There is rarely a time when the large bowl in my kitchen is not filled with whatever fruity delights are in season. And when I’m worn out by my travels, it’s a delicious piece of fruit that I crave more than anything else to restore my good humor.
Of the many different types of fruit I love, it is the appearance of sweet, juicy plums at my local farmers’ market that excites me the most. This is not only because they are so good when eaten raw, but also because I love to cook with them.
I definitely picked up some new ideas for my kitchen from Iron Chef Symon and his recent challenger, Chef Tio, and I hope they will inspire you too to make even more of the huge variety of plums available today.
What are plums?
Plums, or prunus domestica, are part of the family of drupe fruits. This is a genus of plant where the seed is protected by a hard shell and, just like plums, includes peaches, cherries and almonds.
There are over 2,000 varieties of plums grown around the world, with well over 100 types available in the United States alone. The most commonly available plums are the red and yellow Japanese varieties.
Plums are often considered one of the super foods by nutritionists. They are low in calories (around 50 calories a plum) and very rich in antioxidants, many of which are contained in the skin. They also contain substances that are known to prevent macular degeneration.
When certain types of plums are dried they become prunes, whose high levels of sorbitol are known to, er, “aid” digestive health.
Where do plums come from?
Plums were one of the earliest fruits ever cultivated by man and are still one of the most widely grown. They were first recorded growing near the Caspian Sea, in around 65 B.C., and it is believed that they were first brought to the Mediterranean by Alexander the Great. By the time of the Roman Empire there were already over 300 varieties being grown on a regular basis.
The first mention of cultivation in America is from the William Prince Nursery in Flushing, N.Y., in 1737. Although there were native plums already growing, the nursery was probably offering European varieties brought over by colonists and traders.
China currently produces the largest harvest of plums, with the United States a distant second. Over 90 percent of those plums grown in the United States come from California, particularly the area near Fresno.
How do I cook with plums?
With so many different varieties of plums available, they are incredibly versatile in the kitchen and can be used in any number of sweet and savory dishes. Jams and jellies are an obvious example of what to do if you have a surfeit of plums, but I also like to make spicy plum chutney for an excellent accompaniment to cheeses and cold meats.
Plums are terrific in cakes and pies, and I particularly love them as an alternative to apples in the classic French tarte Tatin. For more savory uses, however, try making a sauce using plums, ginger, star anise and chiles to accompany a Beijing-style roast duck or use prunes soaked in cognac as a stuffing to cut through the fattiness of roast pork or thick pork chops.
Finally, if you fancy a tipple, try adding 1-pound of damson plums and 1 cup of sugar to 5 cups of gin to make a terrific plum liqueur.
Where do I buy plums?
Although you can buy plums year-round, they are a seasonal fruit and are best between the months of May and October.
Supermarkets are now selling an increasing range of plums, but your local farmers’ market may well have more varieties on offer.
If you buy plums that are not yet fully ripe, you can leave them to ripen at room temperature. And if you want to preserve them, you can even make your own prunes by using a food dehydrator or drying them slowly in a toaster oven.