Monday, March 22, 2010

Simple Pleasure: Fresh Papaya

Papayas are gorgeous aren't they?  Split them open, and they look like a vibrant Georgia O'Keefe painting. But as for the outside... That's another story.  Not if you want them ripe.  And you do; there's nothing like a bowl of fresh, bright-orange papaya, drizzled with a little fresh lime juice.

As you can see in the picture above, my fruit-ripeness-divination was slightly off.  The parts of the fruit that are darker orange are ready to eat, but the paler parts weren't quite ready.  I got impatient, and you can't get impatient with Mexican papayas.  In fact, you need to practically forget that you ever bought a fresh papaya, then suddenly remember two weeks later that that rotting carcass on your counter hiding behind another pile of fruit, a stack of bills, and a loaf of bread is in fact a fruit.  When your papaya looks like something that fell off the fruit truck on the way to market a month ago, rolled into a ditch where it will sat until it looks practically decayed, well, when that happens, it's time to eat your papaya.

My mother-in-law taught me this.  Jacqueline Higuera McMahan is a cook and a cookbook author, and writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  (A link to her column is here; check it out -- she's fantastic.  Also, a list to her cookbooks on amazon is here.)  Not surprisingly, I've learned a lot of from her over the years.  This nugget about when to eat Mexican papayas is one of my favorites, and so I share it with you.

Now, it's a little early for papaya yet.  Their peak season is early summer to fall, but they've started showing up in Southern California markets -- we're so spoiled -- and I can't resist.  Plus, they're nutritional powerhouses and loaded with antioxidants.  (Just look at the bright color of their flesh if you don't believe me!  Antioxidant proof is in the color.)  Papayas are good for digestion, are anti-inflammatory, and full of vitamins C, A, and E, and even B vitamins, plus fiber, potassium and magnesium.  Seriously, you can put that multivitamin aside and put a fat slice of papaya in your mouth instead.  (And if you want to know even more about how fabulous papayas are for you, check out this article, or just google it.  You won't be disappointed.)

Some specifics: you really want the outside of a Mexican papaya to be mottled with Ugly (with a capital "u") before you slice it open.  It will darken in color and you'll get some spots that look like they're starting to mold.  Perfect.  When you just can't stand it anymore, slice that puppy open, scoop out the seeds, and enjoy, with or without a squeeze of fresh lime juice over the top.  Or, if you like it with some salt and a hit of chile powder, go that route.  (Lime and spices help if you're impatient like me and try to rush the ripening process, which can take a week or two if you buy one that's particularly green.  Keep an eye on your papaya, but give it time.)  Another bonus: most papayas are big and will give you multiple servings.  It's easy to store cut up papaya in bowl in the fridge, ready for eating.  The best fast food ever.

How to cut it up?  There's a couple of ways to do it.  The first is that you can take a sharp vegetable peeler (or a knife if you've got mad skills), and cut off the peel, then slice the fruit into half-moons, or into chunks if you prefer.  Another way to do it -- I like this method since I'm a bit lazy and impatient and heck, it's just fruit -- is to halve the papaya then cut it into long wedges like you do with melon, then cut the fruit from the skin, and cut it into chunks.  My cuts aren't super professional, and those chunks far from uniform, but it gets the peel off and gets those orangey papaya pieces into my breakfast bowl.  Do whatever works for you, just don't go chopping your fingers off or anything.  

And once the work is done, dive into that delicious papaya, pretend you're on a tropical island somewhere, and bask in the glow of just how darn health-righteous you are, eating that gorgeous and ridiculously healthy papaya for breakfast, or for snack, or for dessert.  Yeah, you're one of those people, and we're all jealous.


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