Persimmons: Winter Fruit Worth the Wait

—by Stacie Robinson

In Chinese philosophy, persimmons are seen as symbolic of the passage from youth to maturity—the transformation from rigidity and bitterness, yielding to sweetness and tenderness with age. This is more than just a proverb, it’s important epicurean advice. When unripe, the flesh of a persimmon is firm and unyielding, high tannin levels lead to a bitter flavor, and thick skin has a chalky flavor. Bleh! But as the fruit ripens, it softens as cells break down a bit, releasing sugars, and leading to a delicate, almost creamy texture and rich sweetness. Mmmm!

Ah, the allure of youth and beauty! Don’t think you can escape it in the produce aisle. We’re taken in by firm and bright (yet immature) fruit, and we toss it out as the middle softens and the skin sags. And, alas, we fail to fall in love with the complexity, juiciness, and full flavor that accompany the occasional blemishes of perfect ripening. Well, don’t be fooled by the under-aged persimmon! Let it ripen—a lot—probably a touch more than you think you should.

A nicely ripe persimmon should have deep orange skin, and the fruit should squeeze easily. But you don’t want a rotten persimmon. If the flesh starts getting slimy or the fruit smushes open upon gentle pressure, you’ve gone too far. You can help your persimmons ripen by storing them in a paper bag or other dry, closed container. Fruits produce the chemical ethylene to tell the cells to ripen. Ripening fruit in a container helps concentrate the ethylene around the fruit. You can also assist ripening by storing persimmons with other fruits such as apples, pears, or bananas, which produce a lot of ethylene.

But now, on to the important part—what to do with your perfectly ripe persimmons? The bright color and aromatic sweetness of persimmons make them a welcome treat in the late fall and early winter. They’re also high in vitamin C, so you can break out of the winter citrus rut and still ward off scurvy. Persimmons are a versatile fruit—sweet, with a pleasant hint of tart, and a mild cinnamon-like spice. They pair well with citrus and other fruits, fresh salads, savory dishes, and they bake well too. Below are two recipes for Fuyu persimmons, the smaller variety with more solid flesh than Hachiya, which is the strawberry-shaped variety that is best extremely soft.

The first recipe is so simple it hardly counts! But it’s so beautiful that you will awe your dinner party guests.

Simply Beautiful Winter Fruit Salad

4 persimmons, sliced (peel if desired)
2 kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced
Seeds of 1 pomegranate (hint: to avoid a juicy mess, pop the seeds out while holding the fruit underwater in a large bowl)

That’s it. Put it in a bowl. Gorgeous!

Persimmon Tart

For the dough:
1 stick cold butter
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup almond meal (can substitute all-purpose flour)
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Crumble butter, flour, almond meal, and salt together using your hands or a pastry blender. Add enough ice water to just hold the dough together. Press it into the bottom of a greased 10-inch tart pan and chill.

For the filling:
8 ounces softened cream cheese
1/3 cup plus 1⁄4 cup granulated sugar
1 extra-large egg
2 teaspoons pure almond extract (divided)
1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 medium Fuyu persimmons
2 tablespoons sliced almonds

Cream the cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, egg, vanilla, and one teaspoon almond extract until creamy. Peel one persimmon and puree it. Stir the purée into the cream cheese mixture. Peel the remaining 3 persimmons and slice as you would for apple pie. Mix 1⁄4 cup sugar with the remaining teaspoon of almond extract, then toss the sliced persimmons, sugar mixture, and sliced almonds together. Pour the cream cheese mixture into the tart shell and top with the sugared persimmon slices. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the cream cheese mixture is set. Cool and serve at room temperature. (Recipe adapted from http://www.em-and-am.com and http://www.food52.com.)

[Stacie Robinson is a wildlife ecologist, working at the U of M vet school researching wildlife diseases. Enjoying the outdoors has given her an enthusiasm for wild foods as well as whole foods.]