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A cluster of green pawpaws growing on a tree in a backyard garden. / Tribune News Service

Pawpaws are a regional delicacy beloved by foragers and others blessed to have easy access to the deciduous fruit trees. Known as the custard apple or poor man's banana, the greenish-yellow, kidney-shaped fruit tastes like a mix of mango and banana and can be found from the Great Lakes down to parts of the Florida Panhandle. They date to at least the 16th century and were often the only fresh fruit available to pioneers in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest states.

One reason it can be hard to find pawpaws is they don't travel well; they bruise easily and have a shelf life of just three to five days. They also have a reputation for being messy. The fruit is filled with almond-shaped seeds, and it takes work to separate them from the custardy flesh. Sara Bir, author of the just-released "The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook" (Belt Publishing, $17), recommends using a food mill, but I think it's easier to use your hands.

On the plus side: Pawpaw pulp freezes well in a zip-close bag for up to six months. It can be used to sweeten everything from salsa, ice cream and pudding to pies, cookies, quick breads and jams. You can even find recipes online for pawpaw cocktails.

This recipe combines pawpaw pulp (flesh with seeds removed) with mashed banana, warm spices, garlic and vinegar in a sweet and spicy ketchup that also makes a great barbecue sauce.

I am fortunate to have neighbors who love to gift the fruit from multiple pawpaw trees in their front yard. (They also graciously offered to dig up a seedling to plant in my own yard.) You can sometimes find them at farmers markets.

 

Banana Pawpaw Ketchup

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1/2 onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons minced ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons five-spice powder

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup mashed ripe banana (from 2 bananas)

3/4 cup water

1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Salt to taste

1/2 cup pawpaw pulp

Heat a medium skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil; when it shimmers, add onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and maybe a little brown in spots, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic and ginger, and cook 1 minute. Add five-spice powder and red pepper flakes, and cook 30 seconds, just until spices release their aroma. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring constantly, until tomato smells a little toasty, about 1 minute.

Add banana, water, vinegar, honey and soy sauce. Sprinkle a little salt over the top. Bring mixture to a simmer, and cook 10 minutes, stirring frequently. If mixture is too thick and wants to stick to the bottom of pan, add a little more water.

Add pawpaw pulp, return to a simmer and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer to food processor or blender, and puree, adding a little water if the mixture is too thick. You want the sweet spot between runny and pasty.

Taste and add more salt, if needed. (I felt it was too sweet, and added a dash more vinegar and another sprinkle of red pepper flakes.)

Cool ketchup, cover and store in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. You also can freeze the ketchup for up to 6 months. Great with fries or on top of hamburgers and hot dogs.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

— "The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook" by Sara Bir (Belt Publishing, August 2021)

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