The sapote: A delicious fruit too delicate for commercial channels

Fruit sleuth David Karp roams the world, writing about produce for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Saveur. He explains why the exotic sapote is so hard to find in the U.S.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Why is the sapote special?

David Karp: The sapote is a round, plum-to-medium-apple-sized fruit that ranges from pale green to yellow-gold in color and is distantly related to citrus -- both are members of the rue family. Its thin skin is edible, although it can be a bit bitter, and the flesh is custardy with the color and texture of an avocado. The flavor is sweet and mild, resembling a banana flan with a bit of mango. A good sapote makes a superb dessert: cut it in half, remove the seeds -- there are usually one or two the size of a cherry, and a few small flat ones like almond slivers -- and scoop out the flesh with a spoon or cut it into sections.

LRK: Where do sapotes come from?

DK: Sapotes grow on trees reaching 30 feet or more when full-grown and are native to Mexico and Central America. A few are grown in Florida, but most of the small commercial supply in the U.S. comes from southern California. They are most abundant from October to January, although some are available year-round.

LRK: Where can we find sapotes?

DK: The best place, of course, is in the growing areas at farmer's markets, but even there sapotes aren't exactly plentiful -- there probably aren't more than 20 acres planted in the entire U.S. They're sometimes available at fancy food stores like Balducci's in New York, at ethnic markets catering to Latin American buyers and at health food stores.

LRK: What should we look for when buying sapotes?

DK: When you find sapotes, purchase those that are still reasonably firm, but not rock hard. Let them sit at room temperature for a day or two, keeping an eye on them, because when they ripen it happens quickly. Some people chill them before serving, but I prefer them at room temperature.

LRK: Sapotes sound delicious. Why are they so uncommon?

DK: The problem is that sapotes are very delicate and turn to mush when fully ripe, so they're difficult for American fruit wholesalers to handle. Frieda Caplan of Frieda's Inc., a major distributor of specialty produce, regards the sapote as the poster child of delicious fruits that are too delicate for commercial channels. By the way, you can make a delicious bread using sapotes -- it tastes like banana bread with a twist.

LRK: Are there any varieties we should know about?

DK: We've been talking about the white sapote, but there's the Vernon, which is generally dark green, turns yellow only when ripe, and is especially sweet and creamy; and the Lemon Gold, which has a brighter color and a finer texture, though not as sweet as the Vernon. The Marney sapote is fairly large, tan-skinned, shaped like a football, and has orange flesh tasting like a sweet potato with a nutty twist. The black sapote, which is in the persimmon family, has flesh the color and texture of chocolate pudding when fully ripe.

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