Appreciation of plums
A confession: Until recently, I never really liked plums. Heck, I didn’t even know that there was more than one variety of plum. But that was then, this is now. I have evolved. I am a much more sophisticated and mature consumer of fruit. And I want the world to know how great plums are.
For starters, plums are packed with vital nutrients including vitamins A and C, the B complex vitamins, iron and calcium.
Due to crossbreeding, there exist 2,000 varieties of plums, round to oval in shape and ranging in the color spectrum from green and yellow to blue and purple. When fully ripe, the juicy flesh can be sweet or tangy. Some are “freestone,” with the pits separating easily from the flesh, and some are “clingstone.” In short, there’s got to be one that’s right for you.
Plum trees, with fragrant ornamental flowers and attractive foliage, have been providing humans with their single-seeded fruit for millennia. In 1541 the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, traveling the Mississippi River searching for gold and silver, encountered Native Americans consuming wild plums, also known as Indian cherries. (Incidentally, the dashing young conquistador should have quit right there because he died ignominiously that same year after having antagonized Native Americans all over the continent.)
But anyway, the three main varieties of plums ” European, American and Japanese (actually indigenous to China) ” all found their way to California and into the orchards of Luther Burbank (1849-1926) who bred and crossbred them into an astounding assortment of color and flavor.
With only an elementary school education, Burbank had become inspired at the tender age of 19 by Charles Darwin’s treatise “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.” For five decades, he painstakingly conducted experiments in cultivation, budding and grafting, attempting to breed tens of thousands of new varieties of fruits and nuts with excellent eating qualities. Hundreds of these became commercial successes, including the Santa Rosa plum and the plumcot (a cross between apricots and plums). Today you can visit the Luther Burbank Home, Greenhouse, and Gardens in Santa Rosa where the famed horticulturist had his outdoor laboratory.
Plums do not continue to ripen appreciably once they have been picked. To choose a plum, hold one in the palm of your hand. It should feel heavy and give a little. Watch for overmature plums that are very soft and may leak juice and undermature fruit that are very hard. If you are shopping at a farmers market, ask for a sample before you buy.
Refrigerate ripe plums uncovered for up to five days. But let’s say you sent your spouse out to buy plums, and your spouse doesn’t follow my advice and comes back with hard plums. Your marriage can still be saved. To soften the plums, place them in a paper bag for a couple of days at room temperature.
When making a pie or tart, leave the skins intact ” they add color to the finished dish. In general, use the smaller, more acidic plums for baking and the larger, sweeter plums for eating and in uncooked desserts. Always taste your fruit before cooking. Add a little extra sugar to the tarter varieties and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice for sweeter varieties.
For a simple summer dessert, poach plums in a mixture of water sugar or lemon juice. Reduce the cooking liquid and spoon it over the warm plums.
Christina Abuelo is market manager for the Foothill Farmers’ Market Association.
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