When it comes to the ripest, juiciest and sweetest of plums, the obvious way to eat them is to wrap oneself in a towel and gorge.
But we don't live in an ideal world, and plums of that perfection can be hard to find. Fortunately, there's something about plums that makes them good to eat even when they're not at their absolute best. There's that tartness that rescues average plums when peaches, nectarines or berries of similar quality would fail.
What is it about plums that gives them their uniquely puckery quality? The answer is in the skins, where plums have high concentrations of tannins.
"People who like plums tend to like red wine," says Adel Kater, a post-harvest physiologist from the University of California, Davis.
Well, cheers to that most agreeable of scientific facts, particularly because California's plum harvest is at its peak. The plums will come in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a golf ball to that of an apple, and in a variety of colors.
This range of variety will extend to the tang. "Different plums have different astringencies, and as they ripen, the astringency lessens," Kater says. Some plums, such as the Black Beaut, stay relatively tart, while the Santa Rosa's skin gets sweeter as it ripens.
Kevin Day, a farm adviser from the University of California Cooperative Extension service, explains the variety in the quality of the plums as stemming from a mixture of effects: weather, farm husbandry and supermarket handling.
He offers these tips on choosing plums: "If you're buying a red plum, see that it is mostly red with a yellow background. If it's got green, it's not a good sign."
As for plums that are supposed to be green, Day says, don't insist on the yellow or they may be overripe. For black plums, Day says we should expect a little bit of "spring" or "give" to their flesh.
If you have plums that, for whatever reason, are a bit hard, a little cottony, a shade tart -- relax. Few fruits cook so well with such pleasing results.
At the savory end of the spectrum, both plums and prunes create classic combinations with pork and game. The Chinese consider plum sauce a must as a condiment for roast duck. At the sweet end, because of their tannins, no fruits marry so agreeably with sugar, butter and brandy.
1/2 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling on dish and top of batter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream
6 tablespoons melted butter
seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon cognac or plum brandy
2/3 cup flour
butter for greasing pan
2 cups sliced plums ( 1/4 -inch thick) tossed with 1 tablespoon sugar
In food processor, pulse together eggs, sugar, salt, cream, melted butter, vanilla bean seeds and brandy. Add flour and process until smooth.
Coat 1-quart ceramic gratin or baking dish with butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. (You will be serving clafouti from this dish.)
Pour half of batter in dish and distribute 3/4 of plums evenly on top. Pour in remaining batter and scatter last of plums on top. (Don't worry if they start to sink.) Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake at 450 degrees until top is light gold and sides are set but still slightly soft in middle, about 20 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes; serve immediately.
Each serving: 248 calories; 270 milligrams sodium; 144 milligrams cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber
1 1/2 pounds soft plums
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup sugar plus more to taste
kirsch or plum "eau de vie" to taste
Cut plums in half, remove pits and place plums in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often to keep plums from sticking to bottom. When plums are heated through, about 5 minutes, add water and 1 cup sugar. Cook until sugar dissolves, stirring, about 5 minutes.
Pass through food mill or puree in food processor. Taste for sweetness and add sugar as needed. Add "eau de vie" to taste. Chill 1 hour. Freeze according to instructions of ice-cream maker.
Each of 8 servings: 145 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.51 gram fiber
Fresh Plum Sauce
Makes 1 1/2 cups
1 pound red plums, quartered
1 cup sugar
1 (2-inch) piece ginger root, sliced into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons vinegar
Place plums, sugar, ginger root, vinegar and pinch of salt in non- reactive pan. Cook over low heat until thick and syrupy, about 1 hour. Cool at room temperature about 45 minutes.
Puree in food processor. Thin with a little cold water if sauce is too thick. Serve as dipping sauce. It is quite nice with roast duck and grilled foods, such as shrimp or pork.
Per tablespoon serving: 42 calories; 10 milligrams sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.11 gram fiber
Pub Date: 10/06/99