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A persimmon can't be too ripe

Published Dec. 12, 2001|Updated Sep. 10, 2005

An unripe persimmon can ruin your whole day.

Even a small bite of a Hachiya persimmon that isn't squishy and practically dribbling-on-the-floor ripe can make you grimace. It tastes chalky, astringent and altogether horrid. It also gives persimmons a bad name.

However, pick a persimmon that is as soft as jam and almost ready to implode, and the taste becomes sweeter than the most perfect plum and more perfumy than honey.

How do you tell when the persimmon is perfect? When it's "softer than baby cheeks," says Elizabeth Schneider in her comprehensive resource Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables (Harper and Row, 1986).

That's when you can slice off the stem end and suck out the silken inner fruit, but a more civilized approach might be to use a spoon.

An alternative is to put the persimmon in the freezer. In China, persimmons so ripe they are almost liquid are set in the snow to freeze, making a sort of persimmon sorbet.

All this applies only to the Hachiya, the heart-shaped persimmon. The flatter, sublimely flavored Fuyu is quickly gaining in popularity in the United States because nature designed it to be eaten not rock hard but still crisp, like an apple. It is the persimmon of choice in Japan.

The Fuyu also has an elevated place in the 33-acre organic farm tended by Helene Beck and her husband, Robert. Now in their 70s, the couple has been growing organic Fuyus for nearly 18 years at their farm, Beck Grove, in Fallbrook, Calif.

Persimmons like hot climates, and much of America's crop grows in Southern California farms like the Becks', but hundreds of varieties grow in different parts of the world. In Spain, the persimmon is called a kaki. In California backyards, Japanese-Americans tend to Maru persimmon trees. At Beck Grove, the Fuyu rules.

The land once held mostly avocado trees. The Becks added persimmons in part to diversify their land and to cater to people from Vietnam and others from Southeast Asia who migrated to Southern California in the 1970s, bringing with them a love of Fuyus.

"We picked Fuyus to grow because I like crunchy, juicy fruit," says Helen, who also tends to kumquats, limes, minneolas, blood oranges, Meyer lemons, satsumas, guavas, lemon grass and kefir lime leaves.

"This (organic farming) is the nicest way of growing older," she says. "You just don't feel your age. You're so busy looking at the next season."

Right now, though, the season is all about persimmons. This fall, Fuyus arrived in the San Francisco Bay area in early October. earlier than in the previous couple of years. Hachiyas tend to follow Fuyus by a month or so. The season for both will end by early January.

Their shape and color, which can range from flaming orange to subtle tangerine, is perfect for holiday centerpieces as well as salads, appetizers and desserts.

Bay Area chefs are already putting them to good use.

Gaines Dobbins of Chenery Park in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood uses Fuyus as part of a "4 P's" fall salad: butter lettuce garnished with persimmons, toasted pistachios and pomegranate seeds, dressed in a pear vinaigrette.

"It's our most popular salad by far," he says.

Across the bay at Bay Wolf, executive chef Michael Wild uses the two types of persimmons very differently. In the early fall, Fuyus turn up in salads of arugula, pecans and goat cheese with pomegranates or in grilled fennel-crusted pork tenderloin on arugula accented with black beans. The sweet, rich Hachiyas star in steamed puddings or sometimes cakes.

English explorer Capt. John Smith, who ate a smaller type of persimmons favored by American Indians, offers this advice: "The fruit is like a medlar _ it is first green, then yellow and red when ripe. If it not be ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awire with much torment. But when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot."

To select a persimmon

FUYUS: These lighter colored, squat persimmons should be crisp and firm but not rock hard. They should be completely orange, with no traces of yellow. You can keep them for weeks, but use them immediately if they develop soft spots.

HACHIYAS: Delicious only when completely soft, pick ones with intact skin that feels as if it is filled with jelly. Eat it as soon as possible. It will be messy.

They can be kept in the refrigerator for a short period. If you get them firm, leave them at room temperature to soften.

FROZEN HACHIYAS: To make an ice creamlike treat (and to extend the persimmon season), pop some in the freezer. Slice off a tiny bit of the tip, wrap the fruit in plastic and freeze for up to three months. Eat the persimmons when they are partly thawed and spoonable, like sorbet.

Alternately, farmer Helene Beck suggests this recipe: Slice partly frozen persimmons and arrange them on a plate. Pour cream over them _ it will adhere to the partly frozen fruit _ then add a little cracked fresh pepper on top.

This recipe appeared about 20 years ago in the Chronicle's food section and is as good as ever. One change was made to fit with today's slimmer recipe styles: Orange juice instead of a traditional rich hard sauce is the topping.

Persimmon Pudding

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

{ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

About 3 ripe Hachiya persimmons (enough to make 1 cup pulp)

1 teaspoon vanilla

{ cup milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon melted butter

Orange juice for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Using a fork, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

Cut the persimmons into pieces and put into a separate mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to mash the pieces into pulp. Remove any large pieces of skin. Otherwise, put the persimmon pieces in a food processor and whirl, using an on-off motion, to make into pulp. Do not overprocess; the pulp should be a little lumpy, with some small pieces of skin.

Add the vanilla, milk, egg and butter to the persimmon pulp; stir into the flour mixture and beat well.

Pour the batter into a baking dish that has a cover. Cover (or cover with foil) and bake for about 50 minutes. The pudding should be somewhat moist inside when tested with a toothpick. Remove the pudding from the oven and uncover. Let the pudding cool to room temperature or serve warm. To serve, spoon the pudding into dessert bowls. Pour orange juice on top to moisten.

Serves eight. Per serving: 230 calories, 3 gm protein, 50 gm carbohydrate, 3 gm fat (1 gm saturated), 33 mg cholesterol, 395 mg sodium, 3 mg fiber.

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