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Fruit of the Month: Rambutan

The first time I saw a rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) at the farmers' market, I did a double take and wondered aloud, "What is that?" The spiky, red fruit sat piled high on a stand like a mountain of furry orbs, and was like nothing I'd ever seen before. A friendly vendor smiled at me and told me it was called mamon chino, or "Chinese sucker.'

He offered one to taste, and I peeled it apart, revealing a transparent fruit very similar in color and consistency to a peeled grape. I popped it out of the shell and into my mouth. The slick fruit was mild, sweet and just slightly tart, similar to white wine grapes at the peak of ripeness. I was hooked.

Rambutan trees bear fruit twice yearly: once around July and August, and again between November and February. During this time, they are available in almost every supermarket, farmers' market, and roadside fruit stand in Costa Rica. Look for bright red "fur' and a firm, slightly spongy fruit. And it's a bargain at $0.50 per pound.

The fruit is high in nutrients, including riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin A, and zinc. Their health benefits are varied, and many believe a diet rich in rambutan will help lower blood pressure and prevent cancer.

Rambutan (a relative of the lychee and longan) is most commonly consumed raw, straight from the firm skin. I love to sit down with a bag of fruit and a good movie, peeling apart the furry red shells over the course of a couple hours. Each fruit has about seven calories, so these little treats pack a delicious punch for their snacking value. If you'd like to have a go at using rambutan in the kitchen, try out this exotic rambutan ice cream:

Rambutan Ice Cream

16 rambutans, peeled and pitted
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt

In a food processor, blend rambutans with 3/4 cups of the milk. When thoroughly blended, place the mixture in a mixing bowl. Set aside and cover with a metal mesh strainer.

In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining 1 1/4 cups milk and blend with sugar and salt. Just before the mixture boils, take it off the heat and quickly whisk in the egg yolks. Once the mixture is completely blended, place it back over the heat. This mixture must be whisked continuously.

The egg mixture will slowly take on a custard-like consistency. When it is thick enough to coat the whisk, pour the entire mixture through the mesh colander and into the rambutan blend. Add vanilla extract.

Place liquid into a chilled ice cream maker container and process until it turns into ice cream; put in the freezer until set. If you do not have an ice cream maker, place the mixture in the freezer and check every hour, stirring thoroughly, until it is mostly frozen. Freeze overnight.

Fruit of the Month: Rambutan in Pictures

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