Perplexing Persimmons, Week Ending 11/15/2020

I am still trying to decide whether this year’s American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) bounty counts as a “win”.

I’m harvesting them all wrong. I know that. Persimmons – like pawpaws – are ripe when they fall from the tree. The end. The best way to harvest them is with a blanket under the tree, and every morning you collect any that fell overnight (before the critters can get to them). Well. Since my persimmon tree isn’t my tree, I must resort to picking the ripest fruit I can find off the branches I can reach.

Persimmons are way above my head... literally and figuratively!
Persimmons are way above my head… literally and figuratively!

The goal is to find the softest, squishiest, saddest looking specimens, because “overripe” is what actually constitutes ripe for American persimmons. The thin skin should tear easily. The fruit should be shriveled like a golden raisin. If you pile them in a bucket together, they should crush each other into a big gooey mess. That’s when they are ripe enough to not make your mouth feel gross and fuzzy from the tannins.

For American persimmons, ugly is beautiful
For American persimmons, ugly is beautiful

I gathered over six pounds of the fruit. Once they were home and washed, I nibbled on several individual persimmons, and each and every one had at least a small degree of that mouth puckering astringency you find in underripe fruit. Maybe it is just this tree?

Before processing the persimmons for pulp, I weeded out any fruit that were clearly not ripe enough, i.e., any that still felt firm. I hoped once the persimmons were mashed together into pulp, they would – I don’t know – balance each other out, and just enough overripe ones would cancel out the awful mouth feel of the underripe ones. Using a conical food mill, I separated the soft skin and seeds from the pulp. This is a sticky process, by the way, so I recommend doing it next to a sink!

If you don’t have a food mill, you can use the back of a spoon to crush the fruit against the holes of a colander. Any skin which makes it through the holes will be thin enough that it won’t be noticeable in the paste.

A colander full of persimmon possibilities
A colander full of persimmon possibilities

I tried freezing the handful of the underripe persimmons. Multiple sources I’d read said that freezing does not, in fact, make persimmons sweeter or more ripe. They just take so long to ripen, it often occurs after the first hard frost or later. However enough people believe the freezing trick works that I had to try it for myself. Plus, freezing improves the edibility for other wild plants, such as sunchokes. Sitting in the freezer overnight and then thawing the next day definitely made the fruit softer. But they were still unpleasant to eat!

And what about all those persimmons still clinging to the tree? According to Sam Thayer, once the tree goes dormant the fruit stops ripening. This explains why the persimmons I harvested last year were still awful. They weren’t ripe when the tree went dormant, so they would never become ripe. Which seems like such a waste, because the tree is still covered with fruit, and will continue to be. I’ve also read that cooking with persimmons can help nullify the tannins in the pulp so maybe I will try some of the recipes that call for roasting the persimmons.

I continue to struggle with how best to use persimmons, given that I don’t eat much fruit, nor cook a lot of pies, breads, puddings, or jams which seem to be the main destination for persimmons. I wanted to substitute persimmon pulp for date paste in recipes, since dates are another exotic imported ingredient I would love to replace with a local alternative. But I discovered that persimmon pulp is too wet, and nowhere near as sweet as dates.

Persimmon paste, ready to use!
Persimmon paste, ready to use!

I decided to invent a local (or localizable) energy bar, only using ingredients which could be sourced from the nearby area. Not to say that they actually were, but that they could be. Like an RX bar. I used persimmon pulp, ground pecans, egg white protein powder, spicebush and maple syrup with a teensy bit of salt. I would have rather used hickory nuts, but haven’t been able to find any trees nearby. At least pecans are in the hickory family, and cold hardy pecans can be grown in this zone.

But I digress. The resulting “dough” was so moist it needed to be dried in the dehydrator to make a usable bar. Five hours on the “fruit” setting gave it a nice texture. While the bars were tasty, the persimmon flavor was too subtle to really be appreciated, and they were NOTHING at all like an RX bar. Since no one else in the house will eat them, I am extra grateful I used ingredients I will eat, so all that effort extracting the pulp won’t be wasted!

I froze one remaining cup of pulp for future use, and I still have the underripe persimmons, so maybe I will get a solid foraging win eventually!

What foraging successes or failures are you facing this fall?

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