When I was a culinary neophyte it seemed that on any given day I could go out and discover something new. Now, given my culinary heritage the exotica that resided in my family pantry consisted of dill, garlic, paprika and barley. So, I grew up with leeks as an edgy choice. It was the seventies after all, and I was in the culinary wasteland of the New York suburbs, and the Silver Palate Cookbook had yet to introduce American cooks to balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. Still, this initial awakening was myopic completely focused on the European sensibility of our society. Limited but welcomed nevertheless.
When I finally moved into my first place, a tiny studio apartment where the front two burners of my stovetop served as the resting place for my cutting, and sported burn marks from turning the wrong burner. Though now in my own home I was free to explore, hunt and discover the fuller breath of our diverse population’s cravings. I remember a magical spice shop on the upper eastside of Manhattan that would today seem like a set from a Harry Potter film – it was dark, a little musty with floor to ceiling cupboards that had small drawers containing every imaginable spice. This is where I found the chervil I needed for a goat cheese soufflé I was planning to make. Heading south to Chinatown gave me a leafy broccoli, ginger, rice vinegar and sticky rice. Those halcyon days when my life revolved around the dinner party I would host most Saturday nights meant a day of searching.
These days’ jicama, purple potatoes, nori sheets and chipolte chilies can be found just across the street in my neighborhood market. We have come a long way but I miss the hunt. The simple discovery of orangey-umber hued persimmons during the autumn of my first year of culinary school in San Francisco was a moment of wonder, and left me agog with ideas – once I learned that the two varieties needed to be treated differently. The Fuyu, which is more apple like in shape and is to be eaten hard. As opposed to the Hachiya with its more oblong shape that must be eaten so soft you would most likely think it is over-ripe. Bite into one of these under-ripe persimmons, and it is like sucking on an eraser filled with a day’s worth of chalk – I will never make that mistake again.
It is still possible to discover new foods my search has just broadened. I will scour the outer boroughs of New York, or no matter where I travel to I seek out farmer’s markets, grocery stores or any other opportunity I have to shop for a culinary treat.
Persimmon Salad – yields 6 servings
4 persimmons (Fuyu variety)
1 Asian pear
1-small English cucumber
1-tablespoon orange zest
1/2-cup cider vinegar
6 scallions – thinly sliced
2-tablespoons chopped mint leaves
2-tablespoons canola oil
Slice the persimmons, pear and cucumber into about 1/2-inch pieces. Finely mince the serrano chili, and place the ingredients into a work bowl.
Peel the jicama and then slice into 1/2-inch pieces, and add to the persimmons. Toss in the orange zest, cider vinegar, scallions, mint, canola oil and salt. Allow the salad to sit an hour or two before serving.