Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Boredom that is Breadfruit

Breadfruit is an ingredient not commonly found in the Northwest, even in the ethnic groceries I often haunt in search of new tastes. I recently found a single specimen at Uwajimaya, a Seattle grocery that frequently imports and sells unique foods and knew right there and then, it had to be mine.

I eagerly rushed the large bulb to the checkout, concealing it under a bushel of kale, lest some crazed, breadfruit-addict tried wrestling it from me and safely escorted it home. I already knew going in to this that breadfruit is used throughout parts of Asia and the Caribbean as a staple starch crop, much like the plantain. What I didn't know, and discovered upon further research is that it's also one of the highest yielding agricultural plants on the planet (a single tree can provide more than 200 large fruits per season), is chock-full of nutrients, low in calories, high in fiber, almost devoid of fat, sodium and cholesterol and is gluten free to boot. Sure, breadfruit was introduced to Jamaica by Captain Bligh (of 'Mutiny' fame) to feed to slaves. This sort of pedigree doesn't usually suggest a 'thumbs up' rating in the flavor department but then again, servants in Massachusetts used to stipulate in their contracts that they wouldn't be served lobster more than twice a week because it was seen as 'poor mans food' and thought to be bland. Maybe tastes have changed? Had I just purchased the lobster of the trees and if so, is this fruit not more popular simply because it's not readily available here?

No, it's because breadfruit tastes like crap. The fruit I purchased was ripe, but not overly so. The bumpy skin gave slightly when pressed much like a perfect avocado. The white spots on the skin were latex that had seeped out from the interior of the fruit and gave the entire ball a sticky feel.

Latex on Breadfruit

As luck would have it I didn't own a boat of reeds in need of waterproofing so I simply washed the latex from the surface and cut the fruit in half.

Breadfruit 1/2

The taste of the raw breadfruit had a very slight melon tone to it but could probably more accurately be described as raw potato. The smell wasn't unpleasant in the least and the sections that had ripened the most had a very distinct odor of sweetness. This gave me hope. I cut a chunk of the ripest, sweetest smelling portion of the flesh and ate it....Same green-potato flavor, perhaps a tiny fraction sweeter but the difference between it and the unripe chunk in my mouth was so subtle I would have needed the accuracy of a refractometer to know for sure if the sugar content were actually higher.

The flavor, or significant lack thereof, was one issue I was sure could be solved. Most recipes simply use the breadfruit as a starchy vehicle for carrying another, unassociated flavor for a ride. I suppose the same argument could be made for what is most commonly done with  potatos and white rice but the BEST dishes using those starchy foods highlight the natural flavor of the base during cooking (and THEN cover it up with ketchup or soy sauce) The flesh I was working with certainly didn't have much flavor but there WAS something there. My hope was to enhance the existing taste, complement it, and most importantly change the texture from the fibrous, starch block it currently was to something with a more compelling mouth-feel.

I knew that my first step, regardless of my final dish, was to cook and soften the fruit. Boiling it in a sugar solution would achieve this with the added benefit of bringing the fruit the amount of sweetness I associated with and expected from the smell but couldn't taste.  I also decided to add a handful of fresh Juniper berries to the party for added flavor.

Breadfruit, Simple Syrup, Juniper Berries

I boiled the breadfruit until it could easily be pierced with a knife without falling apart, much the I would when cooking potato.

Once cooked, I blotted the pieces and seared them in a scorching hot pan with ghee (clarified butter).

Breadfruit Seared in Ghee

Finally, the caramelized chunks were plated with red peppercorns, basil and sea salt.

Caramelized Breadfruit

The finished dish was pretty but how did it taste?  Not bad but not good either. In a word, boring. The sweetness was there, the basil tasted like basil, the subtle bite of juniper was great,  the peppercorns were a nice pop but the breadfruit itself could have been mistaken for anything from plantain to yucca to a wad of flour. Next.

Maybe I needed to get MORE breadfruit flavor into the breadfruit?  I was really struggling with this one now and decided to pull out the big guns.  I started by pureeing boiled breadfruit, running the resulting paste through a centrifuge at 4000RPMs for 1 hour and using the thinnest, intensely flavored, top liquid layer of the centrifuged mix to compression infuse into more raw breadfruit before cooking the whole shebang sous vide for nearly an hour. 

Compressed Breadfruit

I'm not even going to dignify the result of this one with a picture.  Oh it was "breadfruitier" but for the record that's not necessarily a good thing. Again, it wasn't that the taste of the breadfruit was offensive but that it really wasn't very good either.  Couple that with the texture and starchiness of the chunks and the whole scene just got rather offensive. Next.

Up until now my attempts had been to treat this ingredient like a fruit and I was getting nowhere. What if instead I treated it like bread?

I started by taking the remaining breadfruit that had been boiled until soft in simple syrup and running it in a food processor until smooth.  I then took the resulting paste and pushed it through a ricer to eliminate as many of the long fibers as possible.

Breadfruit puree run through  a Ricer

Finally I mixed the now, relatively fiber-free paste with unsalted butter and pressed in onto the bottom and sides of a small tart tin. This was then baked for about 20 minutes at 400F.  The breadfruit crust browned beautifully and dried to an even crispness.  Finally, I topped the shell with a slice of grilled peach,  a balsamic vinegar reduction and fresh basil and enjoyed. Finally.

Grilled Peach, Balsamic Vinegar Reduction, Thai Basil, Breadfruit Crust

Did the breadfruit crust turn out well?  Absolutely. Would I make it again? Absolutely not.  I didn't go into listing the proportions of ingredients I used this time as some things are better off lost to history.  The breadfruit crust TASTED good but due to their limited availability here, their cost is unjustifiably high (this one was 8 bucks!). Add to that the fact that it still wasn't anywhere near as good as a traditional flour crust and this quickly becomes a really fun experiment but definitely not something worth adding to my, or anyone else's repertoire.

In closing, I'm sure there are dozens of traditional, indigenous and delicious recipes that make good use of breadfruit.  The last thing I need is to get served with a libel lawsuit from the American Breadfruit Council. I personally, however don't see the properties of this ingredient lending themselves well to inventive and creative uses but if anyone else out there has tried making non-traditional foods with it (successfully) I'd love to hear about it!

3 comments:

  1. I can't believe you ate it raw. I wish I could find a breadfruit here. The best way to eat it is to peel it, chunk it, and boil in coconut milk. And if you just boil it in water, you can slather butter on it. It's better than potatoes! If you're looking for non-indigenous recipe, I've had it this way: http://www.winfresh.net/home/stuffed-breadfruit-croquettes

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  2. I love love LOVE breadfruit! I was introduced to it through my Samoan grandparents. My grandparents would roast it in the oven and then we would eat it with Palm Corned Beef. It's the only way I have eaten it and the only way I ever intend to...people try to complicate a very simple thing by masking it with various seasonings and spices. Keep it simple, keep it roasted, only with corned beef :)

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