CULINARY EXPLORER: Appalachian Foods You Can Eat Every Day – Pawpaws
Don’t tell it to the folks in Paw Paw, West Virginia, but these days many folks don’t even know what a pawpaw is. That, my friends, is terribly sad.
Pawpaws are native to the Americas and the largest fruit naturally grown in our soil. They reach maturity looking like large green coffee beans — slightly smaller than an average fist — and darken with age just like a banana with which, coincidentally, they share a taste.
Commonly described as a cross between a banana and a mango, pawpaws are technically a berry, believe it or not. Their name was most likely brought with white settlers and attributed to the fruit based on its ostensible visual similarities to the Spanish papaya.
All that is well and good, but we’re nearing the end of pawpaw season, and I’m here to tell you to get out and gather some before it’s too late. They turn quickly from raw green to overripe black and are easily bruised — two of the reasons we don’t see them in our corner grocery stores. But don’t let their lack of commercial success deter you. You don’t need to go to the store when many of us can go into our yards and pick the fruit up off the ground. Chances are if you don’t have access to pawpaws, your friends or family do.
Unfortunately, for as many people as there are who don’t know what a pawpaw is, there are even more who don’t know what to do with them. I’ll admit, I didn’t grow up eating pawpaws, and I was skeptical at first when I returned to my native Ohio Valley with culinary ambitions and a thirst for heirloom recipes. Could something I could just pick up off the ground be good to eat? Could it sell in my restaurant? It turns out the answer to both question is, “Yes they could!”
Once you do it, you’ll find it’s really not hard. Allow me to initiate you, and soon you’ll be a pawpaw professor.
To process your pawpaws, first think of an avocado. Cut around the seeds from top to bottom and twist the two halves apart. Then, use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and place them in a container, scooping the rest of the flesh into another container. Throw the skin away.
Once you have your two containers, start with the pulp that doesn’t have seeds in it, and work it through a colander with a rubber spatula. Use the spatula to push the pulp through the holes in the colander. This will separate out some of the stringy membrane that may have gotten into your pulp and any skin that may also have snuck in.
Then work your pulp with the seeds through colander in a similar manner, but using your hands to separate as much pulp as possible from the seeds. Lay the seeds on a sheet tray or plate lined with parchment paper or paper towels. You can dry them, clean them up, and use them as a garnish, plant them, or give them away!
Once you’ve got all your pulp processed, it’s time to decide what to do with it. But fret not, you don’t have to decide right away. Pawpaw freezes very well, so you can portion your pulp into several plastic bags and freeze it to use at your leisure.
The flavor of the fruit lends itself to desserts: cookies; breads similar to zucchini bread; cakes; preserves; custard based-desserts; pies; fillings; or even ice cream or milkshakes. At my restaurant, the Vagabond Kitchen in beautiful downtown Wheeling, we’ve turned it into pudding and cheesecake, and I look forward to playing with it more in the future. Basically, look for anything that would go well with banana and substitute your pawpaw instead. It’s that easy.
Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to go to all this trouble. You can totally cut a pawpaw open and dig right in! Suck the pulp off the seeds and spit them out like the world’s biggest watermelon seeds.
Just get out there and grab some before they’re gone for the year!
Matt Welsch has traveled the world as the Vagabond Chef, and now he brings his experience home to Wheeling to share what he’s seen and tasted in his restaurant, the Vagabond Kitchen. He says “there are many beautiful place in the world, and West Virginia is the one I’m proud to call home. My heart is in the shape of these mountains.”
This post was last updated on October 17, 2018