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Getting to know persimmons

On a wet and gloomy winter afternoon, there are few sights more cheering to my eyes than a persimmon tree loaded with its brilliant fruit, hanging from dark boughs like a mass of orange lanterns. But if you come across this bright spectacle on a winter's walk, don't rush to take a bite of that tempting fruit unless you're sure you know what's what.

See, there are persimmons, and then there are persimmons.

The type of persimmon that you can eat right off the tree is the Fuyu variety (left), a firm-fleshed, yellow- to orange-skinned fruit that is flat on the bottom and wider than it is tall—sometimes twice as wide. You can eat the fresh, sweet fruit like an apple or cut up in salads or you can dry it on the stem or cut in slices for a home dehydrator.

The fruit of the other main variety, Hachiya (right), is far from sweet when its flesh is firm. Hachiyas are orange to almost red, often somewhat pointed at the bottom, and about as tall as they are wide, sometimes taller. If you bite into one of these before it ripens, your mouth may stay puckered for week. If you can wait until the flesh is soft, though—almost as squishy as a water balloon—you will find something inside that's almost like ready-made jam. Just don't eat any of the peel if you don't want a pucker. You can dry Hachiya persimmons, hung from a cut-off bit of stem, or bake the fresh, ripe fruit pulp in a variety of recipes. Here's one:

Aunt Pat's Persimmon Cookies
This recipe for Hachiya persimmon cookies has been in my family for generations and is always a special treat in the cold months. The cookies have a moist, cake-like consistency and can be eaten fresh or bagged up by the dozen and stored in the freezer. They're quick to thaw and they taste great. We usually make a double or triple batch just to take advantage of the fruit's availability, so cookie storage can be an issue.

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine

1 egg

1 cup Hachiya persimmon pulp (about 3 ripe [very soft] persimmons)
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Drop the dough in generously rounded teaspoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a pre-heated 350° oven for 12 to 14 minutes.

More on Persimmons

Check out these links for more information on preserving, preparing, and growing persimmons:

(Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 7:53 AM

UCCE nutrition educator is eating on a Food Stamp budget

A TV report about eating on a Food Stamp budget compelled UC Cooperative Extension nutrition program manager Kathleen Nolan into action.

“The reporter was reaching for a processed meal in a box, and I was yelling at the television, ‘You can’t buy anything in a box!’” Nolan said. “The reporter couldn’t survive on the budget, but I know that I can.”

To prove her point, Nolan decided to take her own Food Stamp challenge. For the month of January, she is eating healthy on a Food Stamp budget and blogging about her diet on Facebook. Nolan writes about menus, shopping lists, recipes, nutrient analyses, cost analyses and the personal impact of changing the way she eats.

To size up the budget, Nolan used the USDA’s online calculator, starting with a typical low-income person her age, living alone with no assets. She also calculated the benefit for a family of six with a typical farmworker income and rent. The average benefit was $5 per person per day.

USDA’s Food Stamp program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008 to more accurately reflect its purpose. The benefit is not really meant to cover all food expenses, but to buy supplemental groceries. In California, the program is called Cal-Fresh.

Whatever name is used, Nolan said there are recipients trying to feed their families for about $5 a day per person or less. She believes it’s doable, and could even be healthful.

“It’s not difficult, but it’s challenging emotionally and culturally,” she said. “I’ve had to change my expectations about food.”

To begin with, Nolan is cutting way back on meat.

“Meat can be viewed as a garnish or a flavoring,” she said. “For a lot of people in the world, that’s how they eat.”

In addition to modifying her food preferences, Nolan is taking a hard look at how she shops. Some people have suggested discount grocery stores and even the dollar store. Nolan believes that with careful planning and attention to in-season produce and store specials, the local neighborhood grocery store need not be off limits.

“I start by building a shopping list based on nutrition needs - how many portions of grains, or vegetables and fruit, or protein-rich foods will be needed for the week? I match up those needs with advertised bargains and make a list.”

