Monday, October 29, 2012

Persimmons, an autumn treat

Ripe persimmons ready to dry

Simply Living
October 29, 2012

Our food dehydrator has been running non-stop lately.  Autumn is persimmon-picking season and we have been busy peeling, slicing and drying trays full of the popular Asian fruit.

Native to China but extensively cultivated in Japan, persimmons are an essential part of Japanese diet with over 1,000 different varieties cultivated for use in everything from wines and vinegars to baked goods and candy.  Although they were introduced to North America in the late 1800s by Admiral Perry and have been cultivated in Florida for over 100 years, persimmons failed to win over the palates of American consumers.

Perhaps their lack of popularity is due to the fruit’s astringency factor.  Most persimmon varieties are high in a soluble group of phenol compounds found in plants called tannins.  Other fruits that contain tannins include cranberries, pomegranates and strawberries.  When unripe, these fruits taste bitter and cause the mouth to pucker up and feel dry.  That changes as the fruit ripens and the tannin compounds decrease

The small plum-sized Florida native persimmons that grow wild in Central and Northern Florida are especially astringent.  Rather than being the type of fruit picked to eat fresh, wild persimmons are best cooked, fermented or made into jelly or jam.  However, certain varieties of Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki) are good to eat right off the tree.  In addition to being the same color as tomatoes, these non-astringent tree fruits also share a tomato’s round, slightly squat shape.

Picking Hachiya (astringent) persimmons off the tree
Fuyu is one of most commonly grown varieties of non-astringent Asian persimmons.  When they are hard, I like to eat them like an apple, skin and all.  When soft and a little riper, I prefer to peel the skin (which toughens as it ripens) and eat the sweet flesh with a fork.

Instead of being round, astringent Asian persimmons are heart-shaped.  Hachiya is the most frequently planted variety of this high-tannin-count fruit.  In order to avoid the unpleasant dry mouth sensation, heart-shaped persimmons must be fully ripe and soft to the touch before eating.  When ripe, the flesh is very sweet with a pudding-like consistency.  I like to scoop out the flesh with a spoon to eat fresh or use in baking.

This year, we discovered that instead of waiting for Hachiya persimmons to ripen, we can peel, slice and dry the unripe fruit when it is still hard and otherwise inedible.  It turns out that heat from the dehydrator removes the astringency by accelerating the tannin removal process.  As the tannin cells decrease, the fruit’s natural sugars move to the surface resulting in a somewhat sticky, exceedingly sweet and quite tasty candy-like product.

When dehydrated, the trays full of persimmons will taste as sweet as candy

This new discovery adds to the many ways our family enjoys eating this underappreciated, nutritious fruit.  We eat a great many persimmons fresh either whole, cut up in slices or in fruit salad.  Occasionally, I bake with it, making persimmon bread or muffins but the main thing we do with persimmons is dehydrate them.  We then pack the dried fruit into small tightly sealed bags and place them in the freezer to enjoy as a sweet treat all year long.

If you have never eaten a fresh persimmon, now is a good time to try.  While Florida’s persimmon season has ended, California-grown persimmons will soon appear in produce departments for the November and December holidays.  And if you are one of the people who once sampled a persimmon but had an unpleasant experience, consider trying them again. 

Remember, if it is a round, slightly squat cultivated (non-wild) persimmon, it doesn’t matter if it is hard or soft.  At any stage of ripeness, most round persimmons are good to eat.  However, if it is a heart-shaped fruit, make sure to wait until the bright orange-red skin feels soft when squeezed before scooping out the flesh and taking a bite.  

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