It's getting to be that time of year when your options for local, seasonal fruits are either apples or…apples. Citrus growers haven't gotten a really tasty crop yet, and 90 percent of what's in your grocery store has been shipped in from far, far away, devoid of any taste or nutrition. But, unless you're branching out to specialty grocery stores, you could be missing out on some of the most nutritious, unique fruits—grown in the U.S.—that are available this time of year. Certain varieties of tropical and citrus fruits, which are grown somewhat locally in places like Florida and Hawaii, have the highest levels of heart-healthy antioxidants of any fruit, so you can still make your heart happy without having to pollute the planet with fruit flown in from another hemisphere.
Forget pomegranates—start popping kumquats. The tiny little olive-sized citrus fruits are full of disease-fighting antioxidants, which are contained in their sweet, edible skin. A serving of five (which is about 5 calories) also contains one-fifth of your daily fiber needs, along with a healthy dose of potassium and vitamins A and C. California and Florida are home to most of our domestic crop, and the most commonly found variety is the Nagami, which peaks between November and March. The fruits are super-versatile: Slice up a kumquat and toss it into a salad, or use that instead of hassling with orange zest when recipes call for it; kumquats lend a more refined, complex flavor to your dishes. Diced kumquats and avocado make a great salsa when mixed with red onion, cilantro, and lime. At the market, look for firm fruits that are bright orange in color (green ones aren't yet ripe), and store kumquats at room temperature for two or three days, or in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Carambolas, or Star Fruit
Exotic fruits are generally higher in vitamin C, higher in potassium, and lower in calories than domestic fruits, and carambolas, or star fruits, are no exception. High in inflammation-lowering polyphenols, they're also great for your heart and full of fiber. Most of the star fruits you'll see in stores now come from Hawaii or South Florida. Look for firm, shiny, evenly colored yellow fruit. Handle with care, as star fruit bruises easily, and let the fruits ripen at room temperature for a few days until light brown ribs form and a full, fruity aroma develops, then refrigerate them for up to a week. Aim for deep yellow skin with browning on the edges," says Scott Varanko, produce manager at Stew Leonard's Farm Fresh Grocer in Norwalk, CT. "This is when they are sweetest. Some people will use the (underripe) green ones, since they are tart, as a substitute for limes in drinks." The carambola's taste has been described as a cross between citrus, apple, and pear, and you can just eat them as is or slice them into fruit salads. Sliced thin and dried in an oven on low heat, they also make great edible Christmas tree ornaments.
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They may look like their relatives, apples and pears, but quinces are much healthier and may actually help ward off the flu. With twice the vitamin C of its native relatives, quinces are also high in antiviral phenolic compounds that have been found to combat the influenza virus. The Chinese quince variety has the highest levels of those flu-fighters, but you'll also get some benefit from California's Pineapple quinces and the East Coast's Orange and Smyrna varieties. The short quince season lasts from September until December. To find them, check out Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets, specialty grocers, and farmer's markets. The fruits taste best when cooked, so add them to long-cooked savory stews or roasts or use them in any dish that calls for cooked apples or pears.
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In Hawaii, the decline of sugarcane plantations has led to a burgeoning specialty fruit industry, and antioxidant powerhouses like rambutans, lychees, and longans are now favored crops. The rambutan, also known as hairy lychee or hula berry, is a tropical treat when summer's lychees aren't in season; their season runs from September through March. They might even be better for you than green tea; rambutans have higher levels of the antioxidants flavanoids and anthocyanins, both of which are believed to reduce risk of chronic diseases and cardiovascular problems. They also contain lots of iron and calcium. Look for rambutans in Asian and other specialty markets, and handle them with care—they're fragile and keep only a day or two at room temperature. If you won't be eating them right away, place the fruits in a perforated plastic bag and refrigerate. To enjoy them, simply peel and pop into your mouth, or add them to a fruit platter; you can cut the top half of the skin off to reveal the fruit, leaving the bottom half of the skin as a decorative holder.
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Another relative of the lychee, longans are native to China, but are now grown in Hawaii and across the Caribbean. Stock up on them this time of year because they've traditionally been used to settle upset stomachs and fever reducers, making them great natural flu remedies, and like their relatives, longans are high in disease-fighting antioxidants. Also known as "dragon’s eye," a longan kind of looks like one, with a black seed centered in translucent white flesh, and it tastes similar to a chewy grape. You can find Hawaii-grown longans in Asian markets nearly year-round. Store them in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator for a week or two. You can simply rinse, peel, and seed longans to eat as snacks or to add to fruit salads and desserts. But don't toss the seeds. The seeds have a high saponin content, and thus can be used as soap or even shampoo.
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A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a persimmon a day could be better for your heart than an apple, because it contains significantly higher concentrations of the dietary fiber, minerals, and phenolic compounds that prevent atherosclerosis, a leading cause of heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. An added bonus: The antioxidants in persimmons can help control diabetes and the cell damage it causes. Their flavor and texture has been compared to plums or apricots, with spicy undertones. You can use just the pulp or the entire fruit in holiday puddings, pureed in ice creams, or added to breads and cakes. But try them in savory dishes, too, such as salsas, stir-fries, and salads.
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Though their softer Bosch relatives are long gone by now, hard-when-ripe Asian pears are perfect for cold storage and easy to find in farmer's markets and grocery stores this time of year. Why's that a good thing? Asian pears have significantly more fiber than other pear varieties, so chomping down on one a day is good for your heart and wards off diabetes. Select the most fragrant, unblemished Asian pears when shopping; a sweet scent is the best indication that the pears are ripe. They can be kept for up to a week at room temperature or up to three whole months in the fridge. Thanks to their sweet pear flavor and crunchy texture, Asian pears are perfect additions to salads, and are delicious grated into slaws. They work well in place of apples in all kinds of recipes, from holiday stuffing to baked dishes.
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Photo: (cc) See-ming-Lee/flickr