Discovering Persimmons And Bittersweet

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Autumn is a great time of year for getting outside and taking long walks in the woods. For one thing, the air is crisp and is filled with the blended scents of forest, fallen leaves and everything harvest. Every time I go on a hike I see, hear or smell something new. On a recent outing I broadened my taste horizon as well.

Our country is grouped into such large regions; the South, Midwest, East and West. Within each of those areas you don’t have to travel too many miles to find different floral and fauna offerings. On a recent trip to east central Indiana I got to experience persimmons and bittersweet for the first time.

Let’s go with the persimmons first. I was introduced to them in a rather odd fashion. A friend and I were walking through his woods and he stopped and asked if I had ever seen persimmons before. They are either round or oval flavorful fruits that grow on trees, originating from the Far East. When ripe the fruit is deep red to burgundy.

Knowing I had never had one before, my friend plucked one from the tree and began polishing it on his shirt as you would an apple. I thought how sweet of him as I plucked it from his hand and popped it in my mouth. The first taste was good, but then my mouth started to draw up and my mouth went numb and puckered.

What he had not gotten around to tell me (was it on purpose??) was that if persimmons are eaten before they are completely ripe you will have the strongest mouth-puckering experience of your life because of their astringency. OK, in his defense, he did not tell me to eat it, but he did not tell me not to either! Everything has its time and a persimmon’s time is when it is EXTREMELY ripe.

Actually, they are classified into two categories, the ones which are astringent and those which are not. Those that are, like the one that I tasted, must be completely ripe and almost to the mushy stage before they can be enjoyed. The non-astringent type, however, can be eaten while they are still crispy with no adverse affects.

Once they are ripe, persimmons are fruits you may want to explore. They can be eaten in a variety of ways such as added to yogurt or ice cream and other desserts and baked into cookies or cakes, among other things. Many people use them in recipes that call for bananas, replacing the bananas with persimmons. Just a word of warning, using baking soda in the recipe will reduce the astringency and thicken the pulp but will also make the batter light and airy. To counteract this, use half the amount of baking soda which will yield a denser end product.

They can also be used in both green and fruit salads and can be made into jam just as you would any other fruit. They make a delicious sweet salsa and, of course, the famous persimmon pudding. Following is a recipe for persimmon pudding:

Combine 1 cup VERY RIPE persimmon pulp and 3/4 cup sugar. Beat in 3 eggs, 1 cup milk and 1/4 lb. melted butter. Stir in 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour batter into a 9-inch square cake pan sprayed with cooking spray. Bake at 325 F for 1 hour or until a knife comes out clean.

It’s fun to discover something new and it’s even better when that something new is good for you. Although persimmons are high in calories, they are low in fat content. They are a good source of antioxidants and have anti-tumor compounds. One particular antioxidant is called catechins which have anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and anti-hemorrage properties. So, help yourself to a serving of something different.

I have to admit, discovering bittersweet on our walk was a much more pleasant experience. It is a fast growing, climbing perennial vine. In the wild, the woody vine grows by twining itself around shrubs, trees and other plants. It is usually found in thickets, woods and river banks and can reach heights of 60 feet, hanging from branches of trees. The fruits start green, turning first to yellow and then to red. In winter the orange outer layer opens and falls off, leaving three bright red parts underneath.

Bittersweet is a favorite in fall wreaths and other décor. The vines are easily bent to conform to almost any shape. For this reason they can be added to existing floral arrangements or used alone to showcase the colors of the season. However, they are best picked green and molded into shape at that time because when the berries become ripe they tend to fall off easily. It is also better suited for cooler indoor rooms or for outside display as the berries also tend to fall off easily when exposed to warmer temperatures.

Bittersweet is aptly named because the autumn blooming vine is a catch-22. It is loved for its beauty but loathed for its invasive and destructive way. The vines can become so heavy that entire trees and plants may be uprooted once the bittersweet takes over. Brought to the United States in the 1860’s, it ran rampant for a long time until the use of some sprays and chemicals in some areas threatened to wipe it out. As of recent and on a “bittersweet” note, this vine has made a comeback as people have been more mindful of where they spray but, left unregulated, this fall favorite will literally take over a landscape. This is why bittersweet has earned a spot on the United States Department of Agriculture’s national invasive species list.

Persimmons and bittersweet are just two of fall’s sweet and colorful offerings. This just proves there is so much to enjoy and explore in our great outdoors and there couldn’t be a more perfect season than autumn to head out. There is always something new to discover just around the next bend. Just wondering what my next discovery will be.

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