Published in Fresh Bites, Toronto Star
April 5, 2013
I met Homero Levy de Barros on a lava-scorched plantation on Hawaii’s Big Island, where we gazed at rows of scrawny trees, green papayas clustered at the top like pendulous breasts shaded by a parasol of splayed palm leaves.
I was a papaya newbie then, and de Barros an expert. The Florida-based tropical fruit importer grew up eating papayas in Brazil, one of the world’s largest producers. He’s spent the last 21 years working with growers to produce better fruit.
I called him recently with a vexing question: How do you choose a good papaya? One week the flesh is sweet, buttery and a deep red, and the next it’s pale pink, hard and tasteless.
“It’s complicated,” he replied. Apparently papaya trees (actually a large herb!) are like babies, needing constant care. To be delicious, they need lots of fertilizer, pruning and irrigation when there’s no rain. But some growers cut corners to save money.
Bottom line, you can’t tell what you’re getting before you plunk down $3.99 or more for this exotic hand-harvested torpedo or pear-shaped fruit. But you can read the label.
“You have to keep trying until you find the right brand, the right grower,” says de Barros. Even then, no region has ideal growing conditions year-round for a super tasty papaya.
If you do get a pale, tasteless papaya, don’t despair, he says. Simply use it as a vegetable as many cultures do. Toss the pale cubes or slices into a green salad with an olive oil vinaigrette, or dice it into a spicy, low-fat salsa to serve with fish or chicken. Delish!
I’ve found papayas from Mexico, Belize, Brazil, Costa Rica and Guatemala in Toronto markets. Of the big boys (1 to 2 kg), the musky maradol or meridol is the main Mexican variety. De Barros imports the tainung (a.k.a. formosa) variety from Mexico and Guatemala under HLB and Tikal labels, while Brooks Tropicals grows it in Belize as Caribbean Red.
The small golden solo (500g) from Brazil is the ideal starter papaya with its sweet, concentrated flavour. If you find a Hawaiian papaya, treat yourself!
Pick fruit with smooth skin and no soft black spots, mould or decay. Ignore freckles or scars caused by leaves rubbing against the fruit in the wind.
A yellow streak and a little give are hopeful signs of ripeness, but tainungs are mature when still fairly green.
Keep a papaya on the counter and use within several days.
Asian markets sell hard green papaya for cooking and salads.
•Cut in half lengthwise. Hold upright and scoop out seeds and strings with a spoon. The cleaner the cavity, the prettier your slices or cubes will be.
•Discard the glossy, spicy black seeds or dry and grind them to use like pepper.
•Remove outer skin with a peeler or paring knife down to the dark flesh. Dice, slice or chop.
It’s a Super Food!
Papaya is a nutritional powerhouse, loaded with vitamin C without the acidity of oranges, rich in potassium and folate and a good source of fibre. It also keeps digestive systems running smoothly. All for 55 calories a cup.
Drink: Add cubed papaya to yogurt smoothies.
Fruit salad: Toss papaya cubes with blueberries, strawberries, orange segments and sliced banana. Top with shaved coconut and a squirt of orange or lime juice.
Appetizer: Instead of melon, wrap slices of prosciutto around peeled papaya slices.
Salsa: Dice papaya with red onion, lime juice and a pinch of chili to accompany grilled chicken or fish.
BBQ: Add puréed papaya to a spicy barbecue sauce and brush on grilled chicken. Add to marinades to tenderize meat.
Main: Sauté sliced papaya with shrimp, ginger, lime juice and cilantro.
Dessert: Serve golden papaya halves with ice cream.
Papaya Apple Pie
This exotic pie is adapted from Brooks Tropicals, home of Caribbean Red. “Papaya bakes up just swell and adds a fantastic taste to tried-and-true recipes,” says marketing director Mary Ostlund.
3 cups (750 mL) thinly-sliced ripe papaya
3 cups (750 mL) golden delicious apples, thinly-sliced (2 to 3)
1/4 cup (60 mL) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (125 mL) granulated sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cinnamon
2 tsp (10 mL) freshly-grated ginger
1 tsp (5 mL) finely grated lime zest
2 tbsp (25 mL) fresh lime juice
1/2 cup (125 mL) quick oats
1/3 cup (75 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (15 mL) brown sugar
4 tbsp (60 mL) butter or margarine, melted
9-inch (23 cm) unbaked pie shell. If using frozen shell, thaw 10 to 15 minutes.
For filling, cut papaya and apple slices the same size. I cut the seeded, peeled papaya crosswise into thin half moons, then cut the slices in half. Toss sliced papaya and apples in large bowl. Mix well.
In small bowl, stir flour, sugar and cinnamon. Toss with fruit. Mix ginger, lime zest and juice and pour over fruit. Mix well with wooden spoon or your hands. Let sit 20 minutes.
For topping, mix oats, flour and sugar in small bowl. Add melted butter and mix with fork until crumbly.
Arrange fruit in unbaked shell and sprinkle or pat streusel over top. Bake in preheated 350F (180C) oven for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Cool on wire rack before slicing.
Makes 6 servings.