Little Red Plums

Posted on August 27, 2010

A bite into a raw plum perplexes my mouth: a puckering sour skin is the gateway to straightforwardly, mildly sweet flesh?

But apply a little heat to that same plum and it’s kitchen alchemy.  After cooking, the tough, tart, astringent skins melt down into silk, the watery flesh thickens into syrup.  Best of all, the skin and the flesh seem to meet in the middle to live together harmoniously, a place that is tartly sweet and unctuously silky.  Plums are, I think, at their best cooked down into sauces or baked into desserts like crisps, anywhere they can show off their jammy qualities.

Oh, how I love cooking with plums!

Wednesday’s little red plums in my Cider Hill CSA share gave me ideas for breakfast and dinner.  That meant that I had to make a stop in the farm store to supplement the few in my share, but the results are worth the extra purchase.

Tonight, salmon and bok choy will get an infusion of asian flavors with a gingery plum sauce.  This sauce packs a flavor wallop; it has a bit of everything in every mouthful: sweet, tangy, salty, with a little heat thrown in for good measure from the additions of fresh ginger and garlic.

Gingered Plum Sauce

I usually make this sauce with Italian Prune Plums, those dusky dark purple oval plums that start showing up in the markets at the end of August through September.  It makes a wonderful accompaniment to the heavier meats of fall, like pork and duck.

A red plum is a juicier plum than the prune plum, making it seem lighter somehow, more suited to a lighter meat or one of the meatier fish.  Salmon in particular loves sweet and sour.  With a few adjustments to my prune plum version, I had a perfect late summer condiment for our dinner.

  • 1 1/4  pounds little red plums, divided
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp. peeled and finely grated fresh ginger root
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 4 scallions, finely chopped

Quarter and pit 3/4 pound of the plums.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the oil over moderate heat.  Add garlic and ginger to the pan and saute, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds.  Stir in the soy sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar.

Bring the liquids mixture to a simmer.  Arrange the plums cut side down in the simmering sauce.

Continue to simmer mixture, covered, over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, or until the plums are very tender.  While the plums are simmering, quarter and pit the remaining 1/2 pound of plums and reserve.

After 10 minutes, remove the lid and let the plum sauce thicken slightly.  The plums will be very nearly disintegrated.  After a minute or two of thickening, add the remaining cut plums into the sauce and stir to combine well.  Let these cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes of medium low heat until softened but not completely cooked down.

Remove pan from the heat and transfer sauce to a serving dish.  Scatter the scallions over the top and serve hot, warm, or cold.

Once the sauce was done and refrigerating, I turned my efforts to little red plum jam.  I only had about three cups of quartered and pitted fruit left, but that is enough for small batch jam making.

The words jam making tend to strike fear into a lot of hearts, conjuring up kettles and equipment and pectin and food safety warnings.  In small batches, making jam is kind of a snap.  If you only make a pot or two, you’ll probably eat the fruits of your labor so quickly that water bath processing or your grandmother’s paraffin sealing aren’t really necessary.  You can do a water bath – in fact I’m including a link below to the canning website that will show you how to do it – but for my three cups of plums, I’m not going to.

When I’m still alive and writing next week after gobbling up my non-water bath processed jam, you’ll see that I wasn’t cavalierly encouraging risky behavior.  With jams, the enemy is bacteria, not botulism.  I have to stress that jars and equipment need to be boiled for at least 10 minutes; improperly cleaned equipment will be a breeding ground.

The boiling is not much of a hassle for homemade jam.  Even though the fruit is cooked to the jelling point with a good amount of sugar, homemade jam tastes like the freshest of fruit, only better.  A particular moment of your summer captured in a jar, the moment you pulled the plums off the tree or the late raspberry off the bush.  They don’t call it “preserves” for nothing.

Plum Jam

The proportions of fruit and sugar in fruit jams is one cup fruit to 3/4 cup sugar.  Multiply up as necessary.  I never use pectin, the jelling agent, ever.  Fruit has plenty of natural pectins, in my opinion.  Strawberry jam may be saucier in texture than you are used to, but additional pectin yields what I think is an unnatural jelled consistency.  I just don’t like it.

Plums and other fruits with pectin-rich skins (like apricots, peaches, cherries and nectarines) will get nice and firm on their own.

The following recipe is based on the amount of fruit I had.  You may have more or less, so adjust sugar accordingly.

Plum Jam

Equipment:

(2) 1/2-pint Ball or Kerr preserving jars with rings and lids, 1 large heavy bottomed saucepan, wide-mouthed funnel, canning tongs, metal spoon, metal ladle

Run jars, funnel, spoon and ladle through the dishwasher right before you are ready to begin.  Once washed, boil the jars gently for 10 minutes in a large pan of boiling water.  This sterilizing can be done right before filling so jars will be clean and warm.  Warm jars means glass will not crack when hot jam is ladled in.

There, that’s the tough stuff out of the way.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups quartered and pitted plums
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar

Place prepared fruit in the saucepan with the sugar and mix, pressing down with the back of your spoon.

Stir until the sugar dissolves.  Bring to a boil over medium-high and boil rapidly for jam to thicken, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.

At the beginning of the process, foam will form on the top of the fruit in the pan.  Skim this off using the metal spoon.

Once the majority of the foam is skimmed, little patches of foam will continue to form.  Skim these as necessary.  Keep the spoon in the boiling jam as it cooks, taking care when reaching for what may be a hot handle.

As you notice your jam thickening, you will also notice a change in the color and appearance.  Just combined fruit and sugar is lighter in color and fairly cloudy looking.  Once your fruit gets closer to becoming jam, it will take on a rich, jewel-like color and clarity.   Once you notice these changes, begin to test your jam for doneness, taking the pot off the heat so as not to over cook as you wait for the results of your test.

To test, drop a teaspoon of jam on a saucer and place the saucer in the freezer.  Take it out after 30 seconds.  Run your finger over the surface of your blob of jam.  If you notice that the top wrinkles as the jam moves under your finger, your jam is done and ready to be jarred.  If it still only looks syrupy, return the pot to the heat and continue boiling.  Test frequently as described above.  Going from not jelled to finally jelled can happen in a matter of minutes or even seconds.

Ladle finished hot jam through the funnel into prepared jars.  Seal with lids and rings.  Place hot jars on a folded kitchen towel, leave a good amount of room between each, and leave on your counter until completely cooled.  When cooled completely, your jar or two can be transferred to the refrigerator.

Cook’s Note: If you decide you’re hooked on jam making and come home with flat upon flat of fruit from the U-pick farm, consider investing in a good quality canning kettle, tongs, and lots of jars with lids.  The best resource for home canning is the USDA’s set of guidelines.  If you’re going to put up lots of jam, I wholeheartedly recommend reading this website for tips and instructions:

http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/can7_jam_jelly.html

Don’t let the procedures and warnings scare you.  Delicious jam is the reward.

©2010  Jane A. Ward