newcomers as a 'sort of orange tomato' and frequently eliciting questions from guests who spy it in my fruit bowl. In fact, a boyfriend of mine used to deny its existence completely, referring to it as a 'made-up fruit' and insisting that I had fabricated its entire being. In fact, persimmon sales are increasing at a rapid rate year on year, helped along by some dedicated PR, and I think they've been in the supermarkets for long enough now that everyone has picked one up at some point, curious. They're sometimes called kaki fruit, and are from a tree called Diospyros, roughly translated as 'Wheat of Zeus' or 'divine fruit'. Some think that is the famous lotus-fruit mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, which was so delicious that those who succumbed to its charms never wanted to go home. If that doesn't make you want to try one, I may as well give up now.
There are two main eating varieties: hachiya and fuyu. In the UK you're more likely to find the latter. It's small and squat, sometimes perfectly four-leaf-clover shaped, sometimes more round. It has a brownish green stalk and little leaves which can often be hard and brittle. The skin is quite hard, even when ripe, but the inside softens and becomes jelly-like with age. Hachiya persimmon are bigger, rounder, with softer skin, and are best used when so soft they feel like a swollen water balloon in your hand - at this point they can be pureed and used in baking. The texture of persimmon is almost exactly like a tomato: harder skin, soft gelatinous flesh, but the flavour is somewhere between a peach and a mango, quite mild and sweet. This makes them a good canvas for other flavours.
So, you've succumbed to curiosity and the lure of the new: now what do you do with this made-up orange tomato?
How to prepare it: you just need to remove the leaves and stalk. Slice in half lengthways, then slice into quarters, chop into cubes, or into thin slivers. Really ripe persimmon can be pureed for use in cakes.
Raw/sweet uses: eaten raw, in wedges, they make a fine snack or breakfast. You want the skin to still be crunchy and the inside slightly soft, with a hint of jelly about it. They have a lovely affinity with mango, peach, blueberries and raspberries in a fruit salad, and (like papaya - perhaps it's the colour) are improved enormously by a squeeze of lime juice. As far as sweet things go, persimmon work well in any recipe where you'd use banana (as long as they are very ripe); when cooked, their flesh melts lusciously in the same way banana does, so use them in this gorgeous spiced persimmon and walnut loaf cake. I also like to add cubes of ripe but firm persimmon to a scone dough with a pinch of cinnamon and some pecans.
Savoury uses: go further, and use them to enhance a savoury salad - for this you want them to be firm rather than gelatinous, crisp coral-coloured sickles to toss with a feisty dressing and some bitter leaves. I love Diana Henry's Japanese-style salad of radish, avocado and persimmon with a ginger dressing - I serve this alongside some teriyaki salmon fillets or chicken, or a grilled trout or mackerel, and it's glorious and healthy and visually stunning. They also work well in a salsa to serve with grilled meat or fish: cut into small cubes and mix with cubed avocado, pomegranate seeds, cucumber, fresh herbs and a lime-heavy dressing for a fresh, crunchy, palate-tingling plate of beautiful colours - see my recipe here. I also like them in a salad with green beans, pecans/walnuts and some crumbly goat's cheese, with a fruity dressing. I've added them to Malaysian-style pickled cucumber and shallots with success, to serve with spicy curries.
