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The Passion Perplex

Elizabeth Schneider / November 1992

The popularity of tropical cuisines has propelled passion fruit into many North American Markets—a bit haphazardly, to judge from this anecdote from Tad Thompson, co-publisher of the International Produce Journal (based in Long Beach, California):

I was quite pleased to see Brooks' four-pack passion fruit in Genuardi's New Britain store tonight...Immediately beneath the display was a handwritten sign, 'Lychee Fruit.' The racks were well stocked; I could see no empty space where lychees might have been. I asked the clerk 'Where's the lychee?' He came over and pointed to the passion fruit. I looked at him. He read the label. 'We're out,' he said. And ripped the sign off.

This scenario illustrates a common confusion: with the exception of those who live or were brought up in the Tropics, few are familiar with passion fruit, but many assume they are. Passion fruit often surprises, beginning with its name ("passionfruit" in other English-speaking countries, by the way). Not a promise of sensual pleasure, the name refers to the passion of Christ, an association attributable to the large, complex flowers, the parts of which have been interpreted to represent the wounds, crucifixion nails, Apostles and the crown of thorns.

The plain exterior of passion fruit belies a widly fragrant interior: the floral scent is effectively hidden by the fruit's firm hull. That the seedy, slippery pulp mass forms the entire edible part of passion fruit comes as a less-than-charming surprise, particularly in a country where anything larger than strawberry pips is considered troublesome eating. (To see or not to seed is a function if the particular dish and audience: conoisseurs fancy the crackly crunch; newcomers may balk.)

Passion fruit may also show up on menus and ingredient lists as "lilikoi"(Hawaiian passion fruit) or "maracuya*." Moreover, with some 500 species of this South American native many quite different from each other, you may wind up with another fruit entirely when you request passion fruit outside the United States.

Perplexities not withstanding, a brief encounter and a little knowledge of passion fruit—whether domestic (from florida and Califronia), exotic (from New Zealand and South America), concentrated (in the form of shelf-stable purees), or frozen—usually serve to convert the uninitiated. Few remain unaffected by the musky mango and guava hints, the honeyed edge and citrus snap that make up its intense, jungly flavor.

Select the heaviest passion fruit. Dark-purple, subtropical fruit is ripe when wrinkled and creased—but not so far gone as to be cracked or squishy. Its shell-like casing should remain quite firm. Tropical passion fruit—which may be yellow, pinkish, violet or reddish—need not become creased, merely a bit dimpled. In general, the smaller subtropical variety is more intensely flavored; the tropical is larger and juicier.

Robin Haas, executive chef of Turnberry Isle Country Club and Resort in Aventura, Florida, recommends "field run" (called "thirds" by growers)— slightly wrinkled fruit sold in a loose-fill box, which he finds sweeter, more flavorful and cheaper.

Availability is normally year-round with erratic light periods. Although there will be sufficient supplies this year, Hurricane Andrews destroyed much of Florida's crop, the primary source for tropical passion fruit varieties.

Store fresh passion fruit in the cooler; preferably at 45˚ F to 50˚ F, where it will continue to ripen slowly. It will keep up to two weeks without quality loss.

Freeze passion fruit on a small scale, if convenient, by enclosing the whole fruit in a plastic bags. To use, simply halve. The pulp defrosts quickly, tastes bright and fresh and is more easily seeded than fresh. Or scoop passion fruit pulp into ice cube containers, freeze solid, then pop out into a plastic bag. To prevent occasional crystal formation, stir a little sugar into the pulp before freezing.

For volume storage, Mogens Bay Ebensen, chef and author of A Taste of the Tropics (Penguin Books Australia, 1988), makes a long-lasting (refrigerated or frozen) syrup base for sweets by boiling and skimming one quart pulp with 1 1/2 pounds sugar for 15 minutes.

Preparation is minimal. Simply slice off the shell tip, as you would a soft-cooked egg, then spoon the pulp into a bowl. To seed, either: whisk with a little sugar and juice or water to help liquefy, then strain through a China cap; or pour through a sieve lined with damp cheese-cloth, then twist to squeeze out as much juice as possible; or whirl briefly in a blender to liquify slightly before straining, as is done at Cafe Kula Restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Wilea in Maui (but, for themselves, chef Kathleen Daelemans and her staff don't strain, "We eat all the good stuff and sit there with it dripping down our faces"); or run the pulp through a juice extractor, such as those made by Krups, Braun or Oster, as does Daniel Mellman, chef/owner at The Greenhouse Restaurant in Captiva Island, Florida.

Yield and acidity vary dramatically from one type of passion fruit to another (and from crop to crop), although the dark purple types always contain less pulp. Gauge about one tablespoon whole pulp for these and about two tablespoons from the larger fruit. If sugar is lacking, add it gradually and taste frequently.

Frozen and shelf-stable seeded passion fruit purees are widely available.

When incorporating passion fruit into a dish, the less interference from other flavors the better. It has such power and perfume that just a modicum is needed to transform most dishes. Think of it as a seasoning along the lines of eaux-de-vie, vanilla, brandy or a spoonful or rich puree.

