Edward Sura, chef at Perennial Virant, tries to get pawpaws every year during their short growing season. In fact, when Dan Compton of Vie challenged him to create a dish using them, he'd already ordered pawpaws from Spence Farm in Fairbury, Illinois. Pawpaws are one of the only fruits indigenous to the midwest—which makes them particularly desirable at Perennial Virant, which focuses on locally sourced food.
But while pawpaws grow wild from the east coast all the way to Nebraska, they're difficult to cultivate, which can make them, like morels and ramps, difficult to come by. Fortunately, Spence Farm has a bunch of pawpaw trees in the woods of the farm, Sura says, so this year he didn't have any trouble sourcing them.
Pawpaw fruit has soft, custardy flesh, thin skin, and large black seeds; it's related to the cherimoya and the custard apple (and is sometimes called a custard apple or an Indiana banana, among other nicknames). According to Sura, it "has a nice sweetness. It can be starchy, but if you cook it out it tastes kind of like a banana and a mango mixed together. It's pretty cool."
Sura likes to make pawpaw butter, which can be preserved for use throughout the winter. And because it's impossible to remove all the fruit from the seeds, instead of discarding the seeds he soaks them in grain alcohol for several weeks to let it soak up the fruit flavor. Then he strains out the liquid and adds simple syrup to make a pawpaw cordial.
The cordial wasn't ready in time to be served with Sura's dish, but the pawpaw butter was; he incorporated it into a vinaigrette to dress mustard greens, and also served it straight-up with confit pork jowl and roasted maitake mushrooms, carrots, and parsnips. A sauce that combined pork jus and juneberry aigre-doux finished the dish.
Sura was happy with the combination of flavors, he said. "The pawpaw adds sweetness, but also a creaminess. It's got a really nice texture, a little fruitiness that you wouldn't think of with root vegetables and pork. You may see this on the menu very soon."
Confit pork jowl with mushrooms, carrots, and parsnips, served atop a smear of pawpaw butter
Sura has challenged Chris Davies of Homestead to create a dish with black walnuts. "They're pretty bitter when they're green," Sura says. "You crack the husk off and you get this slimy, green, nasty little nut. You can dry them out and crack them, and it's basically like a walnut but a little bit deeper flavor—really earthy, almost rich and creamy."
Pawpaw butter (yields 7 pints)
10 pounds pawpaw, pitted and peeled
1 lemon, juice and zest
15 percent sugar by weight
1 quart water
Combine all ingredients, bring to a boil, simmer for one hour. Pass through food mill (large holes).
Preheat a convection oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring the butter up to a boil, stirring constantly. Transfer the butter to a hotel pan and place in the oven. Bake for two hours (or to the right consistency and flavor) stirring every half hour.
Put butter into clean, warm 16-ounce jars. Process for ten minutes in a boiling water bath (timing starts when water returns to a boil; containers must be submerged at all times). Remove from water bath and allow hot containers to cool.
Pawpaw butter vinaigrette
1 quart pawpaw butter
1 quart champagne vinegar
2 shallots, minced
5 lemons, juice
2 quarts grapeseed oil
Salt and pepper
Combine vinegar, shallots, lemon juice, pawpaw butter in medium mixing bowl. Whisk in oil to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper.