The virtues of eating local are manifold, but good luck finding a piece of Pennsylvania fruit that isn’t an apple this time of year. As fall tiptoes into winter in a frosty walk of shame, locavore ennui mounts — why did I start this column in November, again? — as peach trees molt their leaves like great green flamingoes and barbed berry canes whip in the wind like scorpion tails.
So it’s with great gusto that we welcome the juicy, candy-sweet persimmon, late fall’s unplanned pregnancy. Ranging in color from turmeric yellow to creamy tangerine, these waxy, smooth fruits (actually berries, scientifically speaking) thrive in warmer climes but grow contrarily here. “I have them at the highest altitude in the sunniest spot of the farm,” says mustachioed Lancaster farmer Tom Culton, who grows both varieties of the Chinese natives. “I keep them totally by themselves.”
Apparently persnickety persimmons don’t always play well with others. That’s true in restaurants as well as on the farm.
“Persimmons can be amazing, or they can taste like you’re eating fucking sandpaper,” says Zahav’s Mike Solomonov. “I remember trying to impress my in-laws one time with persimmons. They have this place down near the Chesapeake Bay and there were little persimmon trees all around, so I picked a bunch and served them, and seconds later, none of us could talk.”
Chances are, Solomonov picked some lantern-shaped Hachiyas or one of the other tannin-packed astringent cultivars that, when under-ripe, make your mouth feel as if a colony of furry caterpillars has just moved in. Non-astringent varieties include the squat Fuyu, which ripe or unripe “can be really luscious and sweet with these almond-y, nutty earth tones that make them really great with savory cooking,” says Solomonov, who pickled and pureed Culton’s pectin-bombs into a sunset-pink sauce for the pumpkin latkes and pasturma-spiced gravlax premiering on Zahav’s menu this week: “Pureed with a little acid, they set almost into a pudding.”
At the Mildred, Michael Santoro is also using persimmons this month in both sweet (persimmon-cranberry croustade) and savory (poached-persimmon salad with ewe’s-milk cheese and citron vinaigrette) applications. At Talula’s Garden, Sean McPaul’s tasting menu currently features the fruit raw in pieces and pureed into a compound fennel-shallot butter as complements for glazed lobster and celery root. Next month, Brad Spence slips slices into his lasagna at Amis. Get persimmons while you can — it’s all turnips and potatoes till April.