Battling the Dragon (Fruit)

Ye gods, Doug! What the hell is that? If Trader Vic and H R Geiger laid an egg, it’d look like that…

That, my fine, knitted friend, is a Dragonfruit, er, a Dragon Fruit. I’m still learning about this awesome bit of produce. Dragon Fruit, or Pitaya, is a cactus berry originally from Mexico, but is now cultivated throughout Central America, the US, and much of Asia. The plants look like giant aloes, and the flowers are as gorgeous as the berries.  And it is an awesome Tiki multi-tasker. It is gorgeous, delicious and can be put to use as a garnish in an extraordinary number of ways. It is also tasty as a snack with tropical drinks.

Like a pineapple, there are a helluva lot of ways that you can butcher a Dragon Fruit. I’d like to go over a few that I’ve worked out for myself, which work well for both garnishing and eating. What is inside this pink demon berry is pretty cool. If you just slice off the top (it cuts smoothly, easily, and cleanly with a sharp knife), this is the cross section:

The white stuff is a relatively dry (by berry standards), stiff pulp with edible black seeds evenly distributed throughout. The peel is a thick, leathery pink that peels easily away from the fruit underneath, as easy if not easier than a tangerine. You cannot peel a Dragin Fruit like an orange or tangerine though, as the peel is tougher, and doesn’t tear easily. This is a good thing, as we will see.

The first thing I tried was simply slicing the fruit into thin circles. It cuts really quite easily, and looks gorgeous. You could also cut them length-wise, or on an angle, and get different shapes for your slices. You can use these slices just like an oversized, exotic lime wheel. A single slit along a radius, and they perch happily on a glass in the same way. A downside is that they are not terribly flexible, so you can’t bend them around the inside of the glass like a pineapple wheel or half wheel. They snap if you try. Regardless, this simple garnish element is hard to beat for color and contrast.

The next thing to try is using the fruit in smaller bits, without the peel. As I said, the upside of Dragon Fruit is that the pulp cuts exceptionally easily and cleanly. I did not want to go digging through the PeguWife’s candy and cookie cutters, so I just used my Leopold jigger to cut out circles from my quarter inch thick slices. Unlike most nice jiggers, with their thick rims, the Leopold actually makes a perfect cookie cutter, but whether you use the one or two ounce side, you will only get one Dragon Berry disk out of a typical cross section. You could use the disk with the hole missing in some other garnish application, I suppose, but I haven’t tried that one yet. Next fruit, I’m going to get out the smallest round and star-shaped cookie punchers we have, and hopefully get three pieces from each cross-section. These look fabulous on toothpicks or other thin skewers, by themselves or especially stacked with other items like cherries, lime wheels, or kiwi slices. Be careful with the Dragon Fruit pieces during assembly, as without the peel, they are fragile. While fussing with the photo below, I broke a couple of disks while playing incessantly with the skewer.

A more sturdy way to use the pulp is in thicker chunks. You can get quite a few cubes or wedges out of a single fruit, and they take skewering much more reliably. They also are great laid out for snacking, or nestled beside a drink on a nice coaster as a side garnish.

You can even skewer several with other fruits like kiwi or pineapple and serve grilled. As soon as I buy more Dragon Fruit this weekend, that’s going to be my first experiment. By themselves, raw, the fruit is hard to describe. Unlike every exotic meat, which you can just say “tastes like chicken”, you can’t say Dragon Berry tastes quite like anything common. I will say that it has a soft, subtle flavor that is sweet, but not strongly so, and the texture in your mouth is lovely. It also is less of a mess than lots of other, especially tropical, fruits like pineapple that tend to drip or bleed all over the plate and everything around it.

So the fruit is great, but it would be a shame to just throw away that lovely, pink, leathery skin unused, right? If you slice your Dragon Fruit thin to punch out disks, you can remove the ring of skin with virtually no effort. Hang that ring off a swizzle stick, or with a single cut, turn it into a lovely ribbon garnish for up-style cocktail glass drinks, as I did below. The peel doesn’t express oils, or hold a curl as well as a lemon zest ribbon, but it is stiffer. And it’s neon pink!

My final experiment was with the peel from the section of the fruit I cut for chunks. I simply cut a slab of it into a rectangle and slit in onto the rim of another up cocktail, though this would work as an understated garnish for any drink in a glass with a thin rim.

Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) is really delicious, beautiful, and easy to be creative with behind the bar. I admit, it is hard to get started with your first, but a little willpower will get you over the fear of a Tiki-themed face-hugger popping out of it if you touch it, turning you into some horrifying moai. There are only three genuine drawbacks to Dragon Fruit that I have found.

First, they are hard to find. They are seasonal, expensive, and quite thoroughly absent from almost all mainstream American supermarkets. But I have found them in international grocery stores (Hispanic and Asian), as well in a few larger supermarkets around town that carry more exotic varieties.

Second, they are expensive. Let me know if you come up with a solution to this besides making more money…

Third, they don’t keep. I bought one last year to play with for Tiki Month. It was so pretty, I left it out to decorate my bar, and by the time I got over my fear of this alien berry, it… stopped being so pretty. I’m not going to let the peel go nasty with any of these that I buy this year, but can any of you tell me if the pulp goes bad as quickly as the peel?

And what else do the rest of you do with Dragon Fruit? Let me know. I suddenly love these things.


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