Fruits are bloomin'
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
Everybody's saying it this year: The fruit trees are going OFF.
My brother's avocado tree is so covered with ripening fruit (and these are a BIG variety, heavy and thick with buttery meat) that he's had to buttress the branches to keep them from breaking.
Our waist-high Meyer lemon has so many lemons on it, it looks like it's covered with forest-green golf balls.
We even have figs this year, more than just the one or two of previous years — so many that we had to cover the bush with black netting so the birds didn't get them all.
And then, last week, a friend gave my husband a whole sack of mountain apples.
And we don't even have a yard. Our next-door neighbor's papaya tree is bent over with yellow and green fruit.
It's going to be one of those years when you sneak over to your neighbors' or friends' house, drop off a sack and then run 'cause you know they're already up to their eyeballs in fruit they can't find time to eat, cook or can.
When the tomatoes would come in all at once, my grandmother would get about as cranky as she ever allowed herself, running around a hot kitchen packing mashed tomatoes in old milk cartons to freeze. Whew!
Dan Nakasone, an O'ahu advocate for local produce, beef and other ingredients who helps connect chefs with food producers, including some very small backyard growers, said, "Nobody knows why it's happening but fruit really are 'going off' this year."
Chefs are ecstatic with the prospect of a large mango crop compared to last year, when mango fruiting was spread over an unusual length of time. The lychee seem to be coming along well, too, but the jury's still out on that.
Not to mention a bumper crop of avocados, exotic fruit like jaboticaba, dragonfruit, home-grown lemons — so many choices of ingredients for chefs.
Fruit (excluding pineapple) was the No. 8 commodity among the top 12 in 2008, the last year for which Department of Agriculture statistics are available, producing nearly $30,000 in revenue. That'snot a blockbuster compared to, say, seed crops at more than $175,000 a year, but many see potential for much more income if farmers become educated in a variety of ways.
Nakasone said Al Santoro, of Poamoho Organic Produce, told him the citrus crop is particularly heavy and succulent this year. And Ken Love, president of the Hawai'i Fruit Growers Association, and a longtime farmer, food market activist and student of the tropical fruit industry here and in Japan, has been taking brix (sugar) measurements on the ripening mango crop and has found that their sweetness has increased considerably.
One theory about why all this is happening is the rain we've had in the past year, Nakasone said.
Love, of Captain Cook on the Big Island, thinks it's a combination of the unseasonably cold winter and the rains.
(Love is a former Associated Press photographer; check out the website at http://www.hawaiifruit.net, where you can order eye-popping posters of tropical fruit, avocado types and an upcoming poster of mango varieties.)
Love also went off on his favorite subject: reducing the importation of food by diversifying our agriculture. But not the commodity sort of crops that we knew so well in plantation days. Instead, he sees the solution as relatively small farmers, even some for whom fruit is just a side business, growing different crops rather than focusing on one.
This has two effects: if one crop fails, they have another crop to fall back on. Growing different produce is also a form of market research — finding out what sells well. It educates shoppers about the wide variety of crops that can be grown here. Rotating crops can help dissuade pests and disease. It excites chefs and provides new marketing opportunities.
(There is apparently one chef who holds back: Glenn Chu of 3660 on the Rise has quipped that he'll never buy avocados because his grandma's are the best. Wrong, Glenn, my grandpa's are the best.)
Love has other thoughts for backyard growers: Don't waste. His cluttered kitchen is lined with jars of this and that — and not just chutneys and jams. Fruit can be used to spice up a salad; older cookbooks (see recipes with this story) are full of ideas that thrifty housewives once employed to use up their excess backyard bounty. Ever made banana ketchup? Try it. Ketchup is just another word for a thick sauce of vinegar-sugar-spices; it doesn't have to be made with tomatoes. Or bake a half-ripe papaya as you would a vegetable. Make a cold fruit soup. Make a condiment from spiced mountain apples (see Food for Thought).
And, if you don't cook, then give, sell or barter. With all the farmers markets about, if your produce is properly ripe and good-looking, or if your jellies are 'ono, you can probably find someone who will buy from you or barter with you (especially if you're a good customer already).
But I've got a plan. When my brother's mountain apples are ripe, I'm going to try a mountain apple pie; you make it just as you would apple pie, using tapioca for thickening.
As for avocado, I found a couple of old, rather rich spreads to serve at parties. Both have just a few ingredients and are a lot easier to make than guacamole (see recipes in this section).
If papaya appears, I'll make a curry papaya and sweet potato salad topped with a bit of coconut and very briefly broiled. Or maybe I'll make sauteed papaya (yes, you can cook half-green papaya, using a little oil or butter, adding salt or herbs, depending on the flavor profile you want).
The figs I might slice, saute just to caramelize, salt and pepper slightly and serve with some kind of roast or grilled meat or fish.
For the Meyer lemons, I plan to make a gingery-minty punch I sometimes serve for gatherings. We served it at a book signing once and it really went over well. And I also plan to revive the old-fashioned lemon-top pudding cake I enjoyed recently at Mike Nevin's Pavilion Cafe at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The pudding has a tendency to curdle but it still tastes good and will smooth out as it sits. You'll master the technique. Or I'll make my girlfriend's lemon meringue pie. It's my husband's favorite.
Just remember this: Fruit is not meant to sit around on the counter and look pretty. It's for eating.