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Cooking with fall’s bounty

Fall vegetables and fruits continue in abundance at the local farmers markets and in our backyards.

Persimmons

This lovely fruit simply says autumn to me. It has a beautiful orange color, and two very different and interesting textures, making it great fun to play with in the kitchen. For the uninitiated, it is really important to know the difference between the two different varieties of persimmons, so you get the kind that will work for how you want to eat them.

The fuyu persimmon is the one most people seem to prefer now that it has become more widely available. Fuyus are the ones that look like they have been squashed. They are also the kind that can be eaten while they are still firm, and you can even eat the skin. You only need to cut out the green/brown cap and leaflets, and it is ready to consume.

The fuyus can be peeled or left unpeeled, cut into slices or cubes, and used in fruit cups and plates, as an addition to a salad, or a garnish for things like chicken curry.

The hachiya persimmon is more elongated, sort of acorn-shaped. These persimmons must be eaten after the flesh becomes like jelly. Any sooner and you will feel like you just ate a mouthful of cotton balls. But when they are ripe, they are so sweet and unctuous, so this is the preferred fruit for things like persimmon bread, cookies, bars, puddings, jams, compotes and the like.

When they are ripe enough to eat, you can just cut away the cap, and scoop the flesh out with a big spoon.

A helpful tip is that you can just put these persimmons into a plastic bag in the freezer, and when you thaw them they will be perfect for your persimmon cooking. I recently blended some with a touch of persimmon vinegar (you could use rice vinegar), safflower oil, salt and pepper to make a vinaigrette dressing.

One more thing — many people like to dry persimmons in a food dehydrator and eat them in place of candy, or add them to a bowl of oatmeal, into muffins, and so on. They dry very nicely.

Arugula

Baby arugula is one of those greens that you can commonly find year round. But buying it at the farmers market takes this to another level. It is so much fresher, and each little leaf seems to have been picked with the utmost care. The flavor profile is slightly peppery, but not spicy hot, rather like the pepperiness of a radish.

I like to sauté it very quickly with or without garlic, use it in a salad or as a salad all on its own, or even as a topping for pizza or addition to a quick pasta. You can add it to a salsa verde, make pesto with it, and tuck it into sandwiches. The uses are nearly endless.

With the persimmons in the market, I recently made a lovely salad of baby arugula dressed with the hachiya vinaigrette recipe noted in the persimmon section above, and plated with pieces of fuyu persimmon, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. To make it more substantial just add a nice local goat cheese, and a few toasted almonds.

Cactus fruit

There are so many names for this lovely fruit, yet so few people know that they are edible and what to do with them. In addition to being called cactus fruit, they are called Tuna in Spanish and fichi d’India in Italian, and yet another name, prickly pears in English.

You will rarely find them at our local farmers markets, but I have seen them in Lola’s and some of the other grocery stores. However, they are not inexpensive, and if you just open your eyes, you will see them everywhere growing with great abandon in the area. Just put the word out to your circle of friends, and you will probably have access to more than you can possibly use.

The ones in the market have one distinct advantage — they have had their prickly spines removed already. If you have never eaten these fruits before, that might be the easiest way to try them, but I never feel that the grocery store ones are ripe enough.

Try looking for fruit that is a uniform dark magenta, or deep orange-red, or yellow, but not green. The color of the fruit comes from the color of the flowers, so if there is a cactus near you, watch for the blooms and you will know what color the fruits will be when they ripen. Ripening seems to be happening around now.

I did have great fun picking my own from a friend’s cactus last week. I used the small blowtorch that I have for making crème brulee and burned the spines off while they were still on the cactus, and then plucked the fruit off and took them home with no problems at all.

My friend told me that someone she knows who grows these cactus said that it is good for the plant to pick the fruits off, so have fun.

Once home I spread them out on my turned off barbecue grill and checked them over for any spines I may have missed, and hit them with the blowtorch again just to be sure. Then back into the bucket and a quick rinse with the garden hose before bringing them inside to peel.

Cactus fruit peel very easily, almost like a banana. You simple cut off the ends, make one shallow cut along the length of the fruit, and then use your fingers to peel the leathery covering off.

After they are peeled you will find a fruit that is loaded with small seeds. The seeds themselves are bothersome to some people, but since most of what I do with cactus fruit involves just juice, the seeds are easy to ignore. I do like to eat an ice-cold piece of fruit, and we were taught by my Italian grandfather to just enjoy the flesh and swallow the seeds whole, so you could give that a try.

I juiced most all my fruit using a Breville-style juicer. You could also pass them through an old-fashioned food mill, or pulse them in a food processor and then strain the seeds out.

Once you have the juice there are a lot of different things you can do with it. I made sorbet, drinking “shrub” and jelly. You could also make fruit leather with it, add it to a smoothie, or make a beautifully colored cocktail or mocktail with it – they make a spectacular margarita. Ole!

(Contact Juli Lederhaus at julilederhaus@gmail.com.)