Timing's everything for this fruit

Persimmon bitter if eaten too early

December 01, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The poor persimmon - so unappreciated, so underrated.

"It's a fruit not too many people are comfortable with," says Michel Tersiguel, the chef at Tersiguel's, the French country restaurant in Ellicott City. "You see it on the shelves once a year, you grab it, you try it and you figure once is enough. And that's too bad because there's all sorts of stuff you can do with persimmons when you use your imagination."

This late-fall fruit, available at markets into January, generally is associated with baked goods - cookies, bread, pie, cake and especially persimmon pudding. But it's also showing up in some surprising places: on salads, in chutney, even ice cream.

It's good grilled - and in the raw. And it's a pretty fruit with a distinctive red-orange color that has given it some stature as a design element in tabletop arrangements.

So why is the persimmon so misunderstood?

It comes down to this: right fruit, wrong time. A lot of folks mistakenly bite into persimmons before they're ripe. "A persimmon, if not ripe, will pucker you like you would not believe," says Tersiguel. "Your lips go right into your head."

Often, the persimmons in stores are hard, and therefore, astringent. Oddly, they're not ready to eat until they're mushy. But when you get them at the right time, there's nothing better.

Just ask Morris "Butch" Chastain, mayor of Mitchell, Ind., persimmon capital of the world. "It's kind of unique, sweet. It's not something you'd ever know unless you eat one," says Chastain, whose community of 5,000 has sponsored an annual weeklong persimmon festival since 1946. "Now my wife doesn't like them, but I do. I never tasted a bad one."

Mitchell's police chief, Mike Hardman, is also a huge fan of the fruit. In fact, in 1972 - when he was just a high school sophomore - Hardman's entry won the festival's highly competitive persimmon pudding contest. "It was my grandmother's recipe," says Hardman. "She'd won three times before."

The rest is town history: The Associated Press put the story of Hardman's win on the wire and a few days later, while he was taking a geometry test, a producer from "What's My Line?" called Hardman at school and invited him on the show.

The quiz show panel, including Soupy Sales, Gene Rayburn and Joyce Brothers, later guessed that Hardman had won a cooking contest. "After that, everyone started calling me Puddin'," says the 6-foot-4, 350-pound cop.

Mitchell came to be known as the persimmon capital because of all the American persimmon trees that grow there. You find them in Maryland, too. But most of the persimmons sold in stores are Asian - specifically Hachiya and Fuyu, the leading commercial cultivars grown in California.

A historical footnote: According to a report from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the now common Asian persimmon is native to China, made its way to Japan, then was introduced to the United States by Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition that opened world commerce to Japan in 1854.

The Hachiya is the most widely available persimmon in the country, followed by the Fuyu, which is smaller and more tomato-shaped, according to John Mitchell, Whole Foods Market chef and Northern Pacific prepared-foods coordinator. When ripe, both have a red-orange skin and flesh.

Mitchell touts the persimmon as a nice add for holiday dishes. "I do a persimmon chutney that's great during winter with different types of grilled game: capons, chicken, duck. It's chutney with dried sour cherries and raisins and chili flakes to give it a little heat," says Mitchell. "It's also great with grilled meats."

Persimmons also work well in salads. Mitchell likes to lightly grill the fruit, then slice it and slap it on an arugula salad with a light vinaigrette. Tersiguel, meanwhile, suggests placing really ripe persimmon slices on a salad with croutons and thinly sliced prosciutto.

"You've got that sweet-savory thing going on. It's a good appetizer salad," says Tersiguel, who also makes a persimmon pudding with cognac.

"Everything has its place and time, the same with persimmons. It tells its own story," Tersiguel adds. "You know it's the holidays, and it brings back thoughts of a grandmother's cooking or a great-aunt's. There are nice associations with it."

R. Dennis Hager, the mayor of Millington, has revered the persimmon since he learned to love the fruit growing up in rural North Carolina. "In the local cookbook back home, the church had recipes for persimmon pudding, including my mother's," says Hager. "I want to be humble about this but people would bring her their persimmons and ask her to make the pudding for them. It's that good."

Hager has two persimmon trees growing in his yard - one American, one Asian. He also knows of a dozen "exceptionally fine" American persimmon trees growing along roadsides within a short drive of his Eastern Shore home.

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