"For me, lilikoi is the fruit that spells 'Tropics,' says Peter Merriman, chef/owner of Merriman's on the Island of Hawaii, "and, as with most tropicals, the best thing to do is keep dishes simple, because the fruit is so complex. I think cooks get hung up thinking passion fruit has only fruit uses, but it's more of a sauce and flavoring." Merriman often buys locally processed passion fruit pulp in 40-pound frozen blocks.

"I love passion fruit as a finish for any sauce. It's the crème de la crème finalizing flavor," says Kathleen Daelemans, who finds it particularly useful in her spa cuisine. Peter Merriman adds: I've found that when lilikoi replaces lemon in a European sauce—it adds a new dimension. It is bright, exciting and especially useful in health conscious dishes, instead of garlic or citrus that stands in for fats."

Merriman makes a dipping sauce of passion fruit: simple syrup, a little rice wine vinegar and sambal (Indonesian chile pepper puree) to serve with chunks of macadamia-coated fried chicken or appetizer rolls of cucumber, shrimp, romaine, basil and scallion wrapped in rice paper.

Rich sauces such as beurre noisette or beurre blanc are also enhanced by passion fruit. For an alteration to holandaise, Robbin Haas emulsifies the seedless pulp with Dijon mustard, shallots and olive oil and warms the vinaigrette to serve over hot asparagus.

"Passion and fattiness—particularly fatty fish—make a beautiful combo, the acid offsetting the rich," says Ed Brown, chef at Tropica in New York City. To accompany belly tuna or rainbow runner (a type of jack), he makes a vinaigrette with unseeded passion fruit pulp. First, he purees a little mango with champagne vinegar, adds cayenne and slowly blends in a light oil, then stirs in a generous amount of the fruit.

Daniel Mellman prepares a mayonnaise sauce for fish by running seeded passion fruit pulp, raspberry vinaigrette, tarragon, mint, a little sugar and egg yolk in the processor, then adding a little sugar and an egg yolk in the processor, the adding light vegetable oil. Once emulsified, he stirs in a few passion fruit seeds. "but the seeds must never be cooked," Mellman warns, "or they become bitter."

Morgens Bay Esbensen purees avocado, banana and lemon juice, the stirs in whole passion fruit pulp to make a sauce for cold shellfish.

Haas emphasizes that "passion fruit is remarkable in marinade, because it adds an acid balance but doesn't 'cook' seafood the way citrus does." Daelemans exemplifies this with her simple marinade of passion fruit, cilantro and sliced oranges ("the best partner passion fruit has") for mahi mahi, half of which she makes into vinaigrette to drizzle over fish.

Times have changed since American culinary references to passion fruit were limited to Pavlova, an Austalian meringue and fruit concoction. In Stephanie's Australia: Traveling and Tasting (Charles E. Tuttle, Boston, 1991), a stunning and informative book by one of the country's foremost restaurateurs and researchers, a recipe pairs Sauternes-based caramel custard with "glass biscuits." For these, gingered snap-type batter is baked until bubbly, covered at once with parchment, pounded thin, then scattered with dried passion fruit seeds. The cooled amber sheet is cracked into pieces and served with unmolded custard and fresh-scooped passion fruit pulp.

At Trunberry Isle, a rich custard/passion fruit mixture is cooked, cooled, spooned into puff pastry rounds (the dough first laces with passion fruit seeds and baked blind) then sugared and heat-glazed, à la crème brûlée.

Two adaptations of classics hail from Hawaii: baked Alaska filled with macadamia ice cream and lilikoi sherbet from Peter Merriman, and lilikoi/mint chiffon pie in a sugar crust from Jean-Marie Josselin, chef/owner of A Pacific Cafe in Kapua, Kauai, and author of A Taste of Hawaii: New Cooking from the Crossroads of the Pacific (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, NY, 1992) Josselin also serves lilikoi sorbet and tropical fruits in tulipes flavored with sesame seeds and lime zest.

From the mainland come other variations: Daniel Mellman bakes passion fruit and mascarpone /ricotta cheesecake in a pan lightly dusted with toasted almonds and sugar. Ed Brown serves passion fruit curd in a puff pastry with passion fruit sorbet, and sugar cookie tartlets filled with a julienne of fruit tossed with whole passion fruit pulp.

The same fruit mixture fills passion fruit hulls set in egg cups as part of a tasting meal. Or it may be stirred into a syrup flavored with lemon grass, ginger, mint, citrus zest and allspice for a tropical fruit soup.

In a more traditional mode, passion fruit excels in sorbets, mousses bavaroises and pastry creams. Try it for cookies, cakes and muffins, both in the batter and as a glaze.

Passion fruit is the "secret ingredient" in many a commercial punch and juice blend—and would be as fine a compliment in you house mix. In beverages alcoholic or not, passion fruit lends a golden hue as well as a bouquet of flavors. Use passion fruit straight or blended to flavor sparkling water, wine, iced herb tea or Daiquiris.

The seed and fiber left when passion fruit is sieved impart a surprisingly full perfume when steeped in white rum. Strain, add sugar syrup and a jolt of passion fruit juice for a cocktail with a waft of the Caribbean.

Kathleen Daelemans grinds passion fruit seeds in a mortar and pestle and adds it to vinaigrettes and marinades for textural interest.

Robbin Haas crisps the seeds in a low oven, then rubs them to remove any pulp that clings. They are sprinkled over desserts and pastas at serving time to provide unexpected crunch and color.