The Paw Paw tree, Asimina triloba, is native to the southeastern United States and parts of the midwest, and while it can be cultivated out here, it is very rarely seen in the Pacific Northwest, and its fruit is rarer still. It is not commercially available, despite its popularity among wild food enthusiasts. So when local forager Dave Barmon invited me to gather some Paw Paw fruit with him this weekend, I happily agreed — and I had an idea: Why not turn them into Paw Paw ice cream? I’d been reading that little binder of recipe ideas that came with my blender and I discovered I could make ice cream simply by combining fruit + ice + sugar + milk (dairy or otherwise), and that sounded pretty easy, pretty Becky-proof. If you’ve been reading my blog or my book then you know I’m not into cooking. But I can blend!
Dave thought it was a great idea. Paw Paws are also known as “custard apple,” “false banana,” and “Michigan banana” because of their flavor, and their fleshy texture is mango-like.
In Portland a lot of us have multiple occupations, and Dave is no exception. He owns a sustainable landscaping company called Fiddlehead Landscapes in addition to his work as a wild food activist, consultant, urban lumber advocate and all-around entrepreneur/visionary. It was this first capacity that led us to the Paw Paw trees — they happened to be living in the front yard of one of his landscaping clients, who had given the green-light on picking them. Actually, we didn’t so much pick the fruit as gather them; the Paw Paws were scattered across the grass. They were roughly the size and shape of a potato, and ranged in color and texture from hard and pale green (not yet ripe) to mushy and purple (over-ripe).
We stopped by an Asian grocery store in southeast Portland called Hong Phat on the way back and picked up some cans of coconut cream to use. It was there in the grocery aisle that Dave suggested an even more brilliant idea, from the efficiency (aka laziness) perspective: Why not just buy vanilla ice cream and blend the fruit with that? So we got some rice-milk vanilla ice cream and decided to try both recipes!
At Dave’s house, we sliced the Paw Paw fruit open and removed the seeds and the outer skin, collecting the mango-like flesh in a bowl. “Dave, we need some music!” I said.
“OK, I’m going to put on some Latin music, because Paw Paw is related to Cherimoya, a popular fruit that grows in the tropics and Latin America,” Dave said.
While we worked, Dave told me Paw Paws are good trees for people in rural or even suburban areas because birds and deer don’t like the fruit. But for us human animals they’re great — they’re the largest edible wild fruit indigenous to North America, and are one of the few wild fruits that are high in calories, minerals and amino acids.
According to Kentucky State University, PawPaws have as much potassium as bananas and one and a half more times calcium than oranges, plus “two to seven times as much phosphorus, four to twenty times as much magnesium, twenty to seventy times as much iron, five to twenty times as much zinc, five to twelve times as much copper, and sixteen to one hundred times as much manganese, as do banana, apple, or orange.”
Paw Paws are small trees found wild from east Texas and Florida to New Jersey and the Great Lakes, and west to Iowa. They have deep tap roots and grow in deep, rich, moist soil, such as river valleys, flood plains, and stream banks, according to forager-author and expert Steve Brill. (Caution: Steve writes that the seeds are poisonous, so make sure you don’t swallow them if you start eating ripe Paw Paw fruit off a tree).
And you’re considering installing a Paw Paw tree in your yard, you’ll want to know that they’re fly pollinated and that getting fruit requires two trees in the vicinity of one another.
Now — back to the important part, the ice cream. We poured 1 can coconut cream with equal parts ice and Paw Paw flesh, plus 1/8 cup organic sugar, and it came out delicious! Here in the photo is Dave’s 5-year-old daughter, Ruby, a forager in her own right, demonstrating for you her reaction to the flavor: Ruby approved!
The lazier ice cream experiment, involving simply hitting the on button to mix vanilla rice ice cream and Paw Paws, was not so good, because the rice-milk version of vanilla ice cream was pretty icky. The coconut cream was much, much better. It did a great job of complementing the tropical flavor of the Paw Paw.
Other fun foodie things one could do with Paw Paws include banana bread and custard.
If you’re a person with a sensitive stomach, tread carefully. The unripe fruit is considered an emetic, and Steve wrote in his book “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants” that he once tossed his cookies after eating some.
I’m happy to report that I have not!
What have you done with Paw Paws? And what are you foraging right now? Tell me in the comments!
– That TV show I’m on, “Brew Dogs,” airs tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 10 pm on Esquire Network. If you don’t have cable, or don’t have a friendly neighbor with TV who will let you take up residence on her couch, then you can download it from iTunes after it airs. Just make sure to look for the “Portland” episode!
– Are you wondering what weedy or native wild foods are growing in your yard? Hire me to come over and tell you with a private yard assessment. I also do plant identification tours for private groups at the location of your choosing, and indoor presentations and keynote talks, too. E-mail me at RebeccaELerner[at]gmail.com to inquire.