A Virtue Rewarded

About seven or eight years ago, I was making Japanese food at our previous home in West Los Angeles. I had a rare delicacy — a yuzu fruit, a small Japanese citrus that, on the odd occasion you can find it, sells for about $3-$4 a fruit. Yellow and wrinkly, about the size of a lime, it is filled with seeds, and you’re lucky if you get a few drops of the pungent, floral juice from within. More useful is the aromatic zest, which the Japanese will shave over tempura, use to brighten sauces and fold into dishes both savory and sweet.

Koi pond, bamboo & yuzu tree

Koi pond, bamboo, afternoon sun & yuzu tree

I have no recollection what I did with the yuzu that evening. But what I do remember is planting several of the seeds in a pot outside in the garden the next morning. A couple weeks later, I had a few bright green seedlings which somehow over time became reduced to one gawky, spindly little yuzu tree.

Like the Hass avocado tree I’d sprouted and planted in the front yard, I knew that the yuzu could take up to a decade to produce a fruit, if it ever did. The difference was that the avocado tree was in the ground, while the yuzu was potted.

It wasn’t more than a year or two after that Japanese dinner that the movers arrived and loaded up our house, and we moved from the city to our new acre of land and mid-century modern house in the country. I brought the yuzu tree over in the car myself, giving it an exalted sunny spot by the koi pond, Buddha and bamboo out front — a setting which I thought might make it feel more at home, and more likely to produce. And then I mostly got on with life, watering the tree along with all the other plants out there, sprinkling it from time to time with citrus fertilizer.

Over the years I watched the tree and wondered. Would it ever produce anything but leaves? The foliage shared the same fragrance as the fruit, and sometimes I would chiffonade the tender new leaves and sprinkle them over sushi or fish. It wasn’t a beautiful tree, and every so often my wife would ask if I still wanted it or was perhaps interested in moving it somewhere else. And I would confirm that yes, I still wanted it — there was something of a “Little Engine That Could” quality to the tree. I imagined it trying to push a fruit out: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”

And then last spring, something most marvelous happened — a blossom appeared!

My knowledge of botanical reproduction is thin. I know a flower has to be pollinated to turn into a fruit. But I thought it might be likely you needed it to be cross-pollinated with pollen from another tree to produce a fruit. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t another yuzu tree within flying distance of any pollinator I could imagine. So I wasn’t optimistic. But I watched and waited, and sure enough beneath the flower there appeared a small nub that slowly grew. A fruit!

The reward for my patience

The reward for my patience

It took more than half a year for the yuzu fruit to develop, growing to its full golf-ball size, and slowly changing from dark green to pale lime and then finally yellow. I watched carefully and checked often, fearing it might get knocked off before it was ready by a careless child or curious squirrel. But develop it did. And finally one short, crisp winter day it was ready, and I harvested my first yuzu fruit — a bit shy of a decade after planting the seeds.

Sometimes I wonder about the Hass tree at the old house, and whether it ever started producing fruit. I drive by every once in awhile, but never remember to look. Here’s a recipe that includes both yuzu and avocado, should you ever be fortunate enough to have both at the same time. Otherwise, lemon will serve as a suitable substitute. Enjoy.

*   *   *

Hamachi sashimi with avocado & yuzu ponzu
serves 4 as an appetizer

1/2 lb. hamachi, thinly sliced across the grain into sashimi ribbons (see video)
1 large avocado, halved & thinly sliced
1 yuzu
1 tbsp. yuzu juice
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. finely minced (or grated) sweet onion
1/4 tsp. grated ginger
1 tsp. grapeseed oil
1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds

Using your sharpest knife, cut the hamachi sashimi-style as I do in the video (or purchase it pre-sliced at your favorite Japanese market).

Make your ponzu: In a small bowl, mix together the yuzu juice, soy sauce, onion and ginger. Stir the grapeseed oil vigorously in to emulsify. Set aside.

On four of your best serving dishes (or two if you’d like larger portions), preferable Japanese, alternate between a slice of hamachi and a slice of avocado. Continue until all hamachi and avocado have been evenly distributed amongst the plates (each plate will probably have 3-4 slices of each).

Stir your ponzu sauce again to re-emulsify. Drizzle about half a tablespoon over each serving. Using a citrus zester or fine Microplane grater, zest a little of your yuzu (or lemon) over the top of each plate. Sprinkle with a few toasted sesame seeds and serve.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 00:56:59

    You look great with that beard, dude! Thanks for the hot tip on yuzu. Guess I better forget about the hamburger helper tonight! hee hee.


  2. Michelle
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 03:24:39

    How cool is that?


  3. Nonie
    Jan 15, 2013 @ 19:07:11

    Cool story Sean. Congrats!


  4. rachelocal
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 16:06:20

    I want to tell you that I have a grove of yuzu trees in my backyard and ten Hass avocado trees bearing fruit in the front yard. I have so much extra yuzu zest that I use it as aromatherapy in my bath water. I feel like this is something you’d say to me if I wrote a similar post. Or you’d say that you can get yuzus and avocados for free at the Santa Monica farmers market.

    Also, I like your watch.


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