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Growing and Preserving Persimmon

Heather ColeYou might be thinking pumpkin, but the start of autumn gets me thinking persimmon. The persimmon trees in our orchard are around 40 years old, and I’ll admit when we first moved in I’d never actually eaten one. Despite growing well in much of New Zealand, persimmons are not yet widely cultivated by home gardeners or commercial growers, and they’re not found growing wild here in woodlands like some parts of the US.

Persimmons

We had both the astringent and non-astringent varieties. The astringent ones must be nearly rotten to be considered edible, but the non-astringent varieties can be eaten crunchy like an apple and are a much easier proposition. Even if you don’t like the fruit, I’d recommend growing the tree for the beauty of its pinky/orange fall color and the show of a tree festooned with baubles of orange.  The non-astringent varieties, like Fuyu, are compact little trees, while the astringent ones are upright and can get quite tall.

Foliage and fruit

A local woodturner told me the timber is incredibly hard but springy and used to be used to make golf clubs and bowling alleys. When I accidentally cut the pollinator out I learned that some varieties are self-fertile and without the pollinator the fruit didn’t set any seeds. They’ve been incredibly low maintenance and apart from birds they are not prone to pests and disease. I haven’t even pruned them properly but each year they are loaded with fruit.

Foliage

But I still had no idea what to do with them in the kitchen, and I didn’t like them very much. We had a lot of them, and it seemed a crime to feed them all to the sheep. They ripened when the orchard wasn’t offering anything else to eat, so I persisted. I made pies, chutney’s, jams and salsas but we still didn’t get along, me and the persimmon. My husband would eat a few fresh but talking with an elderly Aunt; she told me to stop wasting good ingredients trying to improve something I didn’t like which was good advice.

Feeding sheep

So for a few seasons, I gave them away which was the best thing I ever did. Finding people who appreciated them taught me what to do with them. A couple of elderly Italian women would come out and load up their baskets each fall, patting my husband on the arm and squirreling parcels of homemade nougat and ratafia biscuits to him like he needed feeding. He began to like the persimmons even more.

The Italian mamas threaded the astringent persimmons on a string and hung them up under a sheltered sunny porch, then scooped out the flesh with a spoon when it was clear jelly-like consistency. Another Italian couple came bearing jars of pesto, and they had the same plan for the persimmons. I tried it, but I like to chew my food, and the overwhelming sweetness of the fruit was still not to my taste.

Japanese friends were delighted to come and pick persimmons and on a return visit they produced some of the astringent ones that they dried using a traditional air-drying technique known as Hoshigaki. The consistency was like a chewy date, and the flavor was complex, as a good caramel. These I liked.

Dried persimmons

There are some quite elaborate preparations you can make for Hoshigaki, but their method was simple:

• pick with a little stalk remaining
• peel and dip each briefly in boiling water
• thread a string through the stalk
• hang in a cool, very dry place with a good breeze
• after several weeks they will be shrunken and wrinkly

Peeled

If it is too humid or warm, this method will not work, and the fruit will rot instead of drying, but the cool and dry late fall weather of Northern Japan is apparently ideal for making this delicacy. This method is mother nature slowly air-drying the whole fruit. If I tried it in the food dehydrator, the outer flesh would dry well before the inner, and it wouldn’t get that even, chewy texture throughout.

Hanging fruit

In the years that followed, I also perfected a way of drying the non-astringent persimmons in my food dehydrator that is a good substitute for dried mango (which doesn’t grow here).  The lime juice gives a good balance to the sweetness of the persimmon and also acts as an extra preservative. Jars of these dried persimmon slices store perfectly well for a year in the pantry before the next harvest ripens. I use them in trail mix, breakfast muesli and as crackers on a cheese platter.

Drying persimmons

Dried Persimmon Slices

• Pick firm ripe fruit
• Wash them well
• Slice into rings, skin and all. I used to peel and core them but I found the core dries to nothing, and the skin is perfectly edible.
• Slice into rounds with a mandolin to get the same thickness. Then they’re all done at the same time. I set mine for approx 4mm slices.
• Dip each slice in a big bowl of lime juice and lay them out on the dehydrator trays.
• Dry overnight and check in the morning – let them cool, and if they snap crisply they’re done
• Let them cool completely and then pack them in glass jars with an airtight lid and store on the shelf.

Trail mix

I hope you enjoyed that “love the one you’re with” tale. What new tricks can you all teach me about persimmons this fall?

Top 10 Things to Know About Growing and Cooking Shell-out Beans

Dried beans

I’m not a vegetarian but I do love dried beans, so last summer I set out to grow a few different varieties and try all that home-grown bean-cuisine had to offer. It turns out there was quite a bit I didn’t know about growing and cooking the perfect bean. Dried beans are a relatively easy crop for the home gardener and although they are inexpensive to buy at the store, the home grown version was a revelation in flavor and freshness.

Blue

Here are the 10 interesting things about growing and cooking with dried beans.

Heirloom beans

1. Plant seeds when the soil is well warmed in late spring / early summer and space bush beans 6 inches apart and climbing beans 10 inches apart. If the soil is too cool when you sow the seed the beans will sit and use all their energy stores, leaving nothing left to grow with when the soil warms up.

