Getting to Know You

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Apples and oranges, peaches and plums--that's what we used to shop for. Now odd-looking fruits with strange-sounding names-- feijoa , horned melon, tamarillo , pepino , nashi , sapote --are showing up among the old regulars.

Some are imported and some are cultivated by California growers hoping to come up with another kiwi, the New Zealand fruit that took off as a trendy garnish and is now a supermarket fixture.

The new fruits are generally expensive, but prices can vary. Nashi (Asian pear) has been selling for $2.69 a pound at the Modern Food Market in Little Tokyo, but the firm, round, buff-skinned fruit was 85 cents a pound at a market in Chinatown. Pepinos , a diminutive member of the melon-cucumber family, were $3.99 a pound at Ralphs recently, and a single feijoa --the small, oblong green fruit also called pineapple guava--cost 99 cents.

The fruits are seasonal, and some appear so briefly that by the time you hear about them they're gone. Fresh lychees put in a short stint here recently. And the infamous, odoriferous durian of Southeast Asia was here in May.

Fresh longans, which taste a little like an extra-sweet grape, are in Chinatown now. They're $9 a pound. Starfruit--a yellow, ridged fruit that cuts into, well, star-shaped slices--is due this month. And California-grown white sapote will arrive soon (the crop is running late because of last December's freeze).

The nomenclature can be confusing--so many of these fruits have so many names. Nashi , in addition to being called Asian pear, is also known as apple pear, sand pear, salad pear, Chinese pear and Oriental pear. The horned melon answers to the names African horned cucumber, jelly melon and kiwano. ("Kiwano" is actually the trademarked brand name used by the developers of this fruit, John and Sharon Morris of Kaukapakapa, New Zealand.)

The cactus pear's list of names includes Indian fig, Indian pear, Barbary fig, sabra and prickly pear fruit. Tuna is the name used in Mexico, and the favorite variety for eating there is the green-skinned, green-fleshed tuna blanca. Crates of this fruit, packed by Fruteria Mexico in Tijuana, were being unloaded at the Grand Central Public Market last week. Orange-and-red-fleshed cactus pears are popular in Italy, where the fruit is simply peeled and eaten out of hand.

Americans are still getting to know these fruits--and whether they will be accepted is an open question. Kerry Hodges, Ralphs vice president for produce, says: "It's a small segment of the population that buys those items." He continues to stock them, however.

Christopher Martin of New Zealand Gourmet, a major dealer in exotic fruits, says that the biggest demand for exotic fruits is in metropolitan areas. "Los Angeles," he says, "is very good; Chicago is extremely good." He predicts that the pepino will win wide acceptance. "It has a very light, refreshing flavor that appeals to most people." Feijoa , he says, is "a great fruit," and is getting good response at store demos. And the horned melon has "good shelf life--a plus for retailers--and terrific eye appeal."

It was Frieda Caplan, the marketing genius who made kiwi a household word, who introduced the horned melon in the mid-'80s. The fruit is oblong and orange with spiky protuberances that make it look like an invader from outer space. "It was so unique and so different that I was totally intrigued," she says. Caplan is delighted with consumer acceptance. "We have not been able to keep up with the demand for it," she claims.

Caplan also praises the feijoa. "If you get the right variety, it's absolutely wonderful," she says. But the fruit that is tops in popularity with Americans is the cherimoya. "It has a wonderful vanilla ice cream-nectarine sort of flavor," Caplan says. "People seem to become addicted to it."

What do you do with these fruits once you've got them? Most wholesalers provide brochures and informative labels. Frieda's Inc. has a colorful "Guide to Exotic Fruits" that charts 36 varieties and supplies such recipes as cherimoya-coconut sherbet and passion fruit daiquiri. The company has also compiled question-and-answer brochures for consumers, one dealing with tamarillo, passion fruit, horned melon and feijoa, another with cherimoya, pepino, blood orange and cactus pear.

