Little Jack Horner certainly liked plums. So do most Americans.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that more than 267,000 tons of plums were grown in the United States last year -- most of them in California. Second only to peaches in stone fruit production, plums are grown on five continents.
Botanically, the plum is a drupe, a thin-skinned fruit with a fleshy pulp and woody seed. A member of the rose family, it ranges in size from a cherry to an egg and in color from bright yellow to purplish black.
There is a bewildering array of plums: Damsons, Red Beauties, Italian Prunes, Mirabelles, Santa Rosas, Greengages, Agens and Black Friars are just a few. Plus there are three varieties that are inedible in their raw state -- the Sloe plum, Beach plum and Umeboshi plum.
In this country, we grow the American plum, also known as Yellow plum on account of its golden skin and flesh, and the Red Beauty, a bright red-skinned plum with tart yellow meat. The Santa Rosa is one of the world's largest plums, occasionally attaining the size of a small apple. Its purple-red skin encases a refreshingly tart yellow flesh. Another California favorite is the small, oval, purple Italian Prune plum.
When buying plums, look for firm, brightly colored fruits that are slightly yielding to the touch, but not squishy. Once picked, plums don't grow sweeter, but they will soften. Keep them at room temperature until they are the desired softness, then store in the refrigerator. Plums are good keepers: I've held them for three weeks in the refrigerator.
Like peaches, plums come clingstone and freestone: Eat the former out of hand and use the latter for cooking. To skin a plum, cut a small "x" in the bottom (the non-stem end) and immerse the plum in boiling water for one minute. Rinse under cold water and slip off the skin with a knife.
To pit a plum, make a single cut from the widest circumference to the pit. Twist each half in the opposite direction. Pry out the pit with a spoon.
CHILLED PLUM SOUP
I first tasted this refreshing soup at the Chillingsworth restaurant in Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. According to owner-chef Robert Rabin, the preferred plum is the Black Friar, a large, meaty plum with a dark, lustrous skin. But any ripe plum will do.
10 to 12 plums (about 2 pounds)
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup cranberry juice cocktail
2 cups water
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup port
1/3 cup heavy cream or yogurt, plus 1/4 cup for garnish (optional)
Sprigs of fresh mint
Pit the plums. Place the plums, wine, cranberry juice, water and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring the soup to a boil.
Dissolve the cornstarch in the port. Stir this mixture into the soup and let boil for 30 seconds. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the soup for 10 minutes or until the plums are very soft.
Pure'e the soup in a blender. (The food processor does not work particularly well for pure'eing.) Taste for sweetness, adding sugar to suit your taste. Place the soup in a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Stir in 1/3 cup cream and chill for at least 4 hours.
Ladle the soup into chilled bowls. Swirl in the remaining cream and garnish each bowl with a sprig of mint.
Per serving: 352 calories, 2 gm protein, 58 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 64 mg sodium.
PLUM CHUTNEY WITH CORN AND GINGER
(Makes 2 cups)
Chutneys are spicy fruit condiments traditionally served with curry. I like the aromatic tartness of champagne vinegar, but any white vinegar will do. Crystallized ginger is available at most supermarkets, but it's more economical to buy it at an Oriental market.
1 pound ripe plums
3 ears fresh corn
3 slices crystallized ginger
1 small onion
1 red bell pepper
1 jalapenåo pepper or other hot chile pepper (optional)
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup honey, or to taste
1/2 cup currants or raisins
1 cinnamon stick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cut the plums in half, remove the pits, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Working over a large bowl, cut the kernels off the corn cobs. Finely chop the crystallized ginger and onion. Core, seed and dice the red pepper. Mince the jalapenåo pepper.
Combine all the ingredients for the chutney in a saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the corn is cooked but not soft. Correct the seasoning, adding additional honey, vinegar, salt or pepper to taste. Remove the cinnamon stick. The chutney should be a little sweet, a little sour and a little spicy. Serve plum chutney with grilled fish, roast turkey or baked ham.
Per 1/4 cup serving: 133 calories, 2 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, .9 gm fat, .1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 mg sodium.
A kuchen is a Jewish fruit tart. The crust is made of meurbeteig, a rich, crumbly dough that is often used to make cookies.
FOR THE MEURBETEIG:
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter
2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
12 to 14 ripe plums
6 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup heavy cream, beaten to soft peaks (optional)
Prepare the dough. Finely grate the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon juice. Cut the butter into the flour and sugar, using a food processor fitted with a chopping blade or a pastry cutter or two knives in a bowl. Continue cutting until the mixture feels like sand.
Add the lemon zest, lemon juice and egg yolks. Mix until the ingredients come together into a rough dough. Press the dough into the bottom and sides of a 12-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Wash, halve and pit the plums. Mix the sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle half the sugar mixture over the dough. Press the fruit into the dough, cut side down, in concentric circles. The plums should be firmly embedded in the crust. Sprinkle the remaining cinnamon sugar over the plums and dot with butter.
Bake the plum kuchen at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the top is browned and the fruit is soft and bubbling. Gently remove the rim of the tart pan. Serve plum kuchen warm or at room temperature, with unsweetened whipped cream on the side.
Per serving: 223 calories, 3 gm protein, 36 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 32 mg sodium.
BEACH PLUM JAM
(Makes 8 cups)
Here's a delicacy for anyone who is lucky enough to be at the beach in late summer. Beach plums look like small purple olives growing on waist high bushes along the coast.
2 quarts freshly picked beach plums
6 cups sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3-ounce package liquid pectin
1/4 cup Cointreau
Wash the plums and place in a large pot with water barely to cover. Gently simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the plums are quite soft. Strain the plums, reserving 3 cups liquid. Put the plums through a food mill or sieve: You should wind up with 2 to 3 cups of pulp.
Combine the pulp and cooking liquid in a heavy, non-aluminum saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pectin, followed by the Cointreau. Ladle the hot jam into six to eight 1-cup hot sterilized jars, and cover.
Put the jars in a large pot with enough water to cover by 2 inches. Boil for 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. The jam will keep almost indefinitely.
Per tablespon: 41 calories, .1 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, .2 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.