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Down & Dirty: Persimmons

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

Persimmons -- have you submitted your recipe to this week's contest yet? -- are a winter fruit easy to overlook. They're sold unripened, to start, which can be confusing. But your patience in ripening them is rewarded with silky, gently jellied, intensely sweet flesh that can be used in everything from salads to baked goods.

The two main species of persimmon are native to North America and China, respectively. (Fun fact: persimmons and the prized ebony tree are in the same genus!) North American persimmons are plum-sized and much less common, although the Native Americans who originally cultivated them give the fruit its English name -- it literally means "dry fruit." The most commonly available cultivars by far are the Asian varieties Hachiya and Fuyu, which will be our focus today.

All persimmons are either astringent or non-astringent. What is astringency? It's a term you may be used to hearing in relation to bad red wine or overbrewed tea -- it indicates the presence of tannins, a flavor compound with a bitter, dry, furry, sandpapery mouthfeel. Unripe persimmons have very, very high levels of tannins, hence the name "dry fruit"! (On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Iranian word for persimmons is khormaloo -- literally "date plum" -- and describes the ripened flavor of the fruit.)

1. Hachiya: Astringent Hachiya persimmons are known for their signature heart shape. While they're inedibly hard and tannic when unripe, exposure to carbon dioxide slowly ripens them until they're almost too soft to handle. Hachiyas have a more delicate flavor and fragrance than Fuyus, and their flesh is a bit looser -- save them for eating raw. (For a peek at a ripe Hachiya's insides, look at the next photo.)

2. Fuyu: Though squat, bulbous Fuyus are called non-astringent, that doesn't mean they are free of tannins. Rather, they loose those bitter qualities much sooner in the ripening process, enabling them to be eaten out of hand like an apple as soon as they're uniformly soft to the touch. (Of course, you can still let it ripen to jelly-like softness if you prefer.) With their stronger flavor and sturdier flesh -- you can see a cross section in the last photo -- Fuyus are perfect for slicing into a salad or pureeing for a cake.

3. How to Eat: The easiest way to tell if a persimmon is ripe is to tug gently on its stem -- when it pops off, it's ready. The skin of the fruit is edible, but even after ripening can retain some tannic qualities -- it's best to scoop the flesh away from the peel with a spoon. Or just bite it like you would an orange wedge after soccer practice!

4. Save Those Seeds: Not all varieties of persimmon produce seeds, but if they do you're in luck: you can split that thin little seed and predict the coming winter. (Or so they say.) If the kernel inside resembles a fork, you'll be in for a mild winter. A spoon means heavy snow, and a knife predicts bitter, cold winds. Accurate? Maybe not. But it's a fun game.

While persimmons are in peak season right now, you can enjoy them year round by freezing their scooped-out insides to make cocktails, sorbet, and more all winter long. (And look for dried persimmons at Asian groceries -- they're a great sub for raisins and dried dates in everything from granola to cookies.) You can find many, many persimmon recipes on the Your Best Persimmons contest page, and you have until Tuesday to add your own!

Persimmon Galette

Kale & Persimmon Salad

Persimmon Olive Oil Cake

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: Persimmon, Long Reads, Sustainability, Infographics, Ingredients, Down and Dirty, Diagrams, Nozlee Samadzadeh