About Persimmons

His name was Clifford. According to my mother, he was the son of my father’s first cousin once removed, but as far as I was concerned, he was a spawn of Satan. Clifford taught me how to roll rabbit tobacco, what a wedgie is, and made me eat my first (and only) Irish plum.

It’s quite possible that the reason most people in my part of the world aren’t accustomed to cooking with persimmons is because they were tricked into eating an unripe persimmon as a child. That’s what Clifford called an Irish plum, and it sure looked like a green plum, which should have clued me in on not eating it in the first place. Anyone who bites into an unripe persimmon will never forget the experience; it’s agonizingly, mouth-puckeringly astringent; the tannins in the green fruit turn spit into chalk.

The fruit Cliff dared me to eat (successfully) was the fruit of the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). American persimmons are astringent. They really don’t need a frost to ripen; that’s more or less a rule of thumb, but a frost will cause ripe fruit to fall. Ripe American persimmons have a wrinkled, waxy, reddish-orange skin, and while they don’t have a lot of pulp, it has a deep, unique, molasses-y taste.

The most common persimmon you’ll find in markets is the non-astringent Oriental, Chinese, or Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki). This non-astringent persimmon—usually referred to as fuyu—isn’t totally free of tannins, but are far less astringent when green and lose their tannins sooner. These persimmons are the national fruit of Japan, a symbol of autumn in much the same way pumpkins are in the United States. In Buddhism, they are symbols of transformation: green persimmons are bitter, representing ignorance; sweet, ripened fruits represent the wisdom that comes with maturity.

If the persimmons you buy in the store have even the faintest tinge of green, let them to sit at room temperature in natural light for a couple of days or put the persimmons in a paper bag along with pieces of apples, bananas, or pears. These fruits give off ethylene gas, which helps the persimmons to ripen more quickly as well. Once ripe, persimmons can be stored in the refrigerator and should be eaten or used within three days. The Persimmon Festival held every September in Mitchell, Indiana, hosts a contest for persimmon pudding, a baked dessert with the consistency of sweet potato pie. To Hoosiers, this dish is sacred, and purists insist on fully-ripened native fruit, but most all the rest of us must make do with fuyu.

Peel and chop five ripe (fuyu) persimmons until smooth and strain. You should get about two cups of pulp; if you don’t, add another persimmon. Blend pulp with two beaten eggs and two cups sugar until smooth. Stir a teaspoon of baking soda into a cup of buttermilk. Add to persimmon mixture along with 1 ½ cups flour sifted with a tablespoon of baking powder. Stir in a quarter stick melted butter, a teaspoon vanilla, and a dash or so of cinnamon. Pour into a buttered dish and bake at 350 until firm and set, about an hour or so.

Ginger-Pecan Sandies

This recipe makes a rich and aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, cocoa, even sweet mulled wine—and it’s so simple a child can make it, but to make real sandies, you must use sanding sugar, which is slightly coarser than granulated.

Cream 1 stick butter with a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract. Blend in 2 cups plain flour sifted with a teaspoon of baking powder, a  half cup chopped pecans and a tablespoon ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work at all well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Refrigerate for a half hour. Pat or roll the dough ball out a half inch thick, sprinkle with sanding sugar, cut into rounds or squares, and bake at 350 middle rack until lightly browned. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled.

Prime Rib

I once worked in a restaurant that served prime rib. We would regularly roast four rib loins in a day, and during the tourist season, we would keep eight loins cooking literally around the clock. We’d take the loins to rare, and since the carving station was set up under a heat lamp next to the grill, on busy nights the meat would continue to cook in service. We often had to rotate the rib sections on and off the carving board. If someone ordered prime rib well done—and, yes, such people do exist in this world—we’d drop a cut into the well of au jus we kept at the grill station until meat was though and grey and the tip and cap had peeled away from the eye. Smart guests who wanted a slice on the done side ordered an end piece.

Our menu called this beef dish prime rib, but we rarely used USDA Prime beef. We most often used a Choice rather than the much more expensive Prime grade, but rib roast is usually called prime on menus because it is, after all, from one of the eight primal cuts in a steer (brisket, shank, rib, loin, round, chuck, flank, and plate). Most of the beef you find in supermarkets is Choice or Prime; check the label. Rib eye steaks are simply uncooked slices of a rib roast. Roasts with bones are usually known as bone-in or standing rib roasts; a rib eye with a bone is often called a tomahawk. A loin with ribs is called a rack.

You can bet a rib roast can be expensive, usually from $7 to as much as $27+ per pound; the average is around $15-20. The price can be much cheaper during the major holidays, around $8 to $12 per pound. Bone-in roasts usually have three to seven ribs and are slightly cheaper. Each rib slice, on average, can generate enough meat for two larger slices. A three-rib roast can feed about seven people; figure 16 ounces of uncooked boneless roast per person.

