Persimmons & Pomegranates
By Barbara Kobsar
I look forward to the Fall months as much for the seasonal produce as for the radiant colors. As I give a final sigh for the last harvest of California stone fruits, a fresh crop of picture-perfect persimmons comes along to fill the void.
On my daily travels around the East Bay, I spot persimmons hanging like ornaments on backyard trees long after the leaves drop. For commercial persimmon growers, mid-October to mid-November is the most active harvest period and a serious business where no persimmon is left behind. California takes credit for growing more than 95% of the nation’s persimmons during the short Fall period.
The persimmon is a beauty among fruits. Each is clipped from the tree by hand to ensure that the calyx (cap) remains attached to the fruit. This minimizes bruising and lengthens storage time. Unlike apples (which ripen 10 times faster at room temperature than in the refrigerator), persimmons sit perfectly content on the counter for several days, waiting to be enjoyed fresh out-of-hand or in salads and baking.
But not all persimmons are created equal. A simple wipe with a cloth produces a lustrous sheen on all types of persimmons, but what lies beneath the skin is where texture and taste vary dramatically.
The numerous varieties of persimmons fall into two main groups: American and Asian. Local farmers’ markets and produce departments offer up the familiar orange colored Asian Hachiyas and Fuyus. I consider it a treat when I spot a few brown streaked Chocolate persimmons or the large, turban shaped Tamopan to put in my bag.
I’m not as lucky when it comes to finding American persimmons, which are sometimes found growing wild in the southeast United States. American Indians dried these for year-round use. (Another name for a persimmon is a date-plum, referring to the fact that the fruit tastes much like fig or date when dried.)
Key differences in persimmons lies in their astringency (pucker power). All types ripen to an unforgettable sweet-tart taste, but at different stages.
Acorn-shaped Hachiya persimmons generally arrive at market while still firm and require five days to a week (and maybe more) to become very soft and ripe. Hachiyas are extremely astringent before reaching an almost pudding-like ripe stage. I check for bruise-free and plump Hachiyas before taking them home to fully ripen out of the refrigerator.
A row of persimmons along my kitchen window ledge is a welcoming sight, and their earthy aroma is another plus. The ripe pulp, scooped from the skin with a spoon, is a favorite snack of mine, and persimmon cakes, cookies, breads, puddings, and ice cream are a hit with friends and family any time.
Hachiya persimmons can be coaxed into ripening faster by placing them in a paper bag with a ripe banana or apple—these emit ethylene gas that speeds up the ripening process. An even quicker ripening method is to place the whole Hachiya in the freezer for 24 hours. When the persimmon is removed and thawed—voila—it’s ripe, juicy and ready to eat or cook with immediately. If I’m in the mood for a smoothie, I mix several chunks of frozen persimmon with 2% milk or buttermilk—delicious.
Tomato-shaped, squatty Fuyu persimmons fall into the non-astringent category. Fuyus do not contain tannins either when firm or completely ripe and are therefore delicious straight off the tree—no waiting required. I enjoy the sweet-tart, crispy crunch of a Fuyu as a snack. When serving salads and entrees, a few crosswise slices of a Fuyu reveal an intriguing star shaped design for garnish.
In addition to persimmons, California is almost exclusively responsible for producing the nation’s supply of pomegranates. Just over 15,000 acres may be considered a minor crop in the agriculture landscape, but these one-of-a-kind fruits are Wonderful, literally. Wonderful is the primary variety grown and sold commercially, and also one of the best.
Pomegranate trees can reach heights of more than 20 feet, but domestic fruiting varieties, such as the common Wonderful, are usually pruned in the eight to ten foot range. The large, showy, trumpet-shaped flowers bear mature pomegranates ranging from two to four inches in diameter. I pick out a few with cracks, which means that the pomegranate is bursting with juicy kernels—I’m just sure to use these within a few days of purchase.
The pomegranate’s name is derived from the Latin granatum, meaning “fruit of many seeds”. And it’s those seeds (kernels) that I seek for tangy sweet juice and plentiful antioxidants.
The shiny red kernels (or arils) under the deep purplish-red, leathery skin contain a small, woody edible seed. The kernels are encased in spongy white pith, and separating the two takes some effort. As a kid, removing the kernels with my fingers was a pleasurable activity—messy but efficient. When I no longer wanted the indelible juice on my clothes, I began using the underwater method to get to the glistening kernels.
To prepare a pomegranate, use a sharp knife to cut a thin piece off the crown. Slit the skin from top to bottom in four equal parts. Pry the fruit apart and remove the seeds from the membrane with fingers or spoon. Alternately, immerse the sections in a bowl of cool water for five minutes. Holding the fruit under water, separate the seeds from membrane. Discard the pith that floats to the top and strain the seeds that sink to the bottom. Any pomegranates destined for jelly making may be cut in halved crosswise and gently squeezed on a juicer.
Pomegranates are sold ripe and ready to eat. Storing them at room temperature they will brighten up the kitchen for two or three weeks, but refrigeration extends their shelf life to two months.
Enjoy, and see you at the farmers’ markets.
Veteran journalist Barbara Kobsar has authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. You’ll find her each Sunday at the Walnut Creek market and on Saturdays at the Orinda and San Ramon markets selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies made from farmers’ market produce.