What is it? These are often explained, in food literature for the uninitiated, with the simple and infuriating simile 'like a large grapefruit but sweeter'. This, in my mind, is akin to describing beef as 'like lamb but redder' or the Ritz as 'like McDonalds, but with scones'. Externally, the pomelo does bear some resemblance to a grapefruit. Native to south east Asia, it has the same creamy yellow skin, peppered with shallow dimples, although it often has a slightly elongated end like a lemon. It, too, has very thick pith compared to other citrus fruits, but whereas a grapefruit can be tackled with determination and a longish thumbnail, the pomelo requires a knife to access its treasures. Inside, though, the pomelo is so very different to a grapefruit that it seems outlandish to compare the two. The flesh of a grapefruit is fragile, tender, ready to give up its juice at the slightest pressure of a blade or fingernail, its membranes yielding easily as you prise its segments apart. A pomelo is far tougher, requiring real determination to tear through the coarse web of chalky pith that surrounds each segment. Once you're there, its flesh is drier, tougher, meatier than that of a grapefruit. You can tear it into spiky, glistening chunks with your bare hands, losing very little juice in the process. The taste has the astringent snap of grapefruit - that moreish throat-tingling zestiness that is so welcome first thing after waking - but tempered with a spritz of tropical perfume, a vibrancy that evokes lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves, a beautiful mild sweetness that pairs so well with savoury ingredients or makes the pomelo a very pleasant snack on its own. It's far more complex and versatile than a grapefruit. It is also older than the grapefruit - the common orange and grapefruit are believed to be pomelo and mandarin hybrids. So really, we should be saying that the grapefruit is 'like a pomelo but more bitter'.
I love its Latin name, which I feel is far more descriptive and evocative than its English: citrus maxima.
Raw/sweet uses: you can eat them raw - the process of preparing a pomelo is rather meditative, and certainly renders the eventual eating immensely rewarding - and add them to fruit salads (good with mango and raspberries) but the best way to use them is in savoury dishes inspired by south-east Asia (there, they often eat pieces of pomelo dipped in salt and chilli). You can, however, add the peel to an unusual marmalade (try and get some mandarins or tangerines in there too, for maximum citrus fun).
Savoury uses: Yotam Ottolenghi has an amazing recipe for pomelo salad with green mango, watercress, chilli and herbs that pairs beautifully with roasted meat or fish dishes (I love it with this sticky slow-braised shin of beef), and I also like to use it in a Vietnamese-style noodle salad with toasted peanuts, lemongrass prawns and crunchy vegetables. It would work well in many south-east Asian salads where you might normally use mango - the flavour of pomelo is beautifully accentuated by lime, chilli and spices. My absolute favourite, and a recipe I am incredibly proud of, is this glass noodle, crab, edamame bean and pomelo salad, with its incredibly moreish dressing of tamarind, lime, galangal and yuzu (another new citrus fruit on the block, with the fragrance of mandarin and the astringency of lemon; you can buy its juice in bottles at supermarkets) - its such an intriguing and moreish medley of eastern flavours and textures, and a beautiful use of pomelo.
How to prepare it: to get into a pomelo, first slice it in half lengthways (with the knobbly end of the fruit at the top). Then slice again into quarters. Use the knife to slice all the pith and skin away from each fruit quarter. Use your nails to prise away the white membrane around each segment, then tear the flesh into chunks.
What is it? A fruit native to tropical America, papaya isn't an uncommon one in supermarkets now, but it's still not as highly regarded or oft-purchased as the mango. Most supermarkets sell the small versions, about five inches long, but you can sometimes find giant papaya about a foot long (try Asian grocers/markets if you can't find them in the supermarket) for a little more money, usually exported from India. Always go for these: they are much better value (a much higher fruit to skin/seeds ratio) and the fruit is always more tender and flavoursome, the skin thinner and easier to remove. When I was travelling round Costa Rica, I spied gigantic papaya almost two foot long hanging from trees; they grow in such abundance there that apparently people practically give them away to neighbours. Rather like I do with cooking apples, in my much less tropical and exotic life.
Papaya should be slightly tender if you give them a gentle squeeze; yellow rather than green skin is usually a sign of ripeness. I love the glowing orange flesh, the slightly fudgy, grainy texture, the translucence of the fruit and the ease with which it yields to the pressure of a knife. I should also point out that underripe green papaya are a key ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but they're very hard to get hold of here, so these suggestions are for the ripe kind we find in our supermarkets (I often use underripe mango as a substitute in such recipes - no problem finding those in UK shops!).
How to prepare it: slice in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds, then use a knife or spoon to pare the flesh away from the skin. Slice and use as you wish.