On the first day of the challenge, she purchased whole-grain hulled barley in bulk.

“I never really ate barley this way before,” Nolan said. “I thought of barley as something to add to soup.”

Nolan mixed ½ cup cooked barley with shredded zucchini, a little cheddar cheese and eggs to make a frittata.

“It was very satisfying,” she said.

Nolan also turns to alternative sources of food, such as friends and neighbors. In one post she wrote about an elderly woman on her block who shares produce from her garden.

“Her late husband made a special shelf on the fence where she puts lemons from her trees so that passersby can help themselves,” Nolan said. “The neighbor to the north has rosemary in her yard - so why would anyone buy it at the store?  In turn she gets apples from me and I get collards from a fellow farther down the road. Isn’t that the way life should be?”

By documenting her Food Stamp budget experiences on Facebook, Nolan is hoping to inspire others to eat right and spend less on food. She hopes to further the effort after her January challenge ends by enlisting volunteer families to try to eat on a Food Stamp budget and share their experiences online.

Posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:00 AM

How to really lose that 5 pounds this year: Be realistic, think positive

Have you resolved to lose 5 pounds in 2011?

Join the club.

Losing a little weight is a perennial goal on many people’s New Year’s resolution list … and failure to achieve that goal is the primary reason why we keep resolving to lose that 5 pounds year after year.

Judith S. Stern, UC Davis nutrition professor and author of hundreds of articles on obesity and nutrition, says that setting a weight-loss goal is a good thing. “If you don’t make a resolution, you don’t have something to reach for. Resolutions are about hope.”

But no one said it was going to be easy. “Losing weight is even harder than quitting smoking. You can always not smoke, but you can’t not eat,” Stern says. “You’ll die without food.”

However, Stern — who has been on her own weight-loss journey — advises resolution-makers to set realistic weight-loss goals. Here are her recommendations:

  1. Keep a journal of what you eat and write down your weight every day. “We need cues to help us deal with weight,” Stern says.

  2. Buy a scale that registers to one-tenth of a pound. “Those whole pounds can be hard to deal with,” Stern says. “I tell my husband when I’ve lost two-tenths of a pound.”

  3. Get a pedometer, and steadily increase your average daily numbers (rather than, for example, trying to achieve the recommended 10,000 steps per day at the start). “If I don’t make my numbers, I walk around my house and put things away one at a time,” Stern says. “When I started I was walking 3,000 steps per day, and now I’m averaging around 8,000 steps.”

  4. Aim to lose about 3 to 4 pounds per month.

Most importantly, frame your weight-loss resolution in a way that doesn’t court failure. Setting short-term goals is a good way to go, such as losing 3 pounds in 3 weeks, or exercising 10 times in the coming month.

A positive resolution for many people, especially those who have already lost some weight, may be to simply maintain their current weight throughout the year.

“When you make a New Year’s resolution, think about what you want to accomplish. Figure out how to do it so that you feel good about yourself,” Stern says.

Posted on Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 8:11 AM
  • Author: Janet Byron

Tango mandarins are soon to appear in a produce aisle near you

The first commercial crop of an exceptional new mandarin variety created by UC Riverside scientists will be harvested this month.

The fruit, called Tango, is the result of a mutation induced by irradiating budwood of W. Murcott mandarin. The process mimics nature’s manner of improving fruit. Radiation from the sun or natural errors during cell division can cause a single branch or fruit to mutate and develop unique characteristics, which scientists call a “sport.” People have been reproducing favorable sports for generations. In fact, all navel oranges are sports – natural mutations of oranges with seeds or other navel oranges.

W. Murcott mandarins, originally from Morocco, are favored for their deep orange color, easy-peel rind and tangy-sweet flavor. However, when planted within five miles of other seed-bearing citrus – such as Clementine mandarins, lemons or grapefruit – they can be cross-pollinated by bees and become seedy. The Tango maintains the best W. Murcott traits, but because it produces very little viable pollen, it is virtually seedless wherever it is grown.

