Alan Tangren: Plum delicious
Dear Alan: I’m a little confused by the plums I find in the market. When I get home and taste, some are super sweet, but some can be really sour. How can I properly choose ripe plums?
Alan: Plums, and their close cousins, pluots, belong to the most diverse group of stone fruits. When ripe their skin color can range from green through yellow, purple and red all the way to dark purple. The flavor shades from sour to very sweet.
To help make sense of this diversity and be able to choose the kind of plum you prefer, it is useful to learn a few things about plum ancestry. Most of the plums we see in the market are known as either European or Japanese plums.
Plums that were first domesticated in Europe have greenish or golden yellow flesh, and skin that is either yellow or blue, covered with a silvery “bloom”. The generally small to medium fruits are often freestone, and the flesh easily detaches from the pit.
Prunes are made from varieties of European plums with very sweet flesh, that will not ferment as the fruit dries. When marketed fresh, these super sweet plums are called by their varietal names, such as French or Italian prunes, and the tiny sugar plums.
Good varieties of European plums that are not quite so sweet and generally sold fresh include Tragedy, President and Stanley. European plums are most abundant in late summer.
The other group of plums you are likely to find are called Japanese plums. These came originally from China, but have been cultivated and perfected in Japan over centuries of careful tending.
Japanese plums have a highly flavored, very juicy, fibrous flesh that is generally less sweet than European plums. As a group their fruits are the most varied, in many shapes and sizes, with flesh that can have a range of color from white to red inside the fruit.
These plums are round or heart-shaped, with a little point at the end. They are always clingstone, and the flavor is very tart near the pit and skin.
My favorite plum is the Santa Rosa, developed by Luther Burbank, the brilliant plant breeder in the Sonoma Valley over 100 years ago. Its rich and distinctively winey flavor is delicious when eaten out of hand and comes across beautifully when used in desserts. The fruit is medium-sized with purple-red skin and amber flesh that shades to purple near the skin. There are early and late types that are available from early summer through the end of July.
Other Japanese plums that ripen after Santa Rosa include Laroda, Satsuma and Casselman. Worth waiting for at the end of plum season is Elephant Heart, with dark purple skin and rich, juicy, blood red flesh.
When shopping, plums that are well colored, aromatic, and just give to gentle pressure are ready to eat. Firmer plums will need a few day’s at home at kitchen temperature to soften.
Don’t buy fruit that is rock hard, has wrinkled skin, soft spots or visible cuts and bruises. Ripe plums will keep several days in the refrigerator.
Try this easy plum dessert I used to make at Chez Panisse:
1 pound ripe plums
3 eggs, separated
¼ cup sugar, plus more for fruit
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Few drops almond extract
2/3 cup cream or half-and-half
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch baking dish.
Cut plums into half-inch slices and arrange in the baking dish. Sprinkle with sugar to taste, about 1/3 cup.
Beat egg yolks and sugar together until blended. Beat in flour, extracts and cream. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to form soft peaks. Fold whites into the batter.
Pour batter over the plums and smooth to even the top. Bake in the lower level of the oven until the top is puffed and brown, 25 minutes or more. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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