At the restaurant, we would first wipe down the whole boneless rib loins (each easily weighing 15-20 lbs.) with a clean, moistened cotton cloth, then coat the entire slab of meat heavily with coarse sea salt, and place them directly on the racks of an oven set at 250. We’d check the loins every half hour or so with a meat thermometer, removing them when they were very rare (@ 120). Those we didn’t use were refrigerated for heating later.

For an evenly-cooked, 7 lb. rib roast, preheat the oven to 475. Pat the roast dry, coat with sea salt and minced garlic, and place on a on a rack in a pan.  If you’re using a bone-in roast, you can simply rest the meat on the bones. Cover with a cloth and bring to room temperature. When you place the roast in the oven, wait a half hour, then turn the heat down to 275.  In an hour, begin checking with a thermometer. When you get a 125 reading in the thickest part of the roast, immediately remove the meat from the oven, and let rest about five minutes a pound before carving and serving. Serve with a ramekin of au jus (a.k.a. pan drippings), a good brown mustard, and freshly-grated horseradish.

Shrimp and Grits

In 1985, Craig Claiborne visited Bill Neal’s restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and after sampling many dishes, asked Neal to prepare shrimp and grits for him in his kitchen the next morning. Claiborne published this recipe in the New York Times, and the national craze for shrimp and grits was on. While the recipe has been replicated—usually with disappointing results—in restaurants across the country, this is the original recipe.

6 cups cooked grits with cheese (I use a white cheddar)
Tabasco sauce
Freshly grated nutmeg
White pepper
1 pound (454 g) fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
Peanut oil
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced scallions
1 large garlic clove, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Season grits to taste, but lightly, with Tabasco, a very little nutmeg, and white pepper. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Peel the shrimp, rinse, and pat dry. Dice the bacon and sauté lightly in the skillet. The edges of the bacon should brown, but the bacon should not become crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the bacon fat in the skillet to make a layer of fat about a quarter of an inch deep. When quite hot, add the shrimp in an even layer. Turn the shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms, and sauté about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the scallions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Then season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide the grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over and serve immediately.

Red Rose Sausage Sandwich Filling

Red Rose imitation smoked sausage was originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which from 1945 to 1990 sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship Magnolia brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products in Magee. The sausages are sold in 24-ounce packages, usually three links. Red Rose at home is sliced into sections, split, fried or grilled and served with beans or potatoes. Two Jackson eateries, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, serve Red Rose sandwiches.

This recipe is a riff on the restaurants’ sausage sandwiches, the innovation here combining the slaw with the sausage stuffing, which works beautifully. Peel the casings from the sausages, break the filling into a heavy skillet—chopped onion would be a nice option—and cook until heated through. Continue cooking until most of the grease is cooked out. Drain thoroughly and add about 4 ounces of slaw; that works out to half a large container from KFC. Serve warm on Bunny burger or slider buns with a dusting of black pepper and several shakes of Crystal hot sauce.

Delta Chinese Collards

This recipe comes from an article in The New York Times by Joan Nathan, “East Meets South at a Delta Table” (June, 2003) profiling the Sino-Southern fusion cooking of the Chow family in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Most of China shares the same humid subtropical climate as the South. That’s why kudzu is so happy here. You’ll also find a variety of collards in China, gai lan.

Wash and trim three bunches of collards and cut into more or less bite-size pieces. Heat wok or a very large skillet, brown a teaspoon of salt, and add about a quarter cup of canola or peanut oil. When oil is hot, add 6 sliced cloves of garlic and stir until lightly toasted. Add greens and a dash of pepper, stir constantly until wilted and tender, then blend in 2 tablespoons oyster sauce and a scant teaspoon of sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Pride and Potatoes

One day as a boy, a friend and I dared to enter his father’s tool shed, where among implements such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers and girly magazines, we found a cabinet stocked with canned potato soup. When I asked why his daddy kept potato soup next to his chop saw, he said, “Momma won’t let him have it in the house.” I was puzzled at the time, but now I understand. You see, a man’s house may be his castle, but his tool shed is his home, a sanctuary for the masculine spirit and as inviolate to intrusion as a nunnery. A man may keep things there which have no place in the house, even something as seemingly innocuous as potato soup. Potato soup is neither good nor bad in itself; like Prince Hal, it is poor only in the company it keeps, and as is the case for so many of our foods, its company is often poverty itself.

