I could never understand why the pumpkin has been lauded year after year as the rock star of the autumn harvest. This bulky behemoth is kind of awkward-looking, frequently lopsided, miserable to cut and carve, and messy to handle with its mass of stringy wet seeds. There are other beauties of fall, especially the forbidden fruit of myth and legend (the many varieties of apples), and the luscious pear revered since ancient Roman times for its seductive shape, ambrosial flavor, and healing properties. But the glossy, taut, orange-skinned botanical berry with melt-in-your-mouth pulp is the true understated prize of the season — the persimmon, which appropriately translates from Latin for "food of the gods."
While the persimmon originated in China about two millennia ago, this indulgent golden gem adopted by Japan as its national fruit, also trickled to American soils through Commodore Perry in the 1850's, finding warm, ideal climes in southern states and particularly California. The two commercially grown varieties that grace the produce aisles from September to December are the Fuyu and the Hachiya — so grab them while they're good and plenty!
The Fuyu is somewhat globe-shaped, but slightly squat, fitting nicely in your palm like a tomato, and capped with a dark green calyx — the sepals of a flower forming a spiral pattern. It is firm and slightly crunchy with delicately sweet flesh that is best eaten raw, skin and all. While the Hachiya is elongated and tapered at the bottom end like a giant acorn. Please don't eat these until fully ripe as Hachiyas are loaded with tannins making them so astringent and chalky they'll commit an assault on your mouth. So let the Hachiya sit on your counter until it is so swollen it is about to bust, then scoop out the luxurious, gelatinous pulp, discarding the skin. Then puree and freeze, or refrigerate until ready to use for cooking or baking.
Persimmons not only add a pop of eye candy and burst of exotic flavors to both sweet and savory dishes, but also an oomph of nutrition. The mighty berry is a powerhouse of Vitamin A, especially beta-carotene to dial up skin and eye health, a ton of Vitamin C to bolster the immune system and knock colds and flu to the curb, potassium for fluid balance and stable blood pressure, fiber to keep the constitution humming, and B-complex vitamins for control of stress and metabolism.
There's more. The persimmon has a rich supply of manganese that's an enzyme activator to break down fats, carbs and proteins, while warding off certain cancers, particularly lung and mouth. Valuable trace minerals (copper and phosphorous), along with phytonutrients and warrior anti-oxidants, including catechins, lutein, and lycopene boost vision, temper inflammation, and protect the prostate gland. In addition, a recent study identified a Herculean flavonoid called fisetin in persimmons shown to target and eradicate breast cancer cells without harming healthy ones, as well as killing prostate and colon cancer cells.
Practically every part of the persimmon tree is viable: the fresh or dried leaves are crushed to make tea, the lumber is a hardwood used for flooring and luxury items, making some of the finest golf clubs on the links, while the fruit is divine as a snack eaten in hand, frozen and enjoyed as a chilled creamy custard, grilled with a squirt of fresh lime juice, drizzle of orange blossom honey and dollop of Greek yoghurt, or tossed with arugula, pears and goat feta (recipe below). We're just getting started. Blend persimmon puree into muffins, scones, cookies, breads, cakes, waffle and pancake batters, or a silky smoothie.
Enliven a harvest cheese board with persimmon slices, or an autumn fruit salad mixing persimmon wedges with fresh figs, dates, pears, apples, pomegranate seeds, and roasted hazelnuts. Chop in salsas, top a dessert pizza with grilled persimmon slices and mascarpone cheese, a crostini with melted buffalo mozzarella, blend fruit into rice pudding, a dessert-themed risotto, or spoon warm compote over an ice cream sundae. Then to wash it down nicely whip up an invigorating persimmon martini or cosmopolitan.
Recipe: Persimmon & Goat Cheese Autumn Salad
• Ingredients: 6 ounces baby spinach or arugula; 1 Fuyu persimmon, sliced in wedges, skin intact; 1 Comice pear, sliced lengthwise; 1/3 cup toasted hazelnuts; 3 ounces goat feta, crumbled; 6 tablespoons fresh tangerine juice or Champagne vinegar; 3 tablespoons nut oil (walnut, almond, hazelnut); 1/2 teaspoon orange blossom honey; 1/2 teaspoon stone ground mustard
• Method: In a large bowl, combine greens, persimmon, pear and cheese. In a small bowl, whisk together juice or vinegar, oil, honey, mustard and seasonings. Pour over greens and toss well. Sprinkle nuts on top and serve immediately. Serves 2.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com