2. Beans take less energy and water to grow and improve soil health. Because they fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, they require less artificial fertiliser, and they grow well in dry conditions, using half the amount of water required to produce animal proteins.

3. Annual heirloom beans are self-fertile and rarely cross, so don’t eat them all — a few dried beans are perfect for saving to grow again the following season. Perennial runner beans and broad beans are not self-fertile so stagger plantings of different varieties.

4. For storing as dried beans, let the pods mature until they start to yellow and wither. If the weather is dry, you can leave them on the vine until the seeds rattle inside crispy brown pods. If you are going to get rain, harvest the pods when they start to yellow and dry them on racks inside.

5. The United Nations has declared 2016 "The Year of the Pulse" to celebrate and promote the consumption of beans, lentils and peas around the globe and their website has some wonderful recipe ideas to try.

Rows

6. They are low in fat and high in fibre and protein. Just half a cup of lentils will give you the same protein as 2 cups of rice.

7. Beans make you feel full for longer, releasing energy slowly as your body breaks down the complex carbs rather than the quick energy hit you get from simple carbs in sugars.

8. Dried beans triple in size during soaking and cooking, so what looks like a meager harvest from your garden actually goes a long way in your kitchen.

9. Soaking dried beans reduces cooking time. Discarding the soaking liquid and cooking in fresh water may reduce flatulence, but some say this is a load of hot air and loses flavor in the bean. I tried both and didn’t notice an appreciable difference!

10. Even dried beans have a “best-before” date. Over two years old and dried beans can lose their creamy texture and be hard to cook. I compared some freshly dried red kidney beans from my garden with some store bought dried red kidney beans and there was no comparison. The fresh dried beans cooked up to a beautiful creamy texture while the store bought beans took twice as long to cook and were still tough.

Soaking beans

I’ve enjoyed making bean refried beans, baked beans, French cassoulet and bean soups with my harvest. When planning your next summer garden, consider making room to grow some shell-out bean varieties to liven up your winter menu.

Jars

Cooking with Maple Syrup

Pancakes

In my last post we were harvesting maple syrup in New Zealand with Dave DeGray and so this post I thought you’d like to see a couple of the delicious recipes we made with the finished product. Maple syrup is not a mainstay of New Zealand cuisine. In fact I’m afraid to say that a lot of what passes for “maple syrup” on our store shelves has never been within 100 yards of a maple tree. But Kiwi’s do have a sweet tooth and most of us have come to try maple syrup on pancakes if nothing else.

Being a curious cook I thought there must be more interesting uses for it so I asked Dave for his favourite and he shared that he loved to finish off a few rashers of bacon with a good pour of syrup, which sounded worth investigating.

Then a Canadian friend of mine heard of my syrup gathering antics and lent me a maple syrup recipe booklet he found on a trip home to the land of the maple leaf. He became all misty eyed just at the thought of "sugaring" and all the traditions and practices that go with it. Sugar Snow or Jack Wax Taffy is apparently a real treat made by pouring the hot finished syrup over a pan of fresh snow. The snow turns the syrup into maple toffee without it crystallizing and then you pick it off the snow and chew it.

Maple syrup makes an excellent addition to both sweet and savoury dishes and can be substituted for sugar in any recipe. Use 3/4 of a cup of syrup for each cup of sugar and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for every cup of sugar substituted.

Here are a couple of the best recipes I found from the booklet which I hope you enjoy.

Pie

Maple Pumpkin Pie

Base:

• 1/2 cup butter
• 1/3 cup tightly packed brown sugar
• 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup chopped nuts (hazel, walnut or brazil)
• 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling:

• 2 eggs
• 1/2 cup tightly packed brown sugar
• 1/2 cup maple syrup
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 cups pumpkin puree
• 1 cup of cream

To make the base mix together the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl. Stir in the remaining crust ingredients until crumbly. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of a deep 9 inch pie pan and chill. Halve the filling and cooking time if using a shallow sided flan tin. To make the filling, combine all the ingredients and beat until smooth. Pour into the prepared crust. Cover the edges of the crust with foil to prevent excessive browning. Bake in a pre-heated oven 356 F (180 C) for 55 - 60 minutes or until a knife inserted near the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with dollop of whipped cream.

Crispy Maple Pork Spareribs

(Makes enough glaze to coat 1lb 5oz (1.5kg) of ribs)

• 1 small onion
• 6 oz (175 mL) pure maple syrup
• 1 tablespoon chilli sauce
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 392 F and roast the pork ribs on a rack for 20-30 minutes depending on size. While they are roasting finely chop the onion and boil it with the remaining ingredients for 5 minutes. Remove the ribs from the oven, drain any fat off and reduce the heat to 356 F (180 C). Place the ribs in a foil lined baking tin and brush all over with the sauce. Return to the oven and bake uncovered, mixing every 5 minutes to distribute the glaze, until they are done. They will burn quickly at this point so don’t leave them. Rest for 5 minutes before serving with lots of paper towels for sticky fingers!

