In Kansas and Missouri recently folks have been harvesting native pawpaws. For some reason, a warm winter or possibly all of the rain and flooding created a bumper crop in eastern Kansas and Missouri.
Chefs and food artisans recently have been talking pawpaws and they showed up on menus and in various recipes.
What is a pawpaw, you may be asking yourself? Missouri Department of Conservation Aimee Lehmuth calls the pawpaw “Missouri’s Banana” and writes that pawpaws are small trees that grow in colonies.
They can be found in dense shade on moist lower slopes, ravines, valleys, along streams and at the base of wooded bluffs. The dark reddish-purple flowers are striking when they begin to bloom in March. It is said that when crushed, the blooms smell similar to fermenting grapes.
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Native Americans actually used the inner bark of the tree to weave fiber for clothes, and the pioneers used the same material for stringing their fish. Pawpaw trees produce some of the most interesting fruit. Many farmers love the unique, chocolate looking foliage that also provides cover for a variety of wildlife.
It is well known that George Washington enjoyed pawpaws for dessert in a custard, and Thomas Jefferson grew them in Monticello.
The pawpaw is a great source of vitamin C, potassium, calcium, riboflavin, niacin and manganese. Pawpaws helped Lewis and Clark survive the winter when they arrived in Missouri and were almost out of food.
A green pawpaw on the tree is as sour as a wild persimmon and the black ones are way past their prime. The key is to get one that is green but with dark black spots.
Pawpaws are easy to eat and are enjoyed in jams, cookies, custards, puddings, cheesecakes, pies, ice cream, shakes, lemonade, breads, pancakes and waffles. In Ohio at the Pawpaw Festival they even serve a pawpaw beer at Weasel Boy Brewing in Zanesville, Ohio.
Pawpaws can easily substitute a banana in equal part in most recipes.
Personally, I have only eaten a pawpaw raw just by cutting off one end and peeling away the skin. Use a peeler or a paring knife. Just cut the peeled fruit in half and remove the seeds. The sticky creamy flesh is so good you can just eat it with a spoon.
My friend James Worley with the Missouri Department of Conservation told me recently, “To be completely honest with you, I’ve eaten pawpaws my whole life, but have never cooked with them. My favorite way is to eat them while squirrel hunting.… I gather up a bunch, sit at the base of a hickory tree and eat them right there in the woods. I’ve had them several other ways, but never cooked them myself. I do have many fond memories of a heavy stick of squirrels, some very sticky fingers, and a full belly!”
I had a pawpaw conversation with Rick Godsil of Wagon Wheel Orchard in Gardner a few weeks ago. He had just started harvesting his pawpaws and said this is the biggest year since 2008 for pawpaws.
Rick and his family sold pawpaws at the farm location 15380 Edgerton Road. His daughters have a “side shop” for the Apple orchard where they will also sold pawpaws along with their famous apples, herbs and gourds.
Pawpaws have become a hot item in Europe and Japan where they are experiencing an exotic luxury. Indeed a renaissance for pawpaws.
If you’re interested in planting some pawpaw trees yourself, check out Forest Keeling Nursery In Elsberry, Mo. www.fknursery.com
Check out these sites for some fantastic recipes and enjoy yourself some native Kansas and Missouri pawpaws.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 62-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.