Persimmons Please

The first time someone asked me what a persimmon tasted like I paused for a long time. "It tastes like a persimmon," was not going to do. I tried to run through all the fruits and vegetables I knew, but nothing seemed right.

"It tastes like sex." I finally replied.

I was speaking of the Hachiya variety, about a hundred of which lined every windowsill or counter top of my then large communal kitchen. I had just come from an afternoon of 'persimmon hunting' with my mother in East Oakland. This activity involved climbing up a moldy ladder and onto the corrugated roof of a neighboring garage. Completely unsure if this roof was stable, I climbed onto it; placing my lanky self inside one overgrown, fruit laden persimmon tree. My very short mother stood safely below where I tossed her the fruits I could reach.

Persimmon hunting doesn't require camouflage but you might want to wear clothes you would to Happy Hour in a college town. A very ripe persimmon is basically a thin skinned balloon filled with orange slime. Fun.

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The persimmon tree is a gorgeous thing. Basically invisible until autumn, the leaves and the fruit are waxy green. The tree sets at the first frost; leaves and conical, round, flattened or almost cubical fruit turning yellow and fire orange, announcing themselves gorgeously loud. A quick drive through lush North Berkeley the other day was a veritable persimmon tree show.

But the persimmon is enigmatic. At The French Laundry we had a small tree near the wine room and one fateful November afternoon I had a quiet but heated fight with a pastry cook. "It's ripe," Matt insisted. "No it's not," I replied emphatically and authoritatively. We stood like this, locked in a kind of Ernie and Bert argument about perception and truth staring down at the silent fruit. Finally it came to me. I sliced the persimmon in quarters and handed him a partially opaque piece.

My very tall, earnest, East Coast assistant got that terrible look on his face. I knew what the unripe persimmon was doing to him. Horrendously tannic, the immature Hachiya, (conical), persimmon is not to be taken lightly. It will pull all the moisture out of your mouth and mess you up. And not look back.

"OK you're right, it's not ripe." He conceded, defeated.

When buying Hachiyas pick fruit whose hue is as shockingly orange as you can find. Black or brown spots are ok. Place them stem side down on a sunny or warm window sill until they are completely translucent, sagging and attracting fruit flies. Prep on a large cutting board, scraping with a spoon, or other dull object, the flesh away from delicate skin. Puree this pulpy mess in a blender briefly. Store in glass or non-reactive material and lay plastic wrap or parchment paper directly on the surface to minimize oxidation.

The other variety, Fuyu, is quickly gaining popularity, probably due both to its versatility and the Hachiya's perplexity. The Fuyu straddles the sweet and salty kitchen seamlessly. While it is still difficult to pin down the taste of the Hachiya, the Fuyu's flavor can best be described as tasting like the scent of a freshly cut squash, but very sweet. Trying them out for the first time, my friend Jessica remarked, "I'm looking for the acid, but there is none, it just tastes of sugar."

While the Hachiya must be almost liquid before eating, (think of them as a vehicle for pectin), the Fuyu can be eaten rock solid or any version of softness that comes after leaving them out at room temperature. They take any French knife cut, especially the ineffable brunoise. In other words, they're fun to play with.

Here are two simple persimmon recipes, one for each varietal.

Persimmon Pudding

1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1 egg
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup Hachiya persimmon puree
1 splash vanilla extract
toasted walnuts (optional)
currants (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
2) Butter baking container thoroughly, apply parchment, flat, on the bottom
3) Sift sugar, flour, cinnamon and baking soda into a bowl, add salt and whisk
4) In another bowl whisk egg, persimmon puree, & vanilla extract until uniform
5) Create well in bowl of dries and pour in wets, mixing with whisk, wooden spoon or spatula. Right before mixture is uniform, stir in melted butter
6) Pour batter 3/4's of the way into the buttered container
7) Bake uncovered in a partial bain marie or on a baking sheet about 20 minutes
8) Pudding is done when middle is set and does not jiggle when tapped
The pudding will keep at room temperature for up to a week.
I like to serve it with cognac chantilly or vanilla ice cream.

Naked Salad

4 Fuyu persimmons
1 1/2 cups pomegranate seeds

1) Cut top out like a tomato. Slice bottom off, being careful not to take too much fruit
2) Peel persimmons, cut four pieces off core the way you might an apple
3) Dice persimmons into a shape slightly larger than the pomegranate seed
4) Mix pomegranate seeds and diced persimmon gently with a spatula
This salad will keep refrigerated for about three days but is best eaten fresh.

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Dressed Salad
A vinaigrette made with a light vinegar such as Sherry, Champagne or white Balsamic and a buttery extra virgin olive or a nut oil would complement these fruits nicely
The options for green leafies are endless-- sauteed &/or fresh escarole, romaine, little gems, or any other chicories would create a bright, colorful and seasonal salad.

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