To get any of these brochures, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Frieda's, Inc., P.O. Box 58488-LAT, Los Angeles 90058. Allow 29 cents postage for a single brochure, $1.25 for a set of nine brochures.

California Tropics of Carpinteria, which grows, packs and ships subtropicals including the cherimoya, cape gooseberry, feijoa, tamarillo and white sapote, offers a brochure on sapote that features a sapote- chicken salad. "The whitish sweet flesh has a smooth creamy texture with a hint of papaya and banana flavors," says the pamphlet, which suggests using the sapote in fruit cups, shakes, sorbets and mousses, or cutting it into sections and serving it with cream. To obtain the brochure, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to California Tropics, 6950 Casitas Pass Road, Carpinteria, Calif. 93013.

And from New Zealand comes a passion fruit folder that displays tempting desserts such as meringue nests topped with whipped cream and passion fruit pulp, passion fruit sorbet and fruit flan with passion fruit glaze; the folder also provides easy recipes. For that folder, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to New Zealand Gourmet, 808 S. Hindry Ave., Unit E, Inglewood 90301 (attention Amy).

And here are some recipes you don't have to send for:

The white sapote plays two roles on this salad . Diced, it adds a note of sweetness to the chicken mixture. Sliced and arranged in a fan, it decorates the plate.

CALIFORNIA TROPICS SAPOTE-CHICKEN SALAD

1 large or 3 small firm, ripe white sapotes, peeled, if desired, and pitted

Lemon juice

Water

1 pound boned, skinned chicken breasts or thighs, cooked and diced

2 green onions, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 green pepper or sweet red or yellow pepper, chopped

1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or sliced almond

Sour Cream Dressing

Lettuce leaves

Strawberries, grapes, orange slices for garnish

Mint sprigs

Dice half sapotes. Dip in lemon juice and water to prevent browning. Drain well.

Combine sapote with chicken, green onions, green pepper and nuts. Spoon half of Sour Cream Dressing over chicken mixture. Toss well to coat. If desired, cover and chill.

To serve, line plates with lettuce leaves. Spoon salad into center. Thinly slice remaining sapotes. Fan out slices on each plate. Garnish with fruit and mint sprigs. Serve remaining dressing separately. Makes 4 servings.

Sour Cream Dressing

2/3 cup dairy sour cream

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 green onion, minced

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

Combine sour cream, honey, mustard and green onion. Stir in milk to desired consistency. Makes 1 cup.

Thick pork chops stuffed with goat cheese appear in a rich and meaty sauce with a surprise ingredient: horned melon.

STUFFED PORK CHOPS WITH HORNED MELON SAUCE

2 (3.5-ounce) packages herbed goat cheese

4 thick rib pork chops with pocket cut for stuffing

Salt, pepper

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon oil

Horned Melon Sauce

1 horned melon, optional

Divide 1 package goat cheese into 4 portions. Stuff each chop with 1 portion. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Rub garlic over chops. Brown chops on both sides in butter and oil in large skillet. Pour Horned Melon Sauce over chops. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chops are tender, 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove pork chops to platter and top each with slice of remaining goat cheese. If sauce is too thin, reduce to desired thickness.

To serve, spoon sauce onto 4 plates. Arrange chop on top. Cut horned melon in half. Scoop out pulp of 1/2 melon and spoon onto sauce and chop. Slice remaining and use as garnish. Makes 4 servings.

Horned Melon Sauce

3 horned melons

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 serrano chile, minced

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup whipping cream

Cut horned melons in half. Scoop out pulp, puree in blender or food processor and strain. Saute garlic, chile and shallots in butter until tender. Add chicken broth, pureed fruit and whipping cream.

Tamarillos endow sauces with stunning color and fruity flavor. Here, golden and red tamarillo sauces set off crunchy coconut meringues filled with ice cream.

