Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cherimoya--the Andean ice cream fruit

A cherimoya (Annona cherimola) doesn’t look like luscious eating. Often shaped like a heart, it’s green, knobby, and pocked with scales like a pine cone. Yet hiding beneath the forbidding aspect of this pre-Columbian fruit is a seed-studded, creamy-custard pulp brimming with fragrant musky-sweet juice. (Some fans find the flavor similar to Juicyfruit® gum, or a mix of pineapple and guava.) Says Calimoya® founder Jay Ruskey, “The cherimoya will take you on a little vacation from the chill of winter.”

This fruit has a long growing history in South America. Its name comes from the ancient Quechua language of the Incas. Originating in the highlands of the Andes between Colombia and Bolivia, they require a very specific combination of southern hillside exposure, rich soil, and mild climate without great swings in temperature or harsh winds to thrive. Southern California, it turns out, is a great place for cherimoyas.

Having started in 1992, Ruskey now has 22 acres of cherimoya trees in the foothills of Santa Barbara. Choosing the right site is a challenge, but cultivation and post-harvest handling practices are equally important. California lacks the particular bees and wasps that pollinate the trees in its native habitats, so each flower must be hand-pollinated. (In Oaxaca, the flowers are used to flavor agua frescas.) The fruit itself must be hand-picked and carefully protected from bruising during picking and packing. Fruits can range in size from a petite 8 ounces apiece to 2 pounds or more. Cherimoyas are best ripened at room temperature. Let ripen for 1 to 3 days, as needed, until they are just beginning to soften. (Overripe, squishy-soft fruit can lose its custardy texture and get grainy.) Once ripe, refrigerate and serve chilled. Avoid jostling or bumping the fruits, as they’re easily bruised despite their tough-looking skin. The easiest way to eat them is to simply slice in half, pull out the central fiber, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon, removing the shiny black seeds as you go. You can also quarter, peel, and slice, popping out the seeds with the tip of a spoon. Toss with pears, melon, pineapple, bananas or grapes for a fruit salad, or puree into a dessert sauce or smoothie.

Written by Stephanie Rosenbaum for the Happy Child CSA newsletter (Feb 15 2009).

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