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Ackee fruits are small to medium in size with an oblong, oval, to pyriform shape. The fruits typically consist of 2 to 4 closed lobes, forming vertical indentations along the surface, giving the fruit a curved, bulbous appearance. The fruit's skin or pod is textured and ripens from green to bright red or orange-yellow as it matures. When the fruit is ripe, the lobes will also split apart, revealing red-pink membranes with multiple glossy, black seeds attached to pale arils. Only the arils are edible when ripe, and the pods, membranes, and seeds are considered toxic and should never be consumed. Arils range in color from ivory to yellow and have a semi-smooth surface with a firm, spongy consistency. When raw, the arils have a subtly sweet and tannic flavor reminiscent of avocado and almonds. When the arils are cooked, they develop a soft and delicate nature with a rich, nutty, and buttery flavor.
Ackee trees produce fruits year-round in tropical regions worldwide.
Ackee fruits, botanically classified as Blighia sapida, are unusual, tropical fruits found on large, evergreen trees belonging to the Sapindaceae or soapberry family. The fruits are native to West Africa and were spread to tropical regions of the Caribbean and Southeast Asia during the 18th century. Despite their naturalization worldwide, Ackee fruits are not commonly consumed due to their toxic and poisonous nature when unripe. Mature arils are the only parts of the fruit that can be consumed, and the pods need to naturally ripen and split open before they are deemed safe for eating. In Jamaica, the fruits are affectionately described as “smiling” or “yawning” when they split open on the trees. There are 48 varieties of Ackee that can be divided into two subgroups, one known as “butter,” which is a soft, yellow aril that can be mashed when cooked, while the other is known as “cheese,” which is a firmer, ivory aril used in preparations calling for a denser consistency. In the modern-day, Jamaica is one of the only countries to consume Ackee heavily, and the trees are often planted in home gardens for daily use.
Ackee fruits are an excellent source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that strengthens the immune system, boosts collagen production within the skin, and reduces inflammation. The fruits are also a good source of fiber to regulate digestion and contain iron, calcium, and some vitamin A. Unripe Ackee fruits contain hypoglycin A and B, which are toxins that can cause Jamaican vomiting sickness and could be potentially fatal if ingested in large quantitates.
Ackee fruits are best suited for cooked applications such as boiling and frying. It is important to note that the fruit pods should be naturally split open to be considered fit and safe for eating. If the fruits have not opened, do not eat them. Once opened, the arils must be separated before cooking as the pods, membranes, and seeds contain toxic compounds that could be potentially lethal if ingested in large quantities. The cleaned arils can be eaten raw, but most consumers choose to cook the arils for better flavor and texture. Ackee fruit is traditionally prepared like a vegetable, boiled in salted water, and lightly fried in coconut oil or butter to develop a soft, creamy consistency. The aril’s nutty flavor complements savory ingredients and can be incorporated into salads, soups, rice, curries, and stews. The arils can also be cooked and mashed onto burgers, blended into smoothies, or mixed into cakes, bread, and custards. Ackee fruits pair well with thyme, spices such as turmeric and allspice, chile peppers, aromatics such as onions, garlic, and green onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, fish, beans, rice, quinoa, and plantains. Fresh Ackee fruits should be immediately be cooked and consumed for the best flavor, or they can be blanched and frozen until needed. Once cooked, Ackee fruits will keep 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Ackee fruits can also be canned in brine for extended use.
Ackee fruits are one of the main ingredients in Jamaica’s national dish known as Ackee and saltfish. The dish is primarily consumed as a breakfast food and consists of salted cod, onions, tomatoes, scotch bonnet peppers, Ackee, and allspice. The Ackee arils are boiled first and then cooked together with the other ingredients to create a savory, salty, and spicy flavor, traditionally served with starchy accompaniments such as fried plantains, boiled green bananas, rice, peas, dough bread, or dumplings. Ackee and saltfish is a beloved dish throughout Jamaica and is consumed frequently, sold at roadside stalls, food trucks, and cooked in home kitchens. Ackee is also a favored ingredient in ital cooking, which is Jamaican vegetarian cuisine primarily consumed by Rastafarians. Ital cuisine uses fresh, foraged ingredients that are regionally plentiful, and the dishes are cooked in unprocessed methods to create a natural, healthy meal. In ital cooking, Ackee fruits are traditionally boiled and served with cooked vegetables, grains, rice, or seeds in coconut oil.
Ackee fruits are native to tropical regions of West Africa and have been growing wild since ancient times. The large tree can be found in areas throughout Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Benin, Senegal, and Gabon, but in West Africa, the fruit is used medicinally rather than as a food source. In the 18th century, Ackee fruits were introduced from West Africa to the West Indies, believed to have been carried on slave trade ships, and were naturalized throughout the islands. The fruits were also introduced to England in 1793 through Captain William Bligh and were planted in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. Within the Caribbean, Ackee fruits are wildly popular in Jamaica, where it is found growing wild and planted in home gardens. Today Ackee fruits can be foraged or purchased fresh in local markets in tropical regions of West Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and Southeast Asia. The fruits are also cooked, canned in brine, and exported on a small scale from Jamaica to the United States.
Recipes that include Ackee Fruit. One is easiest, three is harder.