Saturday, November 22, 2008

Farm Bulletin: Chestnuts, Persimmons and Turnips, Oh My!

Pursuant to the notice below about the holiday farmers' markets this weekend, and despite my smarty-pants teasing about the habits of those on the west side of the river, correspondent Anthony Boutard muses on some history and preparations for these winter comestibles.

Chestnuts: Bouche de Betizac

When the chestnut blight struck Europe, the French fought back with several hybrids between the European (Castanea sativa) and Japanese (C. crenata) species of chestnut. These hybrids had good resistance to the strain of blight that attacked the European trees, and the nuts were larger than the pure C. sativa trees. Betizac is one of the earliest of those hybrids, and probably the best, especially in terms of flavor. The original Betizac scionwood, and other varieties of the chestnut, was brought to OSU in the 1980s by Bob Rackham, an OSU extension agent who took an interest in chestnuts. Scionwood is a branch from this year's growth which can be grafted onto suitable rootstock.

With the help of Christopher Foster [of Cascadia Chestnuts], we managed to collect some scionwood from those trees before the planting was pulled out. Although he might demur at the suggestion, Christopher is one the nation's leading authorities on the chestnut, and he has been very generous with his time and ideas.

Chestnuts must be scored before cooking. We have all manner of tools for the job. The cheapest, easiest and safest, in our experience, is a hooked linoleum blade that fits in a box knife. Unless you are predisposed to making crosses for some religious reason, a single slice will do. We recommend roasting the chestnuts in a good size batch, and then freezing them. An open fire confers a nice smokiness to the fruits. Immediately after roasting, wrap the unpeeled nuts in a few dish towels and let the fruits stew a bit. This makes it easier to remove the inner peel. Peel them while they are hot, or the job will be difficult.

We have cured the fruits so they are ready to use this week. They do not store well. Chestnuts are essentially a sweet acorn, and very different from other fruits we call "nuts" in that they are high in carbohydrates and low in fats. Leave them on the counter for a couple of weeks, they will be hard as rocks and about as appealing. Chestnuts are in the oak family, subfamily Diosbalanos, meaning noble acorn. The genus name Castanea is derived from Kastanea, an ancient city in Asia Minor where they were thought to have originated. In Ancient Greece, the response to a beggar was, "Go shake acorns from a tree."

Turnips: Turnip Diary II

Unlike last year, the turnips sold fairly well at the last market. We returned with a mere 10 pounds. This week, we will have mostly Jersey Navet and Early White. We also pulled a few Wilhelmsburger and Gilfeather Rutabagas and some Norfolk Green Turnips.

The simplest way to enjoy fresh turnips is to grate or julienne the root, and dress them as a salad. The skin is tender enough that peeling is unnecessary. Trim the top and bottom, and check for wireworm damage. We try to catch the worst problems, but sometimes the worm moves on, and the root heals over the wound.

Dress the grated root with mirin and sesame oil. A premium Japanese sesame oil has a more delicate flavor than the heavily roasted types used for cooking. Virgin sesame oil has the most delicate flavor. There are many brands of mirin available and some are sweeter than others. The Mitoku brand has both sesame oil and organic mirin which are well suited for salads.

Turnips and rutabagas are also delicious when sautéed gently in a some butter, salt pork or pancetta. For those poorly disposed toward animal fats, olive or coconut oil work fine. We generally dice them into 1/2 inch cubes. The roots are sweet enough that they will caramelize slightly. Great with squash.


These are the small persimmons native to eastern United States, Diospyros virginiana. They are distinctly astringent with a clove-like spiciness. The genus name, Diospyros, means "noble pear." The trees are in the ebony family, and the heartwood wood is very dense and strong. It was most commonly used in golf clubs, shoe lasts, pool cues and loom shuttles.

When Carol's late mother, Carol Black, hosted a party, she would have a local school teacher, Thelma Johnson, assist her in the food preparations. Persimmon pudding is a classic Eastern Shore of Maryland dessert. It works with with Japanese persimmons, though the native persimmons provide more depth.

Thelma Johnson's Persimmon Pudding
2 c. pulp (persimmons must be mushy)
2 c. sugar
1 1/2 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. evaporated milk or half and half cream
1 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 lb. butter (1 stick)
Whipped cream for top.

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix pulp and sugar. Add soda to buttermilk till it quits foaming. Add mix to pulp with eggs and cream. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and stir into pulp mix. Add vanilla. Melt butter in 14" by 10" baking dish. Swish around sides and bottom and add excess to batter. Pour into baking dish and bake for 45 minutes. Cool in dish and serve as squares topped with whipped cream. Approx. 12 servings.

Read the other posts in the Turnip Diaries series: Part I: The Wapato Valley, Part II: Chestnuts, Persimmons and Turnips, Part III: Misery Loves Company, Part IV: We're In This Pickle Together, Part V: The Spicy Turnip, Part VI: The Turnip Also Rises, Part VII: WWPD (What Would Pliny Do)

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