Sunday, December 15, 2013

Persimmon Power

After almost all of the pommes have fallen and long after the stone fruit and berries are gone, one small tree in our orchard brings us a burst of Halloween and Christmas all at once. Giant, brilliant orange globes on a leafless tree, they are what the Greeks call "divine fruit." Diospyros. Kaki. Persimmons.

In Japan, kaki are a common fall fruit and if you visit someone's house during the season, chances are, you will be served fresh persimmons, peeled and quartered on a beautiful small plate with a rustic, rough hewn toothpick.

I hated them.

I don't use that word often with food, but no matter how I tried, I just could not like the taste of persimmons. (And I would keep trying every few years, thinking that perhaps my tastes had changed.)

"I'm so sorry. They are the one of two things I cannot eat," I would apologize. The other thing I cannot eat is offal.

One bite of our persimmon changed that forever.

Ours are an astringent seedless type and when they are fully ripe and ready, oh, boy. The soft jelly-like fruit is not only deliciously sweet, but slightly tropical in flavor, with a lovely floral note. Who knew persimmons could be this tasty!

When we came to the ranch and I saw the persimmon tree, I thought, well, at least the leaves are good for you. In Asia, the persimmon is also a medicinal tree. The calyx of the fruit is used as a hiccup remedy, as well as a cough suppressant. The leaf, with tons of vitamin C, K and B, as well as minerals and flavanoids, is a favorite ingredient in Oriental medicine. Herbalists gather leaves in May and June to make a tea which strengthens the circulatory system and acts as a general tonic. In the old days, they used to wrap food items like sushi in the leaves because of its disinfectant properties.

And now I know the wonderfully tasty fruit is also a miracle food. Along with a boatload of vitamins and minerals, it also contains high amounts of antioxidants and phytonutrients which neutralize free radicals and phytochemicals like catechin (which green tea has a lot of, too) and betulinic acid which is being used in anti-cancer research. That means it's a great preventative for things like aging, cancer, cataracts and macular degeneration.

A quick internet search brought up more benefits:
- Weight loss. The fiber rich fruit also reduces the craving for sugar and processed foods!
- Healthy eyes. Antioxidant vitamins and the phytonutrient zeaxanthin prevent retinal damage.
- Better digestive system. Yup, back to all that fiber.
- Prevention of DNA damage. If you are worried about all that radioactive contamination from Fukushima, eat more persimmons!
- Younger skin. Keep those free radicals at bay to protect yourself from aging.
- Boost immunity. The nutrients will protect you from common winter ailments like colds, flu and infections.
- Cleaner colon. It's a great detoxifier!

In Japan, there are even sayings like "When the persimmons turn red, doctors turn blue."

I don't know if persimmon health benefits had anything to do with it, but my search came up with an interesting bit of trivia, too. During the Civil War, some regiments were nicknamed "Persimmon Regiment" because they would stop to consume persimmons. The 35th Ohio Infantry lost 15 of their soldiers to the Confederate Army when they chose to pick persimmons rather than fight the Rebels. Meanwhile, the 100th Indiana Regiment who were cut off from their food supply had to live on persimmons for a while but still showed such determination on the battlefield that their nickname became a source of pride.

In Italy, during the season, you can get a perfect cachi at restaurants to end your meal. (I've often wondered why more restaurants in California don't offer fresh fruit for dessert -- it's quite common in other countries.) The waiter will remove the calyx and quarter the fruit at your table. All you need to do is scoop out the rich, flavorful fruit.

Here on the Central Coast, if you don't have your own persimmon tree, you can always find great tasting persimmons at the farmer's markets. The non-astringent types (like Fuyu) are wonderful in salads and if you have too many, you can try air-drying them like the Japanese and Chinese do. Peel them when they are still firm, string them up so that air circulates between each fruit.

I like eating ours the Italian way, but I also make a persimmon pudding which I will share with you. It has quite a lot of sugar (especially for me) but the sugar caramelizes (mmm!) during the baking and that seems to cut down the sweetness a bit. Buon appetito!

Bad Dog's Persimmon Pudding

    * 2 cups persimmon pulp
    * 1-2 cups white sugar
    * 2 eggs, beaten
    * 1 teaspoon baking soda
    * 1 cup all-purpose flour
    * 1 pinch salt
    * 1 teaspoon baking powder
    * 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    * 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
    * 1/4 cup heavy cream
    * 1 tablespoon honey
    * 4 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly oil or butter a 9x13 inch baking pan.

Mix the persimmon pulp with the 1 to 2 cups sugar in a large bowl. (The original recipe called for 2 cups but that was way too much for our super sweet persimmons.) 

Whisk together the eggs and baking soda in a separate bowl. Add the egg mixture to the persimmon mixture and beat well.

Whisk together the 1 cup flour, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon in a bowl. Stir 1/4 of the flour mixture to the persimmon mixture. Add 1/4 of the buttermilk and mix well. Continue alternating flour and buttermilk, adding 1/4 each time, and mixing well after each addition. Stir in cream, honey, and melted butter until well combined. Pour the pudding batter into the prepared pan.

Bake in the preheated oven until set, about 1 hour. While baking, do not stir; Turn off the oven at the end of the baking time, but do not remove the pudding from the oven. Leave it to cool in the oven for another 20 minutes.

Serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.

In the original recipe, they had something called "the sauce" which you poured onto the pudding after it had baked for an hour. I feel like the pudding is already so moist, it doesn't need this extra step, but if you'd like to try it, here it is:

    * 1 cup water
    * 1/2 cup white sugar
    * 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
    * 4 teaspoons vanilla extract

Boil the water in a small saucepan. Whisk 1/2 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon flour together, and whisk sugar mixture into the boiling water, whisking until smooth. Boil the sauce for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Stir in vanilla.
After turning the oven off, pour the sauce mixture evenly over the pudding, and leave the pudding to cool in the warm oven for 20 more minutes.

A Japanese-y presentation of our Very Californian Persimmons

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