Memories of hard times survived among the men and women of my parents’ generation; after the hard years had ended and victory in the Good War made them members of the most affluent society on earth, they found themselves living in a world that stretched far beyond the dirt roads many grew up on, and they were obliged to learn the difficult lessons a newly-acquired middle-class life required of them. For many, that meant ridding themselves of aspects of their lives that in this new world were not quite picture-perfect. And potato soup, to my friend’s mother, was not part of her perfect picture; it was Depression food, something people ate when they were poor and down on their luck. Now that they lived in town in a new brick house, had two cars in the garage, and she was secretary of the Twentieth-Century Club, potato soup —so simple, so basic, so very good—had been banished. Others hearkened back, as my friend’s father did, to those days when a family’s stature was reckoned by making do in the face of adversity. They also remembered—even as they trod the carpeted floors of the air-conditioned homes where their difficult children were growing into strangers in their midst—the foods they came to know in hardship. As children they may have been sent to school with a biscuit folded over a piece of fried streak-`o-lean, and coming home they often had soup made from the leftovers and whatever else they had on hand to feed many hungry people.

The foods you love best are often those of your childhood, and my friend’s father found the warmth of potato soup irresistible. I can still conjure up an image of this man sitting out in his shed and opening a can of soup, heating it on a little electric eye, eating it and thinking about his own momma standing at her wood stove in a pair of old slippers, her hair limp with sweat and tied up with a penny piece of ribbon, cooking the only thing she had to cook—potatoes—into a soup for her family. I can also imagine this man reminiscing upon this while his wife teetered around the kitchen in high heels, her hair lacquered into a $5 hair-do she had redone twice a week cooking store-bought stuff on an electric range. She probably remembered her momma in much the same way as her husband did his, but for my friend’s mother it was a bitter memory, and her efforts to obliterate that—to her mind painful—image of poverty extended to those around her. Bound and determined to eradicate whatever she felt was coarse or common about her and others, she sacrificed upon the altar of her misguided pride the very foods that she secretly loved and probably had learned how to make at her mother’s knee.

Potato Soup

For each serving (@ a cup and a half), take a large starchy potato, wash, peel and dice. Boil in enough water to cover. When almost tender through, drain—reserving liquid—and set aside. For each of two servings sauté a finely-minced small white onion and two cloves of garlic in a half stick of sweet butter. about two tablespoons sweet butter. To this, add liquid from the potatoes and boil until onions have broken down. Add potatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, and adding liquid if needed, until the soup has a creamy consistency with soft chunks of potato. Salt to taste and season with crushed dill seed, rosemary and pepper—I like to use white. Add heavy cream and a pat of butter before serving. Serve hot.


The Velvet Wok

Despite shaving beef and marinating chicken for hours, it took me some time to discover how to get meats as tender as those in good Chinese restaurants. Eventually, I discovered velveting, a technique by which you coat thinly-sliced meats with a slurry of cornstarch, egg white and soy or rice vinegar. Not much is needed; 3 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of corn starch to one egg white, and enough vinegar or soy to make a thin paste. A similar approach involves soaking the meat in a baking soda and water solution; use 1 teaspoon of baking soda and ½ cup of water for every 12 oz. meat. Treat meats for about a half-hour, rinse, drain well, and toss into a hot oil with garlic and aromatics.  Stir until the meat has separated and cooked through. This method also works with shrimp and lobster  but in either case I consider it superfluous.

Liquid Smoke

Chances are you have a bottle of liquid smoke parked in your spice pantry, and it’s also likely that you know a grill professional—or a fanatic amateur—who’ll suggest an exorcism and ritual burning if he or she  finds out.

Liquid smoke has been around since people began been making charcoal. Condensing the hot, moisture-filled smoke from low-oxygen charcoal burning produces a water-based substance that for centuries was called wood vinegar (pyroligneous acid), used in cooking much as you would any other kind of vinegar. Methods for making wood vinegar were refined in the 17th century. In the United States, in 1895, E. H. Wright inaugurated the era of commercial distribution of wood vinegar as liquid smoke. Batch smokehouses use regenerated atomized smoke to process meat, cheese, fish, and other foods.

Liquid smoke is a fast, easy way to make good smoky foods and barbecue-style meats. Detractors—and there are many—seem to have a lot of reasons for not using liquid smoke, but most of their objections center around a negation of the “barbecue experience,” by which they mean the quasi-ritualized time and effort it takes to prepare and smoke meat. Using liquid smoke requires an understanding of less-is-more;  no more than a teaspoon in a cup of marinade.

Deli Breakfast Potatoes

The deli in the neighborhood grocery is a delicatessen in the merest sense of the word. It’s only a steam-table buffet serving such fare as fried/baked chicken or pork chops, stewed beef and vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, cobblers.

Our deli serves these potatoes—along with two kinds of grits and rice—as sides on its breakfast buffet. The lady who runs the deli told me that they use frozen diced potatoes, which they fry in a big pan with a sack of what is called seasoning blend, a mix of diced onions, peppers, and celery. If you don’t happen to have a sack of Ore-Ida or seasoning blend handy, dice raw potatoes and parboil before pan-frying with diced onions and sweet peppers. Season with black pepper and garlic salt. In other parts, these breakfast potatoes are known as diner or O’Brian, but I don’t live in those parts.