Saturday, September 8, 2012

SEASONAL INGREDIENTS: Passion. Fruit. Passionfruit!

It's one of my favorite flavors in the world, and one of the best names for any food, in almost any language: passion fruit. Frutta della passione in Italian. Maracuja in Portuguese. Hawaiians call it lilikoi. Beautiful. The taste is sour and sweet at once, and the small black seeds lend a crunch to the pulpy fruit. It's used in savory and sweet preparations all over South and Central America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and in Portugal and South Africa. The fruit is one of many species of the passion flower. And though one might assume the name came from the passion this tasty fruit can elicit from those who adore it as I do, it was actually named by missionaries who thought parts of the flower resembled devices used in the "passion" (torture) of Christ prior to his crucifixion.
But I'd prefer to equate the fruit and the flower with passion and love -- definitely a more romantic notion. The flower is the official flower of Paraguay, by the way, so I'm not the only one who prefers to romanticize the passiflora.

When I'm in countries of the world that feel as passionately as I do about passion fruit, I try to indulge in the fruit in all its forms. I equate the fruit with tropical climes and vacations I've taken to far-flung islands and south-of-the-equator escapes. I definitely enjoyed passion fruit in Thailand, where locals sell fruit juices and salads from pushcarts all along the coast and on the islands in the Andaman Sea. I indulged in a refreshing frozen passion fruit smoothie on the beach in Tel Aviv last summer: perfection.

But where I came closest to overdosing on passion fruit has been in Portuguese-speaking countries: Brazil and Portugal. One of my long-time favorite cocktails has been the caipiroska, the sister drink to Brazil's national drink, the caipirinha.
The "-oska" uses vodka in place of the rot-gut sugarcane liquor, cachaca (also known to fuel a Brazilian car in place of gas in a pinch. I kid you not). When I'm in Brazil, make mine maracuja! I remember lolling on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, and in restaurants and bars in the evenings on the island of Morro de Sao Paolo, in northern Bahia...a place where you never have to wear shoes if you don't want to, where all the bars have tables sunken into the sand, and you can while away the hours listening to amazing Brazilian music, sipping your caipiroska while chatting with the locals. Pretty heavenly.

In Portugal (we're talking about the mother country of Brazil, after all), passion fruit is just as ubiquitous. Here I am at right, enjoying a passion fruit popsicle on a hot day by the water in Lisbon. It was humid and incredibly sunny that June afternoon, and I spotted an ice cream truck by the park where my friends and I were strolling -- and jumped at the chance to indulge my passion, and to cool off.  
In many of the delicious restaurants of Portugal's capital city, passion fruit figures in various custom cocktails, in sauces for meats, in salad dressings, and of course in dessert as well. I couldn't resist a very Portuguese pairing of passion fruit sorbet with a glass of port.

If you've not yet developed a passion for a particular food -- and I don't mean a food group, like chocolate (wink-wink), or a prepared food, like french fries -- I mean one ingredient, one fruit or vegetable...well, I highly recommend it. To have (at least) one food item that you can enjoy in numerous forms, in various preparations, collected from cultures around the globe that cultivate and celebrate this food, is a wonderful thing. And lucky for me, and my travels, and my work, passion fruit is one of my top 5 single ingredients about which I'm passionate. (And when I have a passion fruit caipiroska, I'm drinking two of my most beloved ingredients at once!). Passion is great. Passionfruit is fabulous. It inspired the dessert below, into which I poured a whole lotta love: passion fruit cheesecake topped with fresh summer fruits.

What food are you passionate about? Do share....