Monday, September 19, 2011

Little-known persimmons are worth discovering

Two plump tanenashi persimmons, similar in shape and taste to commercially grown hachiya persimmons, ripen on the tree as temperatures cool.

Simply Living
September 17, 2011

Ralph just came in from picking persimmons. One of our trees is loaded with fruit, and my husband aims to pluck the ripe fruit before the bugs, raccoons, possum and fox discover them.

For a long time, eating ripe persimmons has been one of our autumn rituals, but it wasn't always that way. Like most Americans, I knew nothing about persimmons. I didn't grow up having a bowl of them on my breakfast table like bananas. When I felt like a snack, I didn't bite into them like apples, nor did I bake with them or make them into puddings. Persimmons did not have a place in my life until the 1990s, shortly after we moved to Lake County.

In those days, the bright-colored orange fruit native to China held great promise as a replacement crop for frost-killed citrus groves. Throughout Florida's central and northern regions, farmers planted extensive orchards of the small, deciduous trees in the hope that the fruit, which is a dietary mainstay of many Asian countries, would catch on with U.S. consumers.

We planted our first trees around that time, and while interest in persimmons shifted slightly, it never caught on to the extent growers hoped it would. These days, persimmons are more familiar to American shoppers than they were 20 years ago, but to many, they remain a mystery. That's too bad because these shiny-skinned edibles are well worth sampling for their sweet flavor and high nutritional value.

Low in calories and with zero fat, persimmons are a great source of dietary fiber as well as being high sources of vitamins A and C. Unfortunately, discovering the fruit's many attributes involves actually tasting one, and to do that, consumers have to learn when a persimmon fruit is ripe enough to eat.

There are hundreds of different types of persimmons but only two varieties — hachiya and fuyu — are commercially available. Of the two, hachiya is most common in grocery stores. That's regrettable because unlike fuyu, which is edible when its flesh is either soft or hard, hachiya is palatable only when its flesh has attained a jellylike consistency. One bite into an unripe hachiya stops most people in their tracks, preventing them from ever trying a persimmon again.

Both fuyu and hachiya persimmons are orange fruits that ripen from September through December. The skin on tomato-shaped fuyus is thick, similar in texture to that of an apple. I like to eat them like apples, one bite at a time, until I get to the throwaway stem. My husband approaches the fruit differently. He cuts off the tough outer skin and slices the flesh into wedges. I like his method, and if I weren't so lazy, I'd prepare them that way too.

Hachiya persimmons are also orange-colored but their skin is thinner than the fuyu and their shape is acorn-like instead of round. They are also an astringent fruit, while fuyu persimmons have no astringency at all.

When ripe, hachiya flesh has the consistency of a ripe plum. If you bite into the fruit before then, the inside of your mouth will feel like it is full of fuzz, the way it does when you take a bite of an unripe banana.

Because I'm an impatient eater, I often approach a hachiya like a plum. I pick it up and bite into it, skin and all. It's a sloppy affair, with slippery flesh and dripping juices threatening to drop onto clothes. Ralph's technique is much neater and more civilized. He cuts off the stem end and uses a spoon to scoop out the sweet-flavored, soft insides.

The tree that Ralph just finished picking is a tanenashi persimmon, similar to the commercially grown hachiya. Assuming he can stay ahead of the creepy crawlers and wildlife nibblers, that one tree should provide us with enough fruit to eat fresh, freeze and share with family.

But you don't need your own tree to discover the wonders of this little-appreciated-in-America fruit. Next time you're at your grocery, buy one and take it home. If it is a fuyu persimmon, go ahead and give it a try, but if it is a hachiya variety, exercise patience. Wait until the flesh is plum-soft before taking a bite. Once you've tried it, don't be surprised if eating persimmons becomes one of your autumn rituals as well.

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