COCONUT MERINGUES WITH ICE CREAM AND TAMARILLO SAUCES

3 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup toasted shredded coconut

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon coconut extract

Vanilla or mango ice cream

Golden and Red Tamarillo Sauces

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until frothy. Beat in sugar, little at time, until stiff peaks form and meringue is glossy. Fold in coconut, vanilla and coconut extract.

Line baking sheet with parchment. Divide meringue into 8 portions. Shape each into 3 1/2-inch round or square on parchment. Make indentation in center for ice cream.

Bake meringues at 275 degrees about 1 1/2 hours. Turn off heat and let dry in oven 1 hour.

To serve, spoon golden and red tamarillo sauces side by side on each plate. Top with meringue. Place scoop ice cream in indentation in meringue. Makes 8 servings.

Golden and Red Tamarillo Sauces

3 golden tamarillos

1/4 cup sugar, about

2 tablespoons water

3 red tamarillos

Place golden tamarillos, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon water in blender container. Blend until smooth. Add sugar to taste, if fruit is tart. Pour sauce into another container and wash blender.

Place red tamarillos, remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon water in blender. Blend until smooth. Add sugar to taste, if fruit is tart. Makes about 1/2 cup each sauce.

One extravagant--but delicious--recipe for passion fruit comes from Nancy Silverton's "Desserts" (Harper & Row: 1986). Thirty-five passion fruits are called for. This can be expensive, but as Silverton writes, passion fruit is perfect for sherbet. It gives the ice "all the characteristics of an ideal sherbet--bright natural color, fruity flavor, high-acid content and smooth texture."

NANCY SILVERTON'S PASSION FRUIT SHERBET

3 pounds passion fruit, about 35

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

1 1/2 cups dry Champagne

3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (2 to 3 oranges)

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons)

Cut each passion fruit in half and scoop pulp and seeds directly into large, stainless-steel saucepan. Add sugar and water and bring to boil. Remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes.

Strain mixture into bowl through fine-mesh sieve, pressing pulp with back of spoon to be sure all fruit separates from seeds. Only seeds should remain in sieve. Stir in Champagne, orange juice and lemon juice. Chill.

Freeze in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's instructions. Makes 1 quart.

These bananas can stand alone as a dessert, or serve them topped with ice cream. Orange juice can be substituted for the rum and simmered until it blends into a sauce with the butter and sugar. Without alcohol, however, the bananas will not flame.

BANANAS WITH RUM

2 to 3 tablespoons butter or margarine

4 small red or burro bananas, peeled and halved

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

Cinnamon

1/3 cup rum

Melt butter in skillet. Add bananas in single layer. Sprinkle with half sugar and cinnamon to taste. Cook until bananas are lightly browned. Turn and sprinkle with remaining sugar and cinnamon. When soft, add rum and ignite. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Exotic fruits from far off places blend in this salad, but the topping comes from Mexico. The idea is from Laura Vera, a native of Mexico City. Vera blends condensed milk, yogurt and honey for the dressing, then tops the salad with whipped cream and granola.

ENSALADA DE FRUTAS LAURA

1 (8-ounce) carton peach yogurt

1/2 cup canned sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 mango, peeled and diced

1 papaya, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

1 white sapote, peeled and cut in wedges

1 Asian pear, peeled and cut in wedges

1 baby pineapple, peeled and cut in 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 kiwi, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped

Granola

Combine yogurt, condensed milk, honey and vanilla and stir until smooth. Arrange mango, papaya, sapote, Asian pear, pineapple and kiwi in serving bowl.

Spoon some of dressing over fruit. Garnish with whipped cream and sprinkle with granola. Serve remaining dressing on side. Makes 6 servings.

Red cactus pear adds rosy color to this refreshing Mexican drink.

AGUA DE TUNA (Cactus Fruit Drink)

4 cactus pears

1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste

3 ice cubes

1 cup water

Peel and cut up cactus pears. Place in blender with sugar, ice cubes and water. Blend until fruit is pureed. Strain to remove seeds. Makes 2 cups.

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