Worshipping Mangoes with Chef Craig Petrella

By Nina Rubin

It doesn’t take much to succumb to the seduction of the mango. In appearance, it’s almost like the parrot of the fruit family. The skin ranges from yellow to green to red, and the flesh is a brilliant yellow-orange. So powerful is its draw that it is an enduring symbol of love, fertility, and beauty in India, its home country.


Chef Craig Petrella of Norman’s at The Sunset Millenium – Los Angeles, CA

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Chef Craig Petrella, a protege of Norman Van Aken at Norman’s at the Sunset Millenium, Los Angeles, has long used the mango’s sweet bite in his cooking. His mango habit dates back to his time in Miami.

“We used to get these mangoes called ‘backyard mangoes,’ literally from the backyards of farmers, friends, and family members,” says Chef Petrella. Mango hunting became sport as he and his buddies debated whose mangoes were the best. Now in California, Chef Petrella continues to incorporate the fruit into his menus, especially in chilled dishes and desserts.

Why Mangoes?
Chef Petrella often turns to mangoes in his cooking because of their versatility. They can be eaten raw or cooked, without losing their integrity, he says. He cautions chefs to only use a small amount in dishes because their potent flavor can easily overpower dishes. His favorite mango pairing is with semi-fatty sashimi-quality fish, but he has many others.

“I like to lay thin slices of mango on top of a crispy hot noodle cake. The warm cake brings out a great deal of flavor, not to mention the texture of crispy cake [with] the delicate slivers of the slightly warm mangoes,” he says.

The Perfection Specimen
The most popular mango varieties in the U.S. are Kent, Tommy Atkins, Haden, Ataulfo, and Keitt mangoes—each has a characteristic appearance, texture, and flavor. One general rule of thumb is to go for the biggest ones in the pile. Mangoes have a large seed in the middle, and the bigger the fruit, the higher the fruit-to-seed ratio.

Timing is also something to keep in mind when picking product. Mangoes are in-season from May to September. For the best fruit, go directly to a mango producer or wholesale shipper, or try an Asian market. In the U.S., the big producers of mango are Florida, California and Hawaii. Otherwise, the fruit is imported from a number of other countries.

When selecting fruit, examine the skin. Chef Petrella says that the ripe ones will have a more yellowish-red color and the not-so-ripe ones will be green or slightly yellow. If the color passes the test, give the mango a squeeze.

“It should feel almost soft but have a slight firmness to it,” Chef Petrella says. “It also depends on what you’re doing with it. If you are using it to pair with raw fish, then it should be semi-firm and not rock hard. But if you are cooking with it, then you should use (it) at the fully ripe stage.”

Not everyone likes their fruit ripe. On a global scale, green mangoes find their way into pie fillings, jams, sauces, and chutneys. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, unripe mango is used in a sour salad called rujak and rojak, respectively. In the Philippines, green mango is served with bagoong, a salty, fermented shrimp paste. And in India, there’s a powder (amchur) made from green mangoes that is used as both a seasoning and tenderizing aid.

Braving the Cutting Board
Mangoes belong to the same family as poison ivy, so some people have allergic reactions after touching the peel or sap. For this reason, it is crucial to rinse mangoes before preparation. Once rinsed, they can be peeled with a vegetable peeler or cut with a knife. Chef Petrella recommends using a sharp, thin slicing knife for ripe mangoes and a peeler for unripe ones. Peeling mangoes is also made easier by first cutting the flesh off the bottom and then standing the mango upright on the cutting board.

Due to the giant seed in the middle of the fruit, cutting mangoes requires some creativity. After peeling the fruit, slice off the “cheeks” and scoop the flesh out with a spoon. Alternately, use the “hedgehog method”: cut large slices off of the mango and make hatch marks (vertical and horizontal) in the slices down to the skin. Turn each slice inside out, revealing a grid of mango cubes that can be cut out. This method is especially useful for fruit salad. Professional chefs should also consider investing in a mango splitter, which takes care of the dirty work in a single motion—it has an oblong blade that simultaneously removes the seed and cuts the fruit in half.

If you want the flavor of mango without the hassle, look for mango nectar, purée, and frozen fruit. Dried mango can also be a good solution, especially for baked goods, but be sure to re-hydrate it for about four hours before use. If using fresh fruit, take the time to buy and cut extra, and freeze it for later.

Chef Petrella incorporates raw mango into his food, but he also tries to test the limits of the fruit, preparing meat with it, using it as a glaze, and serving it as an ice alongside fish.

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   Published: June 2006