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June, 2010

Alligator Strawberries!

By Dennis Linden

June is the peak production period of the Lychee fruit season in tropical zones around the world where this fresh delicacy is grown
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Lychee
The refreshingly tasty little ball of fruit that is slightly larger than a grape, with its strawberry-red rough and tough rind, becomes abundant enough in June and July to make its way beyond the usual Asian and specialty food shops to more mainstream supermarkets. Since the fruit could be described as a strawberry with alligator-like skin, it is often called an alligator strawberry in Florida where commercially the Lychee is grown very successfully. So for the next few months keep an eye out for this colorful little globe in local markets; it’s an opportunity to try what the Chinese culture has enjoyed for over 2000 years.

The fruit’s leathery and uneatable exterior protects a translucent whitish, firm and juicy fruit that very much resembles and has the texture of a peeled grape. There is a medium-sized inedible seed pod in the center that must be removed as Melissa’s very own Chef Miki Hackney demonstrates in this short video. Lychees have a delicious sweet flavor that has been likened to a fusion of strawberries, watermelon, and grapes. This enticing flavor profile makes a unique fruit salad ingredient, the basis for a refreshing drink, a wonderful sauce, salsa, marinade or even a natural sorbet dessert when frozen.

The most common misconception about this tropical fresh fruit stems from the commonly used term, Lychee nut. Lychees can be dehydrated naturally and evenly if hung to dry in a ventilated area. The skin becomes a cinnamon-brown, and turns brittle; the flesh turns dark-brown to nearly black as it shrivels to a raisin texture with a rich and musky flavor. In China, the dried Lychee is added to tea as a sweetener in place of sugar or eaten out of hand just like raisins. Because of the firmness of the dried fruit’s shell, they came to be nicknamed "Lychee nuts" and this erroneous name has led to much misunderstanding of the nature of this fruit. It is definitely not a "nut". In fact, a cup of fresh Lychee fruit contains more Vitamin C than oranges or lemons!

Fresh Lychees can be stored for about two weeks if kept refrigerated. The reddish skin coloring will turn a dark brown in the refrigerator after about seven days; however, the interior will remain unaffected for another week. The fruit can also be frozen for several months without damage, to be enjoyed when out of season. Freeze them whole, with skin on, in a zip lock freezer bag because it will protect the tender fruit inside from freezer burn. Like the fresh Lychee, the color of the skin will turn a brownish color when frozen. Thaw in tepid water and use immediately as the fruit will discolor and spoil quickly. For a special treat, serve while still soft frozen to enjoy all the qualities of a fine sorbet!

Another delicacy related to this uniquely tasting fruit, if you are ever lucky enough to come across it, is Lychee Blossom honey. For centuries in China, and now in Florida, bee hives are placed near Lychee trees because the honey made from this fruit does not granulate and its flavor is regarded by honey connoisseurs as being of the highest quality available.

Chilled Lychees, as a hand fruit or a smoothie, are a refreshing delight on a hot summer day. Or, used as a fresh ingredient, it will add an unusual flare of tropical flavor to a multitude of dishes and exotic sauces. If you do not see it offered at your local market, its taste treat is well worth asking the produce manager to special order it for you while supplies are abundant for the next few months. Be sure to get that nickname right, especially if you are in Florida; no telling what you’ll get asking for some fresh alligator strawberries!