“This is the most promising mandarin the university has ever produced,” said UC Riverside genetics professor Mikeal Roose.

The Tango mandarin was patented, and registered trees were established by the UC Citrus Clonal Protection Program. Distribution of budwood to citrus nurseries began in June 2006 and was limited exclusively to California growers for one year. Tango was introduced into Florida in 2007 and the trees were available internationally under exclusive licenses in 2009. Tango trees should soon be available to home gardeners through retail nurseries.

In all, 1.6 million Tango trees were sold in California through March 2010.

Tango is not a trademarked name, so the new seedless mandarin will probably be sold under existing grower brand names like Cuties and Delites. Before Christmas, fruit marketed as Cuties and Delites are early ripening Clementine mandarins. Most W. Murcotts and now Tangos will be sold as Cuties and Delites when they ripen in late January, but some Tangos will show up in supermarkets and farmer’s markets under the Tango name.

The Tango was made possible by a UC and citrus industry partnership going back nearly 15 years. Roose and staff research associate Tim Williams began field testing the fruit in 2001. The research and evaluation program was supported by the Citrus Research Board.

“What’s exciting is the parent variety of the Tango is a good piece of fruit,” said Ted Batkin, director of the Citrus Research Board. “It is without a doubt the most widely planted variety that we have released in the past 25 years.”

Posted on Tuesday, January 4, 2011 at 8:04 AM

Why does my pesto turn brown?

I don’t know if plant scientists make better chefs, but knowledge of plant science can certainly improve our cooking. Take, for example, understanding how to handle oxidation, the interaction between oxygen molecules and all the many substances they may contact. Oxidation is what makes your fender rust and your copper penny turn green. As it relates to plants, oxidation is what causes fresh-cut produce to turn brown and wine to lose its flavor when left too long in an open bottle.

Perhaps you know how to thwart oxidation when preparing potatoes and serving sliced apples (and if not, we’ll get to that in a minute) but here is a less-common food that often falls victim to oxidation: pesto. Has this happened to you? You gather an armload of picture-perfect basil, blend it together with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and cheese and produce a fantastic pesto sauce for your spaghetti. Fresh from the blender, it’s as green as your holiday tree. But by the time you serve it an hour later, it’s a dull shade of olive brown and has lost much of its taste. Oxidation strikes again.

Here’s a handy plant-science trick: Blanche your basil. Heat destroys the enzymes that cause oxidation and the resulting discoloration. Drop your fresh basil in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds and then shock it in a bowl of ice water. Dry it completely, proceed with your favorite recipe and your pesto will stay green and tasty for days. Here’s the recipe I like to use:

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic 
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (I use walnuts when I don’t have pine nuts) 
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided (for special treat, try using a UC Davis olive oil    
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup parmesan or other hard cheese

Combine the basil, garlic and nuts in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

If you’re eating it right away, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. Yum! If you’re freezing it (up to three months), transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Thaw and stir in cheese. 

You can also stop oxidation by treating fruits and vegetables with ascorbic acid immediately after cutting. Ascorbic acid is a natural property in many citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons. Vinegar works, too, but that’s not something you usually want to put on fruit like fresh-cut apples. Instead, squeeze a few drops of lemon or orange juice on the cut side and they’re good to go. One last tip before we both get cooking. Mashed potatoes are a great side dish this time of year, but all that last-minute preparation can be hard to manage. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could peel and cut the potatoes even a day in advance without them turning brown? You can. Place freshly cut potatoes in a bowl, cover with water, squeeze in the juice from two lemons and they will sit happily in your refrigerator for 24 hours. Drain, cook, mash and serve.

You can learn more about handling fresh-cut produce at the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center and explore the joys of plant science at the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences website.

Happy holidays!

Posted on Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 8:17 AM

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