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The pleasure of persimmons

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I braved biting into a persimmon again.

The first time had traumatized me. As a child, I unknowingly bit into a beautiful but very unripe Hachiya persimmon that tasted like a green banana peel, multiplied by 10.

It was horrible. After that, I shut persimmons out of my life forever – or so I thought.

While nibbling on a fruit and cheese platter at a party decades later, I ate what I thought was a piece of papaya. The texture was similar, but there were hints of apricot, plum, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon. Finally, it drove me so crazy that I asked the host, “What kind of papaya is this?” Turns out it was a persimmon.

You can imagine my shock. I began to re-examine my whole way of thinking about persimmons. Clearly, I had misjudged them.

Throughout the years, I had built up a solid case against them, villainizing them so I could feel justified in not giving them another chance. I made myself believe I was the innocent victim of their seemingly horrible nature.

But life often provides us with glimpses of truth or, in this case, chunks of persimmon disguised as papaya.

Several days later, I purchased a case of them and began, ever so hesitantly, to get to know them better. Eventually, I came to love and appreciate them, inside and out. Now, whenever I see a persimmon, I am reminded to not judge too quickly – and that almost everything deserves a second bite.

Also known as the “apple of the Orient,” persimmons are a bright orange fruit belonging to the Ebenaceae family, of the genus Diospyros, which – in Greek – means “fruit of the gods.” Technically, they are not fruits but large, round, succulent berries.

Though native to China, persimmons are considered one of Japan’s most revered fruits, called kaki. Cultivated there for more than 2,000 years, persimmons are intertwined with Japan’s people, history, art and poetry. In the 1600s, Basho wrote a haiku that says it so aptly: A village grown old/not a single house/without a persimmon tree.

Our native species of American persimmon grows wild from Connecticut to Florida. Native American tribes introduced them to early settlers, who valued them because they were naturally high in pectin and could be turned into puddings without additional thickeners or sweeteners.

Colonists also learned to make vinegar with the fruit, toast the seeds to make a coffee substitute and even make a type of beer from them. I find it interesting how coffee and alcohol were a priority back then, too, so much that it would inspire people to figure out how to make both from persimmons. Necessity really is the mother of invention.

In season from October through February, persimmons are winter’s fruit. There are two types – astringent and nonastringent – with the most popular varieties in the U.S. being the astringent Hachiyas and nonastringent Fuyus.

Fuyus are distinguished by their flat bottoms and squat shape. They have beautiful orange skin with a four-leafed calyx. They can be eaten while still crisp out of hand like an apple, skin and all. Their firm texture makes them perfect for slicing and adding to salads or salsas; they hold their shape well.

Next time you are about to make mango salsa, try swapping the mango for crisp Fuyu persimmons. They love to be paired with a little heat from chilies and acid from lime. Persimmons’ mild alkaline flavor, somewhat like papaya, is enlivened with the addition of citrus, which seems to enhance and draw out their subtle personality.

They are also great roasted. Dust slices or quarters with nutmeg or cinnamon, and roast them on a sheet pan until their edges begin to curl and make a delicious topping for your winter oats. If allowed to soften, add them to smoothies or baked goods.

Hachiya persimmons are oval and elongated, the shape of a giant acorn. Unripe, they are mouth-puckeringly bitter, full of tannins and totally inedible. So make sure to wait until they are supremely ripe, allowing them to sit on your kitchen counter until they become water-balloon soft.

Inside, their jelly-like consistency is silky and luscious, perfect for scooping out with a spoon and eating, or topping off your hot-buttered toast, pancakes or waffles. Try swirling some into your morning yogurt.

Puree persimmons to make sauce, adding a bit of honey and squeeze of lemon, then spoon the mixture over cardamom ice cream for a particularly scrumptious winter dessert. Hachiyas are also great for cakes and breads, giving baked goods moistness and deep, rich color.

Of course, there are other, lesser-known varieties like cinnamon persimmons, a subvariety of Hachiyas. These are nonastringent, so you can eat them when they are crisp or slightly soft. The outside tends toward pale yellow, and the inside is speckled with cinnamon-colored flecks. Sweet pumpkin persimmons, a subvariety of Fuyus, are smaller and sweeter than Fuyus and eaten firm and crisp, like an apple.

As you can imagine by their color, persimmons are packed with nutrients. High in beta carotene, as well as vitamins A and C, they are a powerhouse of antioxidants, helping to flush the body of free radicals. After all the holiday indulging, who couldn’t use a bit of this?

Persimmon and Fennel Salad

For the salad

8 ounces butter lettuce

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion

1-2 Fuyu persimmons, thinly sliced

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

1/8 cup pistachios (optional)

1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta (optional)

For the citrus dressing

1 orange (zest and juice, about 1/2 cup)

1 lime (zest and juice, about 1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon honey

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon shallot, very finely chopped

Mix all the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl or jar. Set aside.

Toss butter lettuce, fennel and onion with some of the dressing (you won’t need all).

To platter, lay a bed of dressed greens on a platter. Scatter slices of persimmon over the dressed lettuce. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and pistachio and goat cheese, if using), and spoon a little more dressing on the persimmons. Crack some pepper over top.

To plate the salad, layer slices of persimmon with dressed lettuce fennel mixture. Top with pomegranate.

Yield: 4 servings

Persimmon, Orange and Turmeric Smoothie

1 persimmon

1 orange

Juice of 1/2 a lime

1 banana

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Pinch cayenne

Water, to get the blender going

A few ice cubes (or, use a frozen banana)

Combine all ingredients in the pitcher of a blender, blend until smooth and serve.

Yield: 1 serving

Smoky Fish Tacos with Persimmon Salsa

2 Fuyu persimmons, crisp, not overly ripe

1/4 cup red onion, finely diced (or substitute green onions)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 of a jalapeno, finely chopped

Pinch salt

1 lime, zest and juice

8 ounces fish such as mahi mahi, cod, tilapia, halibut, sea bass or black cod

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder or smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 tablespoons oil

1 cup seasoned black beans, heated

4 to 6 (6-inch) flour or corn tortillas, warmed

Lime wedges, avocado slices, cilantro and Mexican hot sauce, for garnish

Make the salsa. Dice the persimmons, leaving the skin on, and add to a medium bowl. Add onion, cilantro, jalapeno, salt, zest of 1 lime, and juice of half of a lime. Taste. Add more salt, jalapeno or lime juice to your liking. You want a good acidity here, and salt brings out all the flavors.

Prepare the fish: Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks, and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with all of the spices and salt, tossing to coat.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add fish and sear all sides. Turn heat to medium-low, and cook until it is cooked through, being careful to not overcook.

Toast tortillas in the oven until warm and pliable (or over a gas flame on the stove top).

Divide fish, black beans and salsa among the tacos. Garnish with cilantro, lime wedges, avocado and Mexican hot sauce.

Yield: 2 servings

Persimmon Bread

By James Beard

3 1/2 cups sifted flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup melted unsalted butter and cooled to room temperature

4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten

2/3 cup cognac, bourbon or whiskey

2 cups persimmon puree (from about 4 squishy-soft Hachiya persimmons)

2 cups walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped

2 cups raisins, or diced dried fruits (such as apricots, cranberries or dates)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter 2 loaf pans. Line the bottoms with a piece of parchment paper or dust with flour and tap out any excess.

Sift the first 5 dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

Make a well in the center then stir in the butter, eggs, liquor, persimmon puree, then the nuts and raisins. Pour into loaf pans.

Bake 1 hour or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

This will keep for about a week, if well-wrapped, at room temperature. Or freeze.

Yield: 2 loaves


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