It’s all rain and grey here. Intermittent showers, moody soundtracks by nouveau French chanteuses, lamplit remnants of homemade pizza dinner, and a sombre sort of tone to the start of December. Times like are usually punctuated by the fruit world with a meagre representation; oranges, limes, various citrus, and with luck the odd orchard-brown apple… luckily, I live in warmer climes. And it’s not that I don’t miss the fleshy sand of a good pear (I do), but seeing as my windowsill is laden with fragrant mangosteens, young pineapple, mangoes, and perfect tomatoes, it’s a unique perspective to view a gloomy winter from, and I’m definitely not complaining.
Truth be told, each time I successfully burst into a ripe mangosteen without marring it’s interior, I’m a little bit proud. The fact that we were gifted with four of them from the women who occasionally come by to clean and bless the altar on our balcony as nothing to do with pride. Once offered to Guan Yin (Avalokitesvara, Kannon, Quan The Am, and any other androgynous variant between), the best use for fruits and
blessings is on the living, but I can’t help but feel flustered by the generosity and I’m planning some sort of sumptuous festive chocolate gift for those ladies already. Maybe I’ll pass it by the altar first. I think they would appreciate that.
Some fruits here I can’t imagine appreciating better than by simply eating them. Even the excavation that starts the salivation through the fingers and the dexterity-source of the brain alone – this is part of the process.
Mangosteens, with the melting nature of grapes, mango, lychee and lightning together, housed in dove white sections. Custard apples – creamy sweet, evocative floral and housed with black pits like dragon’s eyes. Orange mangoes with elegant flesh; firm but yielding, buttery yet tangy, and not even remotely stringy. Rose apples – absolutely crazy fruit! Like biting into sugary, icy white melon. I read a book once by a Vietnamese author that outlined the difficulty in creating a dish that featured them…
“It’s not easy to make a good sticky rice with rose apple. After the rice is cleaned, it has to be dried with a hand towel, grain by grain if necessary. And when you mix it with the rose apple juice, the grains mustn’t clump together. And you can’t use just any rose apple. You have to pick the fruit with just the right thick red skin and thin spines. To distill the essence, you have to mix the flesh with the finest rice wine. So much for the rice. As for the beans, the preparation is more complicated than you’d think. Once you’ve shelled them, you have to dry them thoroughly before the salting. And when it’s time for the cooking, the lower pot should have a large opening, but the upper pot must be firmly sealed. If there is even the slightest excess of steam, the rice loses all its flavour. No, I’m sorry, to make a dish like this is a real art.”
– excerpt from Paradise of the Blind, by Duong Thu Huong
Heaven forbid I should attempt any such operation without the hand-holding and aged wisdom of some practiced ancient auntie!
Even still, I do sometimes find myself merrily cooking with fruit. The tiny pineapples take well to grilling, and taste otherworldly charred in hot oil with green onion, thin sliced beef, eggplant, okra and tomato, sopped with crusty french loaves and cooked on the spot in greasy and cheerful streetside restaurants alongside what seems like every dating couple in Hanoi. The bananas are more than splendid, and don’t even need salt to taste complete – I use them often, and happily, as a base for impromptu desserts or just a topping on toast.
Of note, there are persimmons. (for a wealth of persimmon lore, recipes and lascivious attention, check out the wicked post Fuyus For Yous at Nina’s Breakfast). I had run into these before in North America, near the turning of the season, irrevocably attached to holiday recipes somehow in my mind, but ripe as early as October here. Plump like tomatoes, some sort of lurid lipstick red, and heavy as beating hearts… I kind of broke my fruit = simplicity rule one day, but only to rustle up a soft, sticky quickbread that made good use of the garish sweet pulp that they readily turn into with a bit of mashing. Studded with nuts and fruits of your liking, and dark like a good British pudding, it can be put together in a microwave of all devices, and I’m only speaking of experience here. An oven would probably make something equally lovely, but the crazy cooking environment offered by the electric hot-box might actually be an advantage in accentuating the recipe’s deep damp fruity nature. It hardly needs saying that it’s easy. Here’s how it goes:
makes a 9″ cake, or 12 muffins
(If you’re using an oven, grease and flour a 9″ loaf pan, and bake the cake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes)
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup fruity olive oil
- 2 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup cognac, bourbon or whiskey (or a fruit juice like apple or orange)
- 1 cup persimmon puree (from about 2 squishy-soft persimmons)
- 1/2 teaspoon orange zest
- 1 cup nuts, toasted and chopped (such as walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts or hazelnuts)
- 1 cup dried fruit (such as apricots, raisins, dates, or kiwi)
Grease and flour a large flat bowl or microwave safe baking dish.
Sift the first five dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre, then stir in the oil, eggs, liquor, persimmon puree, zest, then the nuts and fruits.
Microwave for 4-5 minutes on high, or until the centre is set – it might need more time, or less, depending on your microwave. Keep checking it! (If you’re using an oven, bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate. Serve warm, with ice cream or a bit of whipped cream.