Persimmons ready early for fall cooking

11/13/2013 12:00 AM

11/13/2013 10:37 AM

Like bright orange harbingers of frosty nights to come, persimmons signal fall weather.

Pointy or flat, persimmons of all kinds flourish in Sacramento, where they relish the mild winters and warm summers. A bountiful crop is now flowing into farmers markets and roadside fruit stands as well as decorating backyard trees. Like many crops this year, ripe persimmons are about two weeks ahead of schedule.

“They’re ripening early,” said Chris Otow Kuratomi, whose family has grown persimmons for generations in what is now Granite Bay. “We’re having a very nice year. All kinds of persimmons are ready right now. Normally, we’d still be waiting around, but right now, we’re busy – we’re sure not twiddling our thumbs.”

Nationally famous, Otow Orchard grows 6 acres of persimmons in several varieties, including five types of Fuyu, the chocolate-colored Maru, spicy Hyakume and famous Hachiya. Family matriarch Helen Otow, now 97, still greets guests, helps tend the farm stand and supervises as the Hachiya are hung to dry to create hoshigaki – prized dried persimmons.

“Ever since we were featured on Huell Howser’s ‘California Gold’ (in 2008 on public television), we’ve been known for our persimmons,” said Tosh Kuratomi, Chris’ husband. “We’re peach farmers, but everybody comes for the persimmons.”

Otow Orchard now ships nationwide its hand-massaged hoshigaki (which takes weeks to perfect) and fresh persimmons. But most buyers visit in person.

“We welcome people to come and wander the orchard,” Tosh said. “People come from all over the country.”

That’s especially true now during the height of persimmon season, which runs from late October through December. Chefs love the crunchy (and flat) Fuyu persimmon that subs for apples in salads or other fall fare. Oddball varieties with tasty nicknames such as “chocolate,” “cinnamon” or “coffee cake” persimmon have found devoted fans. Traditionalists swear by the tannin-laced pointy Hachiyas, a delicacy coveted for its complex sweetness – especially when hand-dried.

From Lincoln to Newcastle, Highway 193 is Sacramento’s persimmon corridor. Several family farms specialize in this unusual crop.

Passers-by gawk at the colorful fruit that packs tree branches. A member of the ebony family, persimmon trees have very dark, unusually strong wood. That allows the small tree’s graceful branches to hold heavy crops.

In eastern states, native persimmons hang on trees long after the leaves have fallen. Sacramento’s Asian varieties are hand-snipped (with about an inch of stem) while red and orange leaves still hang on the tree.

“Otherwise, the birds and critters will get them all,” said author and local persimmon expert Jean Brine.

A North Dakota native, Brine discovered persimmons when she moved to Sacramento more than half a century ago.

“Behind my parents’ business on Capital Mall, there were these two old, old persimmon trees – absolutely loaded with Hachiya persimmons,” Brine recalled. “I was so excited. I had never seen anything like them and I loved fruit!”

But what do you do with so many persimmons? A state worker, Brine turned to her new Sacramento colleagues for advice.

“They said, ‘We’ll help you!’” she said. “I took two big boxes of persimmons to work, and they went like wildfire. So I knew people liked persimmons. But I could never find any recipes. So for the next 45, 50 years, I started collecting recipes every time I saw one.

“People became aware I was a persimmon nut,” Brine said with a chuckle. “Any time they saw any persimmon recipes, they’d send them to me. I started accumulating quite a few recipes.”

Now retired, Brine turned her collection into a cookbook: “Perfectly Persimmon” (Morris Press Cookbooks, 440 pages, $20). It features more than 1,000 recipes plus lots of tips for handling this often-puzzling fruit.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of persimmon,” she said. “But for most recipes, it really comes down to two types: Hachiya or Fuyu.”

That also divides the recipes. Because of their intense pucker power when under-ripe, Hachiya must be mushy before use. Then, the jelly-like pulp can be scooped out of the skin. Once it turns color, Fuyu can be eaten crisp or allowed to fully soften, making it a more versatile fruit.

Among Brine’s recipe resources were cooking contests at the annual persimmon festival in Mitchell, Ind. She also collected a wide assortment of savory recipes – such as persimmon salsa and persimmon meatballs – as well as more traditional sweet treats (including 69 puddings). Out of her 1,000-plus collection, her favorite recipe is a cookie: lemon-glazed persimmon bars.

This month, Brine is busy with her own persimmons. Most will be pureed and frozen for later use. She and her husband, Bob Brine, have their own large Hachiya tree in their Pocket/Greenhaven neighborhood home garden. A single mature tree can bear 60 to 100 pounds of fruit a year.

“When they start to produce, they really get going,” Brine said.

“You can get a great over-abundance,” she added. “But people are very happy when you share.”

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