Raw/sweet uses: Raw, they are best served in big chunks with a squeeze of lime and a handful of berries (raspberries work best) to add sharpness, as they are quite mild and need a little brightening. I love their mellow flavour, incredibly refreshing on a hot day (in Malaysia they serve them in little plastic wrappers, to be eaten like a lollipop) and apparently very good for an upset stomach (although don't eat the seeds, which are a laxative!). You can also use papaya in a marinade for meat - like kiwi and pineapple, they have useful tenderising enzymes that will give you beautiful soft meat. I also love a papaya smoothie: blend with a little coconut milk, ice, the juice of half a lime and perhaps some raspberries. Insanely refreshing on a cold day: I drink at least two of these a day when I'm travelling in tropical places - it seems you can get them everywhere.
To stop there would be missing out. A couple of years ago, I took the drastic and unconventional step of attempting to bake a papaya. I was sceptical; surely the flesh would just collapse into watery disaster (I've never forgotten Nigel Slater's withering assessment of a poached strawberry he once ate in a restaurant, and the warning remains with me whenever I contemplate cooking fruits with a high water content) and cause me to lament the loss of a beautiful papaya. Instead, the fruit - stuffed with amaretti biscuits, pistachios, sultanas, ginger and lime - softened and deepened in flavour, losing none of its marigold hue and becoming one of the simplest but prettiest and tastiest desserts I've cooked, great for serving after a tropical main course where you want a continuation of those flavours and nothing too heavy. The recipe is here.
You wouldn't think papaya would work well in jam, but this year I made a beautiful pineapple, papaya, lime and vanilla jam inspired by a jar I picked up in a bakery in Nicaragua. It was the most gorgeous golden colour, singing of the tropics, sweet and fragrant, flecked with black seeds and glistening with brown sugar and lime. I'd highly recommend it if you're a keen jam-maker looking for new ideas.
Savoury uses: cubes of slightly underripe papaya are excellent in a salsa with lots of lime, chilli, cucumber and coriander - brilliant served with barbecued meats or fish (particularly salmon). I also like slivers of ripe papaya in a simple salad of bitter leaves, cherry tomatoes and smoked chicken, with a zingy lime dressing. Cubes of papaya are also good in a rice salad with peanuts, strips of red pepper, basil, mint, coriander and cooked prawns. If you find a really underripe one, please, please make the Thai dish som tam.
What is it? These are becoming more commonplace now, and there are some classic recipes out there already - lamb and quince tagine, quince jelly/paste/cheese, quince and apple pie - but I wanted to share some of my favourites. The quince is related to apples and pears, but - as with the pomelo - this simplistic comparison glosses over the complex nuances of the fruit. Unlike apples and pears, you cannot eat a raw quince - they need cooking. Where the apple offers a pleasant crisp sweetness and acidity, a momentary pleasure, the quince is mellow and syrupy, its flavour lingering on your palate. Where the pear can be lusciously soft and juicy, dripping with subtle perfume, the quince has a more buttery texture, and its fragrance is far more pronounced. It's used a lot in middle eastern cooking, and its flavour is strong, almost floral, sweet and reminiscent of the wonderful syrup-drenched desserts found in that part of the world, a honeyed taste that partners beautifully with other eastern flavours: cardamom, rosewater, orange blossom. Used a lot in Roman cookery, the quince is often suggested to have been the original fruit in the Garden of Eden, rather than the apple, and the fruit that Paris awarded Aphrodite, sparking the chain of events leading to the Trojan War.
How to prepare it: always peel a quince; the skin isn't pleasant to eat. Then use a large, sharp knife (and a steady hand - they're tough!) to slice them lengthways through the core. Cut again into quarters, then carefully cut the core out of each piece. I usually slice them into eighths before cooking them.
