It’s pawpaw season. The fruit that kept Lewis and Clark going is back again for a fleeting few weeks or so throughout much of the Midwest. You won’t find pawpaws in most grocery stores, but you should be able to collect a bounty of Indiana bananas in the wild sometime between now and the beginning of October.
If you’re a first-time forager, try identifying ripe fruits by their black spots, says chef Rob Connoley of the Ozark-inspired restaurant Bulrush in St. Louis. “More experienced gatherers are guided by smell,” he says. “There’s an unmistakable sweet fermentation smell that floats through the hollers and creek beds when pawpaw have begun to drop. That’s when we get our crates and head out into the woods.” Typically, he says, he gets about ten days of foraging between peak ripeness and rot. Different elevations and latitudes will have different ripening windows, from southern Ohio to the northernmost pawpaw groves in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
You won’t find pawpaws in most grocery stores, but you should be able to collect a bounty of Indiana bananas in the wild sometime between now and the beginning of October.
“Of course pawpaws are best fresh off the tree, but they are so plentiful that we gather as many as we can and freeze the puree for use throughout the year,” the chef says. While banana bread and ice cream are pawpaw go-tos, Connoley prefers to put the fruit’s tropical flavor to work in more savory applications, including the pawpaw black molé that he serves with roasted cauliflower at Bulrush.
“There is no other fruit in the Midwest that can give me the sweetness I want for molé, where sweetness is critical to balancing the heat and salt,” Connoley says. “The tropical flavor of pawpaw is unexpected in the Midwest, and it has a slight funkiness because of the ripening that escalates so quickly at harvest time.” It adds the same sweetness to a St. Louis-style barbecue sauce that he drizzles over chicken and turkey.
Chef Anthony Lamas, who discovered pawpaws after moving from California to Kentucky, preserves about 300 pounds of them per year at Seviche in Louisville. “They’re America’s tropical fruit,” he says. “I love the mango and banana flavor.” Lamas uses pawpaws in sweet and savory dishes, from pawpaw pecan ice cream and pawpaw flan to sauces and marinades for pork, chicken and scallops. His country ham-wrapped halibut comes with pawpaw-habanero butter.
At Cornman Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan, chef Kieron Hales whisks pawpaw puree into his crème brûlée base. “It adds a luxurious, silky taste to the already creamy dish,” he says. “It isn’t a powerful flavor. It’s delicate and you really have to pay attention to it. I’d almost describe it as if a cantaloupe and an avocado had a baby.” Hales also adds pawpaw to a green tomato chutney. “I love the intense seasonality of it,” he says. “It’s really good at a very specific time of year, and that’s it!”
Rob Connoley's St. Louis-Style Pawpaw Barbecue Sauce
Makes 2-3 cups
Pulp of 6 ripe pawpaws, about 2 cups
½ cup red onion, chopped
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. turmeric powder
Kosher salt, to taste
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor with ½ cup water and mix until smooth. Pour into medium saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer, adjusting temperature as necessary, for half an hour. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. Transfer to a glass jar and cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.