"If it be not ripe, it will draw a man's mouth awrie with much torment." That was Captain John Smith's description of the first native American fruit he encountered, and it is still an accurate description of eating an underripe persimmon.

When ripe, however, persimmons are lusciously sweet, with a sensual, silken almost jelly-like texture that is one of the very few gastronomic glories of winter.

Two varieties of persimmons are available now: The large, evenly colored, deep-orange Japanese variety, hachiya, which is shaped like a huge acorn, and the fuyu variety, which is descended from the persimmons John Smith encountered, is lighter in color, squat in shape and about the size of a medium tomato.

The most important differences between the two are in texture and astringency. The hachiya variety is very soft and silken in texture when fully ripened, but is unpleasantly astringent when underripe. The fuyu variety is firm, much like a cantaloupe in texture, and it contains no tannin, thus there is no astringency. The hachia variety is the more interesting of the two, and the more commonly available. It is the one to buy.

When choosing a persimmon, look for deep, even coloring with no blushes of yellowish-green around the leaves. There should be no bruises or abrasions, and the leaves should be dry but basically intact. If the fruit is to be eaten within a day or two, it must feel very soft -- downright mushy -- all the way to its center. When squeezed the skin will feel like it is about to break and will not spring back when released.

Generally, ripe persimmons are not found in the markets, so we are forced to buy firm, hard persimmons and to wait a week to 10 days for them to ripen fully. The best way to ripen a persimmon is to place it in a brown paper bag and let it sit at room temperature.

Never try to eat a persimmon that is even the slightest bit hard, or the tannic astringency of the underripe fruit will, I promise, torment you as much as it did John Smith. Be patient, and remember that a fully ripened fruit will look and feel overripe.

The unusual, delicate sweet flavor and texture of a persimmon is all but lost when cooked, and lengthy cooking will make the persimmon astringent, even if it is properly ripened. Therefore, the best preparations are the simplest. Serving a perfectly ripened persimmon on a plate with nothing more than a wedge of lemon or lime is ideal. Spooning pure'ed persimmon flesh over ice cream, pancakes, or even corn or spoon breads is another excellent use. And persimmon sorbet is delicious. Whole Persimmons

Plan one persimmon per serving. Use small, dark-colored plates if possible, to contrast with the bright color of the fruit.

With a sharp, serrated knife, cut the pointed end of the persimmon off, about an inch down from the tip, so the flesh can be scooped out with a small spoon. Set the top back in place and stand the persimmon on its leaf end in the middle of a plate. Place a wedge of lemon or lime on the plate. Persimmon Puree as a Topping

Cut the persimmon in half and scoop out the soft ripe flesh, discarding the seeds. Place in a food processor or blender with one teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice for each persimmon and pure'e until smooth. Add a tablespoon of fine bourbon or dark rum for each fruit, if you wish. Taste and add a little granulated sugar if fruit is not as sweet as you'd like.

A large persimmon yields about 2/3-cup puree. PERSIMMON SORBET (Makes about 2 quarts) 3 large, ripe persimmons 1 1/4 cups sugar 3 cups cold tap water Juice of 1 lemon 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier (optional) 2 egg whites

Split the persimmons in half and scoop the flesh into a food processor or blender, discarding the skin and seeds. Add the sugar, water, lemon juice and liquor, if using, and pure'e until very smooth, about 60 seconds. Add the egg whites and blend until well combined.

Freeze in an electric ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.