We all have routines when we go grocery shopping — the aisles we spend a lot of time in, the sections we skip entirely. I instinctively skip the pork section, not because I’m a vegetarian or opposed to pork, but simply because I didn’t grow up eating it. It’s even more common to skip over items in the produce section; there are so many! Even the most adventurous cooks have certain fruits and vegetables that they just…don’t buy. But I think it’s good to try to buy one weird thing you wouldn’t normally buy each time you go grocery shopping. It’s kind of a lite version of a CSA, in which you’re forced to cook with, like, a bucket of lumpy black radishes because that’s all that grows in New York most of the year.
Persimmons are a good weird grocery candidate right now; they’re in season, they’re unpopular, they’re cheap (five for two bucks), and they’re very good. Over the past week, while thinking about persimmons, a bold and bright orange winter fruit, I’ve asked people what they like to do with them. Nobody has any ideas, because nobody buys them. It’s distressing. I wondered: Do people find the persimmon not very tasty? Hard to prepare? Dangerous somehow? Because it is none of these.
Persimmons come in a whole mess of varieties, but can be generally separated into two broad categories, astringent and non-astringent. Astringent varieties, most commonly the slightly pointed, globular hachiya variety, are basically inedible when firm; they have to sit out after picking until the flesh becomes very soft — softer than you’d think a ripe fruit should ever be. Non-astringent varieties, most popularly the fuyu, are eaten while firm, and have a crunchy texture somewhere between apple and apricot. I like these more; it just feels like there are fewer things you can do with a fruit that’s only edible when it’s completely soft, so I tend to stick to the fuyu variety.
You can use the fuyu persimmon in a salad the same way you’d use an apple, but its flavor and texture is totally different: rich, a little spicy, and distinctly autumnal, with notes of clove and cardamom and allspice. It’s a real cool fruit, is what I’m saying. Here are some cool recipes for it.
The Persimmon Fall Salad
First up: A real easy fall salad of persimmon, fennel, and hazelnut, which is basically a recipe or at least a flavor combination I stole from a restaurant in Brooklyn called Roman’s. You’re going to need a handful of hazelnuts. (Sometimes these come with the brown skin still on them. This is a real pain to remove, requiring blanching and cooling and towels and the whole deal is just too much work for me, so I’d recommend you just buy hazelnuts that are already peeled and white.) Cut them in half and then put them in a dry cast iron skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, tossing a few times, until slightly browned and toasty-smelling. Put them in a bowl or on a plate or something to cool. Then take a non-astringent persimmon, like a fuyu, and slice it. I do it like this: Slice off the leaves like you’re scalping the fruit, being careful not to remove too much flesh. Then slice it in half right down the middle, then the other way, forming quarters. Finally, slice those quarters thinly. Watch out for seeds; there may not be any, but if they are, throw them out. The skin is thin and edible and tasty, and remember, whenever possible, eat the skin.
Toss the sliced persimmon in a bowl. Take a bulb of fennel, lop off the stems, slice in half through the root, and then shave the outside off (it’s kind of tough and stringy and usually dirty). Then lay the cut side down on your cutting board and slice width-wise thinly, and toss those into the bowl as well. When the hazelnuts are cooled, pop them in too, and shave some parmesan on top. The dressing: chop up a shallot really small and put into a container, and pour white wine vinegar on top. Let that sit while you prepare the rest of the salad, then add in orange juice and olive oil, so that the vinegar/juice/oil has about a 1:1:1 ratio. Mix thoroughly and pour over the salad, and season with salt and black pepper. (It’s going to need salt; this is a very sweet salad.)
The Persimmon Grain Pudding
I really like persimmons with creamy desserts, too; they’re rich and earthy and mesh well with desserts that are naturally pretty heavy. Why not rice pudding? Or quinoa pudding, which works about as well? Get a pot of water boiling and add three quarters of a cup of rice or quinoa. Simmer until mostly, but not entirely, cooked; for white rice, this’ll take about twenty minutes, for quinoa more like ten or fifteen minutes. Strain it like you would pasta, and then add it back to the pot along with an equal amount of milk, plus about a quarter cup of brown sugar. Cook over medium-low heat until the grain is fully cooked, then stir in a little bit more milk to taste. (I like my rice pudding a little milky, but if you like it thicker, use less milk.) Then add in a few drops of vanilla extract.
As for the persimmons: There are two ways I’ve done this that turned out well. First is, cook a persimmon sauce, pretty much the same way you’d cook an applesauce, with the non-astringent persimmons. In a saucepan, melt about a tablespoon of butter, add in one sliced persimmon and a small squeeze of honey, then add in a sprinkle of some kind of fall spice (allspice is very good, so is cinnamon, so is clove). Cook down until soft, add a pinch of salt and a small squeeze of lemon, and place on top of the rice pudding. Or! You could use an astringent persimmon and make a sort of pudding for your pudding. Take a fully soft, ripe astringent persimmon and scoop out all the insides. Place in a food processor with maybe a tablespoon of heavy cream or just a pat of butter and blitz until super smooth, then spoon on top of rice pudding and top with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Note: if you like texture in your rice pudding, you can add in most kinds of chopped nuts (especially good are walnuts and hazelnuts).
Persimmon and Cheeeeese
Persimmons, like a lot of really rich, deep fruits, also tastes great with fresh white cheeses, like goat cheese, feta, queso blanco, or paneer. Here’s a very impressive snack that works with either kind of persimmon. If you’ve got non-astringent persimmons like fuyu, get rid of the leaves as usual, but chop them up into small cubes, maybe a centimeter on each side. Put them in a big bowl and macerate them in a little lemon juice, a little olive oil, a little salt, and a little black pepper. Take a baguette and slice rounds, maybe half an inch thick, or a little more, I don’t care, you know how to slice bread, and toast it lightly. Then spread some kind of softened white cheese on it, top with the cubes of persimmon, and if you want, some kind of cured meat product like speck, bresaola, or pancetta. Alternately: If you have astringent persimmons like hachiya, simply use a spoon to get a spoon-shaped amount of the inside flesh (ignoring the skin, unfortunately; you just want the flesh for this), and pop on top of the cheese.
One of the things I like best about cooking mostly vegetables is that there’s always a new type of a plant thing that think you already know (tiny fairytale eggplants! purple carrots! cara cara oranges!) or, in the case of the persimmon, an entirely new category you may not have experienced. Sometimes those turn out to be kind of duds — I’m still annoyed about the dragonfruit, which uses a ridiculous name and an equally ridiculous appearance to hide the fact that it tastes like a kiwi but with all the flavor removed — but the persimmon is no dud.
Crop Chef is a column about the correct ways to prepare and consume plant matter.
Photo by Brad Greenlee