Imagine if you could discover a whole new fruit that you’d never seen, smelt or tasted before. As if an imaginary, fantastical fruit could step out of a wild dream and into your reality. I’ve often looked at the usual suspects at the greengrocers, the apples, the peaches, the plums, bananas and pears, and thought, OK guys, let’s have something new around here.
I remember encountering my first litchi with some suspicion, then peeling that hard husk off it and tasting it for the first time. Is there anything to match the fresh vigour of a ripe litchi? Not much. And it makes a killer sorbet bettered only by lemon sorbet. Some years ago an odd-looking oval fruit from Down Under came our way for the first time, aligned with a big marketing push. The kiwifruit was an exciting prospect for a while, but not for long, in my book at any rate. I’ve never quite taken to either its texture or its mildly sweet flavour and it’s kind of grey-green appearance doesn’t help. But they do look quite good in slices, and I once made a triple-decker fruit mousse, one layer of which was kiwi.
When Thai restaurants came our way in the early 1990s, more Asian variety arrived in our fruit world. Again, starfruit are fabulous looking, but there is not a lot going on in the flavour department. They are, however, useful for plate decoration – a slice of the star-shaped pale green fruit with, say, a scoop or two of sorbet on it, sauce drizzled around, looks very cheffy on the plate. They’re a pretty firm fruit too, and they take to being mildly poached in a warm liquor containing a citrus liqueur such as Cointreau, as part of a grand-looking dessert.
But nothing’s ever had the wow factor. Until now. Last week I spotted something I had seen once or twice before but never tasted – dragonfruit. They’re bright pink, almost cerise, in hue and have little nobbles on their skins that make them look like little gay dragons. But nothing prepares you for what they look like inside. Beneath that hard pink shell is a second even pinker layer of softer flesh, but within that is a large oval centre of pure white fruit speckled with tiny black seeds. It is too beautiful for speech.
But the best thing of all is that, unlike with the relatively disappointing starfruit and kiwifruit, the dragonfruit has a wonderful flavour, very gently tasting of indefinable spices. It may seem a little like a kiwifruit with the presence of those little seeds, but it tastes nothing like it.
A little research showed that the dragonfruit is also sometimes called a strawberry pear or a pitaya, and is (not surprisingly once you think about it) a member of the cactus family, although not at all prickly. It grows in many Asian countries and in central and South America.
I’ve been practising making sorbets lately, so I decided to make a single dessert using dragonfruit two ways – a sorbet, and slices of the fruit steeped in a chilled star anise syrup. It made a great-looking dessert, thanks to the fruit’s own decorative style, and the natural pinkness of that slim layer of fruit provided all of the colour you can see in the sorbet on this page.
You need quite a lot of syrup, which you make at once but then divide into two parts – two-thirds in one bowl, the other third in another. For enough sorbet to feed at least four people two generous scoops each, pour 250g sugar and 400ml cold water into a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Pour a third of this into another pan, add three star anise flowers (they’re hard spices, Daisy) and simmer for a few minutes. Cool both syrups at room temperature, then chill until icy.
You need two whole dragonfruit. Peel the outer, harder skin off one, and slice the fruit in half lengthwise, then crosswise into thin half-moon slices. Plop these into the star anise syrup and refrigerate.
Peel the other fruit in the same way, blend until smooth, and mix with the chilled syrup. Pour into a container and freeze for four hours. Once an hour, remove it from the refrigerator and gently stir it to prevent it forming crystals, and to facilitate it freezing evenly. After four hours, beat one egg white until it’s frothy and fold this in. Refreeze.
Arrange the slices of dragonfruit on a plate in a style to suit your fancy, and pour over the star anise syrup. Add one or two scoops of the dragonfruit sorbet for a dessert that will slay a dragon’s thirst.
First published Weekend Argus March 2011