Friday, December 24, 2010


Seeing as this is Christmas week, I decided to do something festive.  Bright orange persimmons have always caught my eye at our regular grocery store, but I have never bought or even tasted one before.  Since my time is limited around the holidays, I decided to forgo the long drive to Assi and just pick up these little gems at the Giant next to my house.

Persimmons originated in China, were brought to the US in the 1880s and are now grown in California.  The Hachiya variety is the most highly available; they are the size of a small apple and shaped like an acorn.  Persimmons are high in vitamin A and C, and must be ripe -- they will feel like a water balloon -- before eating to mellow the tannins.  Tannins dry your mouth out, which is a pleasant experience with a good red wine.  Eat an unripe persimmon, however, and you will feel like you have a mouth full of chalky antacids.  The flavor is good, tropical and reminiscent of papaya with the consistency of a juicy ripe mango.  Persimmons are at their peak in October, but are available September through December and often make an appearance on Thanksgiving tables.  You can eat them raw in a salad with apples, or you can puree them and bake them into bread, cookies, or a pudding. 

Mitchell, Indiana has an Persimmon Pudding Contest as part of their annual Persimmon Festival, complete with accompanying pageants, balls, historic walks, and farm equipment show.  While I dare not compete with the good people of Mitchell, who have been making this dish contest-worthy for the last 74 years,  I did attempt my own persimmon pudding. 

For the past five years at work our traditional British Christmas dinner has ended with a flaming plum pudding.  Plum pudding is a misnomer to our American minds, though, as it is neither a pudding, nor does it contain plums.  It is actually a spiced raisin cake.  In the days of yore, however, any dessert in England was called a pudding, and they called raisins "plums."  I know I sound like Grandpa Simpson, ["I needed a new heel for my shoe so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time"] but that is why it is called plum pudding.  A persimmon pudding is the same idea as a plum pudding -- not really a pudding at all -- but it is baked rather than steamed.

The recipe I found called for the pulp of 4 persimmons (2 cups), 3 cups of milk, 2 cups of AP flour, 2 cups sugar, 2 eggs, a dash of cinnamon, and 1 tsp each of baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla. Mix all together and bake in a 13 x 9 pan at 350 degrees for 70 minutes.  The result is a gooey cake with the consistency of pecan pie that tastes good but nothing like persimmons.  I expected it to taste like them the way banana bread tastes like bananas, but it is more like zucchini bread where the other ingredients overpower the flavor of the namesake.

Hardly a first prize winner, as surely the bakers in Indiana would attest, but I'll bring it to our Christmas festivities and top it with whipped cream.  Next time I think I'll add nuts to give it a little texture.  It is always nice to do a little baking around the holidays, and the 70 minutes in the oven sure made the house smell good!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fava Beans

Last weekend my kids and I were hit with the stomach flu and the thought of food was nearly unbearable.  My apologies to all three of you who were looking for my post bright and early last Monday morning.  So, without further delay...this week I chose Fava Beans.  I know that these aren't all that strange, but I found them in the pod and since I have never worked with them before I thought I'd give it a try.

Fava beans are native to northern Africa and are also called broad beans or field beans.  They are high in protein, iron, potassium, and the fat-soluable vitamins A and K. They shouldn't be eaten by anyone taking MAO inhibitors for anti-depression or those with the hereditary disease G6PD, but the presence of L-dopa makes fava beans a homeopathic remedy for Parkinson's and hypertension, as well as a natural alternative to Viagra. They are available dried (a process that turns them brown), or raw in the pod where they are green inside and out.

The pod is a little less than a foot long and it opens easily.  Inside, the beans line up in a row and each individual bean is the size and shape of your thumb pad.  Once you have removed them from the fuzzy white interior of the pod, the outer skin of the actual bean has to be removed.  This is easily done with a clean fingernail.  It is a relatively labor intensive process as vegetables go, but my 2 1/2 year old had fun helping shell the beans.

I thought about making the Egyptian national dish Ful Medames, which is usually served for breakfast and consists of mashed fava beans, garlic, cumin and lemon, but all the recipes I found called for dried fava beans.  So, maybe another time.

Whenever anyone mentions fava beans I think of Italian food; actually, I think of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector who unforgettably said, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  Not wanting to try his menu, I decided to make a bacon and fava bean risotto.

Risotto is a method of cooking rice, usually arborio rice, in which you add the liquid little by little and stir frequently to produce a creamy, hearty dish.  Here's the quick how to: Saute some minced onion in olive oil, add the rice and toast it for a few minutes, add a cup of white wine and simmer until it is almost dry.  Then add chicken stock (or vegetable stock) cup by cup, sauteing each until almost dry and stirring frequently with a wooden spoon.  You will probably need between three or four cups.  When the rice is tender but still has a slight bite, add a pat of butter, a splash of heavy cream, and some Parmesan cheese.  From here, you can add whatever you want -- sauteed mushrooms, spinach, peas, the sky's the limit.  So, after a quick blanch and shock, I added the fava beans to the risotto, along with the bacon.  Once cooked, they are mild and and delicious and made a nice textural and color addition to the risotto.