Tropical Treasures, in Good Hands

On a shopping expedition at Song Que to prepare for the tropical fruit challenge: pastry chefs Manabu Inoue, Leon Baker and Michelle Garbee.
On a shopping expedition at Song Que to prepare for the tropical fruit challenge: pastry chefs Manabu Inoue, Leon Baker and Michelle Garbee. (Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith/ftwp)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

In 14 years as a pastry chef, Leon Baker has worked with his share of tropical produce: guavas, papayas, passion fruit. But the bristly red rambutan presents a challenge.

[Recipes: Green Mango Cake With Mascarpone Cream, Persimmon Tarte Tatin and Rambutan and Pomelo Fool With Citrus Macaroons]

"Before you'd think fruit, it reminds me of this thing that fell from trees when I was a kid, and we'd throw them at each other," says Baker, 45, a Philadelphia native who works at Farrah Olivia restaurant in Alexandria.

After a gentle dig of his fingernail into the egg-size fruit, the shell peels off easily to reveal a juicy, translucent orb. He takes a bite. "It's very litchilike," he says. "The flavor is intense, and I want to keep it that way."

He soon gets his chance. In celebration of the increasing availability of such fruits as rambutans (called "hairy fruit" in Thailand, where it's popular), pomelos, green mangoes, Fuyu persimmons and longans, the Food section has recruited Baker and two other pastry chefs to develop recipes using them.

In the Washington area, shoppers most often find these fruits at Asian grocery stores and specialty markets, but they are turning up more frequently at mainstream supermarkets and soon will become even easier to find.

Last month the Royal Thai Embassy announced that six varieties of Thailand-grown fruits will be imported to the United States for the first time. In addition to rambutans, longans and green mangoes, shipments will include a small variety of pineapple, litchis and what in Thailand is called the queen of fruits: the super-sweet, custard-textured mangosteen. Beginning in January, they will arrive in area supermarkets according to availability and when they come into season.

For supermarkets, stocking exotic fruit is a way to stand apart from the competition.

"Anyone can sell Pepsi," says Robert Schueller, spokesman for Los Angeles-based Melissa's World Variety Produce, one of the country's largest distributors of specialty fruits and vegetables. "Produce is the first department you enter in most supermarkets. It's a way to define yourself as a retailer, to do something different than the store down the street."

Wegmans supermarkets are working with produce distributors to establish an ongoing program to introduce shoppers to unfamiliar fruits via serving tips, recipes and free samples at demonstration stations.

"Exotic fruits create food excitement in a store," says Jeanne Colleluori, spokeswoman for Wegmans. "It gives us the opportunity to teach customers. They take it. They try it. And if they like it, they talk about it with their friends and create conversation."

To pastry chef Manabu Inoue, none of the fruits poses a mystery. "All this is very popular in my country," says Inoue, 39. The Tokyo native trained at the Hotel Ritz Paris and worked with Masaharu Morimoto at his eponymous Philadelphia restaurant before moving to downtown Washington's Butterfield 9 in August.

After shopping for the fruit at Song Que, a bakery and deli in Falls Church, the three pastry chefs head back to Baker's kitchen at Farrah Olivia to cut, taste and brainstorm. Inoue shows Baker and Michelle Garbee, co-owner and pastry chef of Bastille in Alexandria, how the grapefruitlike pomelo is lightly crushed with the palms of the hands until the thick skin breaks open to reveal the easy-to-remove segments.

Garbee, 35, a native of Missouri, gives the segments a sniff and a taste and says: "This would make a lovely juice and nice granita. Or, I might make some kind of sweet-and-sour sauce." She calls the grape-size longan "a beautiful little thing to eat fresh, with the flavor of a grape with a bit of muskiness. But it's not something everyone will enjoy, with the very adult, earthy flavor."

All three chefs love the tomato-shaped Fuyu persimmons, which, unlike the more common heart-shaped Hachiya variety, are ready to eat when still firm and are pleasantly lacking the astringency often associated with the fruit.

"I think I'll make a persimmon tarte Tatin," Inoue says after taking a bite of the vibrant, red-orange flesh. "Normally, I use apple. But I know this fruit. We had a Fuyu tree at my parents' home in Tokyo, and my mother taught me many things to do with them."

He doesn't stop there. After the three head off to their separate kitchens, Inoue also puts together a rambutan gelatin, a pureed green mango soup with pomelo, flavored with coconut milk, and a deep-fried tropical spring roll made with slices of all of the fruits, sweetened with maple syrup -- all desserts he had made before. "Tropical fruits are my specialty, and these are the things I'm most comfortable making with them," he says.

Baker makes a dessert he calls rambutan caviar by combining pureed pulp with agar and squeezing droplets of the mixture into near-freezing grapeseed oil, forming perfect little pearls. He tucks them inside the rambutan shell. It's a variation of a cassis caviar now on his menu.

"I know it will work with any fruit as long as it's in liquid form," says Baker, who also worked with Farrah Olivia chef Morou Ouattara at Red Sage and Signatures. "It was a good way to keep the natural flavor of the rambutan."

It's not ideal for a home cook, though. So Baker develops another recipe: moist, spicy green mango cake that he serves with caramel sauce and mascarpone cream. "The green mango has a citrus flavor, and I thought it would work well with cinnamon and nutmeg," he says.

Garbee settles on an easy-to-assemble rambutan and pomelo fool, folding the chopped fruit and citrus zest into rum-flavored whipped cream.

"I was hesitant to make a dish that was pastry-chef-oriented," says Garbee, former director of operations at the Amphora Bakery in Herndon. "I wanted people to say, 'I can do that.' And after tasting the rambutan and pomelo, I didn't want to apply heat and destroy the flavor and texture. The pomelo gives a bit of citrus bite, while the rambutan is the counterplay of sweetness."

There is one drawback. "It may be simple to peel the skin. But I had to fight with the rambutan to get the seed out," Garbee says.

The flavor of the hairy fruit, all three chefs agree, is worth the fight.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company