Timing's everything for this fruit

THE BALTIMORE 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.

"These are places you can just pull off, pick the persimmons and no one will care," says Hager. "Personally, I prefer the American persimmon. They're much richer-tasting than what you get in stores. When I'm in the garden working, I'll go by my tree and if there's one there that's ready, it's like taking a bite out of an apple. There is an art to eating them, though, without getting the goo all over you. They're a little bit messy."

Meanwhile, Hager will be preparing his mother Marguerite's pudding recipe over the holidays.

"Imagine steamed Christmas pudding. It's that, only richer. Mother always baked it in a black metal pan. It was just dripping in butter and the edges would be a little crusty and chewy. And it's great with whipped cream," adds Hager. "Sounds obscene, doesn't it?"

Persimmon Chutney

Makes 16 servings

1 cup yellow onion, minced

5 pounds persimmons, seeded and chopped (divided use)

1 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated

1 cinnamon stick

pinch of cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon chile flakes

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dried sour cherries

Lightly sweat onions in heavy-bottom pot. Add half the persimmons and remaining ingredients. Dice remaining persimmons and reserve.

Let mixture slowly simmer until reduced by half. Stir often so the sugars do not burn the bottom of the pot.

When the mixture has achieved a syruplike consistency, remove from heat. Add the reserved diced persimmons and cool.

- John Mitchell, Whole Foods Market

Marguerite Hager's Persimmon Pudding

Serves 24

2 cups persimmon pulp

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 1/2 cups self-rising flour

2 eggs

1 cup melted butter

Blend ingredients well, adding butter last. Pour in greased 9-inch-by-12-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Note: This pudding keeps well and the flavor continues to develop. Best served after two to three days.

- R. Dennis Hager, mayor of Millington Per serving: 203 calories; 3 grams protein; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 30 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 40 milligrams cholesterol; 260 milligrams sodium

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