Growing Sugar Maple Trees in New Zealand

 maple syrup harvest in wood

Ever since I was a little tot I've been fascinated by maple syrup. An aunt in Canada sent me a musical book about a family of bears and their maple syrup jug that played the Little Brown Jug jingle when you turned a handle. The thought that something so sweet and delicious could come out of a tree captured my young imagination. Thirty odd years later I've been doing my own impression of a bear filling my little jug. Thanks to the forethought of New Zealander Dave DeGray, I've been not only able to fill my jug, but a whole bucket of fresh sap from his secluded grove of sugar maple, right here in the coastal Tasman hills.

In 1984, Dave planted the first of 200 sugar maple trees, Acer saccharum, in a sheltered hollow on his 4-hectare property. Thirty years later and the trees are now a towering grove of graceful trunks, reaching upwards of 20 meters and carpeting the earth where 3m high scrub stood with a clean blanket of beautiful leaves.

Now an architectural designer, an early career in the US Forest Service and an active involvement in the NZ Farm Forestry Association fueled Dave’s interest in growing trees for timber, shelter, beauty and food. Obviously a man to take a long-term view of things, he planted the trees as a bit of an experiment and to benefit future generations with the knowledge of how and if sugar maples would be a viable crop for New Zealand. Before his grove was established, the received wisdom was that it could take up to 40 years before sugar maple trees could be tapped, however the remarkable growth rates Dave has achieved in Nelson have shown that some trees can achieve the tappable girth of 25cm within just 20 years.

maple syrup harvest 

Growing Conditions

The trees have not been bothered by any pests or diseases. The sugar maple is a long-lived tree that Dave believes could be tapped for at least 300 years once established. He knows of 160m old trees in India with a girth of over 1.5m. More of that long-term thinking led him to expound the idea of starting plantings of them now along suitable public land for inhabitants of future centuries to reap the benefit of. And before they are of a size to tap for syrup, they would indeed make a beautiful amenity tree. In autumn the grove glows with golden foliage clinging to the stately upright trees. The timber is also highly valued for its strength and resilience, being used in bowling alleys. You can see why the Canadians put the maple leaf on their flag.

Maple trees need good drainage, moisture levels, and reliable cold winters to produce well. The trees are harvested for sap in winter when the onset of frosts concentrate the sugars in the sap and the freezing action forces the sap to flow upwards from the roots during the warmth of the day. Dave has noticed the effects of climate change on the harvests from his grove over the last 30 years. "It used to be that we had good reliable frosts from the end of May through till September during the 80's but now the good frosts are often not happening until mid-June." If he was planting again now he would consider areas further south with good rainfall and more reliable frosts.

In the early years, the lower branches were pruned off in early summer to create straight tappable trunks and an open forest floor for ease of access. Apart from this initial pruning and leaf mulch, the grove has not received any fertilizers or irrigation.

maple syrup plastic bottle 

Harvesting Maple Syrup

Dave regards the tapping of the trees as part art and part science. Knowing when to tap is a judgment each winter based on the arrival of the frosts and weather conditions. Cold nights and warm days are the best to get the sap flowing. The sap flows fastest during the warmth of the day after a cold night. Traditionally on small homestead sugaring operations, metal buckets were hung on hooks from each tree but Dave’s son designed an ingenious stainless steel tap that plastic bottles are fitted to. On first sight, the grove of trunks fitted with taps and plastic bottles looks like an installation in a modern sculpture park.

When I joined the harvest, Dave had the help of visiting Canadian, Elizabeth Régnier, who was fascinated by the potential for sugar maple growing in New Zealand and was keen to help document the harvest. Elizabeth’s interest in the little grove in Tasman is proof that Dave's planting experiment is generating more than a little sweet syrup for the pancakes, it is delivering information that future farm foresters and environmentalists are finding value in. With much of the North American maple syrup harvest being damaged by acid rain, the purity of maple syrup in New Zealand is of increasing interest.

cooking down the maple syrup 

Processing Maple Syrup

Collecting the sap is just the first part of the process. The raw sap is a clear and slightly sweet liquid with a brix measurement of around 3%. To get to a finished syrup with a brix of 66.5% there is a lot of reduction to do. For every 30 parts of sap you will produce 1 part of finished syrup, and you do this by gently evaporating the sap in shallow pans over heat. Although it takes a while, sitting around pans of steaming syrup on top of a roaring fire is a not a bad way to pass winter evenings.

The sap slowly takes on subtle golden hues to become a light caramel color as it transforms into syrup. Scum that rises to the surface is skimmed off. The lighter in color the sap is, the better the quality of the syrup. It reaches boiling point at 106°C (about 228 degrees Fahrenheit) and is pasteurized at this point but needs to be kept in a sterile container and refrigerated or it will go off. When the temperature of the syrup gets close to boiling point it is a good idea to transfer the large shallow pans into saucepans to finish the syrup on the stove where it can be monitored more closely. It can quite quickly turn to maple candy if you let it get too hot. When cold, any sediment or “sugar sand” can be strained off.

Next week I’ll share some of the best recipes I’ve found to use the finished product.

maple syrup harvest

Photo courtesy Country Trading Co.