Raw/sweet uses: There are no raw uses. Do not try to eat a raw quince. It will be deeply unpleasant. To really appreciate a quince, you have to cook it to a state of melting, glowing, buttery collapse. This often involves first poaching quarters or eighths of the fruit in a spiced sugar syrup (add cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, strips of orange and lemon peel, star anise and a bay leaf) until tender, then roasting. This alone will give you a beautiful dessert or breakfast compote, fragrant with a perfume reminiscent of lychees, lemons and roses. My favourite thing to do next, though, is to then use these quince segments as the base of a tarte tatin, its 'caramel' consisting of the reduced poaching liquid and a little quince jelly, all soaking beautifully into a crisp, flaky pastry base, deep gold-red and sticky. You can also stir chunks of poached quince into a thick, nutty cake batter, strewn with chunks of molten marzipan (they work well with almonds) or cook them with apples to fill a crumbly, buttery tart. I mix them with apples, too, in a classic crumble, where they lend a hint of their honeyed perfume. It's good with damson ice cream (if only for the incredible colours).
For a simple recipe that brings out the flavour of quince, I pair cubes of the fruit with cooking apples in a vanilla-scented breakfast compote; I love the ritual of spooning this, cold from the fridge, the same deep butter-yellow as the crust of clotted cream, onto a bowl of steaming, slightly salted porridge on a dark winter morning. The tartness of the apples mingles with the perfume of the quince and you have a quiet celebration of the British orchard in your bowl. You can also make a richer, darker spiced version with pears and dried cranberries that is lovely near Christmas time.
Savoury uses: Slices of poached quince work well in a savoury salad with earthy grains, accompanied by gamey meats or strong cheeses (goat's, manchego and blue are good) - I like this duck version.
What is it? After some extensive market research, I think these definitely have a place on this list. By this, I mean I asked my mum if she'd know what to do with a kumquat if she saw it in the supermarket, and she offered me two responses. Firstly, 'yes, they're the little oranges, aren't they?' and secondly, 'I just threw some out. I'd put them in a fruit salad but nothing else because they're too bitter'. Kumquats are not really 'little oranges', just as pomelo aren't very much like grapefruit. They're a different species, originating in Asia, and have a much more concentrated citrus flavour. They are also, er, oblong. Their flavour reminds me of the bitter, burnt-marmalade, slightly oily experience you get if you bite into the skin of an orange. They are bitter, but wonderfully powerful in their bright, zesty fragrance, which is why you can add thin slivers of them to a fruit salad with dramatic and delicious results.
How to prepare it: slice into small pieces, then scoop out any visible seeds.
Raw/sweet uses: Mum is incorrect: they have uses other than just jazzing up a fruit salad, but the key is to counteract some of their tartness first. Caramelised with some sugar and a splash of water (or orange juice or Grand Marnier, if you're feeling extravagant) over a low heat, kumquats soften, temper, become jammier and sweeter, like a really good, sharp marmalade (in fact, you can also add some of their peel to marmalade - perhaps with some pomelo!). You can use this resulting compote in a vanilla cheesecake - very refreshing - or with some yoghurt and granola. You can also cut kumquats into slivers and roast them with a sprinkling of muscovado sugar before adding to a scone dough, for a beautiful fresh breakfast treat.
Savoury uses: I've also had great success roasting kumquats for savoury use - their bitterness disappears, leaving zesty sweetness behind - particularly in this recipe where they pair with caramelised fennel, bergamot oil and baked salmon (or any fish). A few slivers, raw or roasted, work well with bitter or crunchy greens, like broccoli, French beans, cavolo nero or kale - I love a kale, pearl barley and roasted kumquat salad with some chunks of fresh goat's cheese, lots of herbs and a citrus dressing. You can also use them in any savoury recipe where you might use lemons, roasting them in slices with meat or vegetables (potatoes, perhaps, or broccoli) or using their zest or juice to brighten up a dish, where it offers a more intriguing perfume than the humble lemon. As they're often around at Christmas, try adding a few to the cranberry sauce or stuffing, or roasting them with the turkey to make amazing gravy.