For produce geeks like me, fall is synonymous not with football and falling leaves, but with persimmons and Asian pears.
Though I wait impatiently for their arrival every year, my love affair with these autumnal Asian fruits is a relatively recent development. A notoriously picky eater as a child (my parents are still scratching their heads over how I ended up a cooking teacher), I was not one to experiment with unfamiliar foods. Imagine their joy when 7-year-old me asked for a taste of persimmon plucked from a friend's tree.
Well, it was nearly 20 years before I could be coerced into trying another one. Biting into an unripe hachiya persimmon is on a par with swallowing a mouthful of metal filings. Happily, I've recovered from that unfortunate experience and have grown to love (ripe!) persimmons for their bright, cheerful, orange color, glossy skins, delicate shapes, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh.
Persimmons, which hail from Asia, are just now appearing in markets (and on my neighbor's trees - sparking thoughts of midnight raids). They are typically available until February.
The two main varieties are hachiya and fuyu. Fuyus are a squat, tomato-shaped persimmon, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch.
Fuyus have a cinnamony, apricoty flavor that is absolutely decadent. I love fuyus eaten as is, or sliced into salads. I serve mine atop baby greens with a sherry vinaigrette, accompanied by walnuts and fresh goat cheese.
Hachiyas have an elongated, acorn-like shape, and should feel soft and gelatinous when ripe. Their sweet, pulpy flesh makes them ideal for using in baked goods, ice creams, sorbets, puddings and smoothies. But they also make delectable out-of-hand eating: simply cut off the top and scoop out the jelly-like flesh with a spoon. Heaven.
Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.
To ripen hachiyas quickly, freeze the whole fruit until hard. When they thaw, they will be perfectly soft and ripe. Hachiyas can keep for several months in the freezer.
Farmer Ted Loewen of Blossom Bluff Orchards likes to dry his hachiyas, a technique he learned from his Asian neighbors. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe that you are unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You will need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture.
When dried, the persimmons will have an intense, concentrated sweetness that is excellent for snacking, baking, or cutting up on your morning cereal. A fine, white powder may develop on your dried persimmons, but this is normal.
Two other persimmon varieties you may find at your local farmers' market are the giant fuyu, which contains seeds and is more pulpy and thus better for baking than the regular fuyus, and chocolate, which is similar to the hachiya, with a sweet, peachy flavored, brownish flesh.
When choosing fruit, ``The darker the color the better," says Loewen. ``The sugars are more developed."
Store your persimmons on the counter, and if they're not quite ripe, stick them in a paper bag for a day or so, as you would stonefruit.
Asian pears, another fall favorite that hails from Asia, have become fairly commonplace in farmers' markets and grocery stores in the last decade. They are prized for their addictively crisp, sweet, crunchy and translucent flesh.
Varieties commonly found at Bay Area farmers' markets include shinko, hosui, yali, nanseiki, Olympia, and twentieth century. While all possess crisp flesh, there are subtle differences in flavor that are particular to each variety. The best way to determine what you like is to ask farmers for a taste.
Asian pears make excellent and refreshing out-of-hand eating. ``Farmer Al" Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm likes his with a little Camembert, Brie, or Cambozola cheese.
His partner, Becky Smith, makes a commercial line of jams from Frog Hollow's fruit, including a zesty Asian pear chutney that is just the thing for sandwiches or roasted pork.
Lucy McBride of Gabriel Farm likes to make fruit tarts using Asian pears, or she substitutes Asian pears for other fruits when baking.
When choosing Asian pears, says Courchesne, look for a good sized fruit with ``full, golden color with no hint of green around the stem.
``Asian pears are good keepers," Courchesne continues, ``you can store them in a cold refrigerator until Christmas without any noticeable changes in color or texture."
The following growers offer persimmons and Asian pears at Bay Area farmers' markets: Kaki Farm, Guru Ram Das Orchards, Solano Mushroom Farm, Star Valley Farm, Blossom Bluff Orchards, Frog Hollow Farm, Gabriel Farm, and Kashiwase Farms.
PERSIMMON PUDDING WITH CREME ANGLAISE
From Gary Danko, chef/owner of Gary Danko in San Francisco, as published in ``Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups flour, sifted
2 cups puree, made from Hachiya persimmons (see note)
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup melted sweet butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup light cream or half-and-half
Creme Anglaise (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9-by-3-inch round cake pan or springform pan with a tight seal.
Sift together cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and flour. In a separate bowl, whisk together persimmon puree, eggs, sugar, melted butter, vanilla and cream. Stir in flour mixture and whisk well to combine.
Pour batter into the pan and cover tightly with foil (shiny side to the batter). Create a water bath by sitting the cake pan in a casserole and adding water until it comes about halfway up the outside of the cake pan. Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until a skewer comes out clean. Let cool to lukewarm and serve with Creme Anglaise. Serves 8.
Note: To make persimmon puree, use completely ripe Hachiya persimmons. The flesh should be soft and jellylike. Peel and seed them, then process the flesh in a food processor or blender until smooth.
Per Serving: 396 Calories; 19g Fat; 5g Protein; 54g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 98mg Cholesterol; 442mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 Grain (Starch); 1 Fruit; 3 1/2 Fat; 1 1/2 Other Carbohydrates.
4 egg yolks
4 tablespoons sugar
1 cup light cream or half-and-half
½ vanilla bean, scraped
In a heavy, medium-size saucepan, combine and whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and salt. Set aside.
Place cream in a small saucepan and bring to the boiling point, but do not boil. Add seeds scraped from vanilla bean and, stirring constantly, infuse for several minutes.
Whisk the hot cream into the reserved egg mixture. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly and thoroughly but gently, until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Be careful that the sauce does not boil.
Remove from heat, stir gently once or twice to smooth, and strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Cool in a bowl over ice. When completely chilled, refrigerate until needed.
Per Serving: 113 Calories; 8g Fat; 2g Protein; 7g Carbohydrate; Fiber; 126mg Cholesterol; 16mg Sodium. Exchanges: 1 1/2 Fat; 1/2 Other Carbohydrates
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
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