This week's look at what's new, bountiful or even mysterious in the produce aisle.
If you notice a small, purplish- green, football- shaped plum in the market sometime during the next couple of weeks, you've probably spotted a prune plum. Once common, this plum was a favorite of Southern European immigrants who preferred this variety for their homemade compotes, jams and preserves.
Today it's the runt of the litter, pushed aside by flashier, more popular varieties and almost forgotten. But the prune plum still has its admirers, albeit for an unusual reason. "The prune plum tree is one of the most beautiful fruit trees I've ever seen," explains B.J. Thurlby, a spokesman for the Washington State Fruit Commission. "The trees are short, about eight feet and they grow out like perfect umbrellas with the shimmering purplish fruit hanging down."
The fruit can be made into prunes but its somewhat less than poetic name actually stems from the type of pit it possesses.
The prune plum, also called an Italian plum, is one of the few truly seasonal fruits left. It's available for a just a few weeks in late summer and early fall, and then only in limited quantities.
Its small size makes it attractive in simple cakes and its tart flavor works in savory compotes and salsas. And if preserves are your forte, prune plums make a good old- fashioned pot of jam.
How to buy: The fruit should yield slightly to pressure, but still be firm. Check the tip of the plum. If it's soft, the fruit is ripe. As with all plums, avoid fruit that is shriveled, browned, has broken skin or is too soft.
How to store: Plums are good keepers. Refrigerated, they can be stored for a few weeks.
How to prepare: Use them with any recipe for a plain yellow or white cake. Fill the cake pans with the batter according to the recipe directions, Halve the plums, remove the pits and place the plums, cut-sides down, in the batter and bake. Or make the plums into a sweet syrup for pancakes, French toast, ice cream or sorbet: Chop, add sugar to taste and bring to a boil. Substitute plums for tart apples in pie recipes, or combine with apples for a mixed-fruit pie.
The plums can also be stewed with sugar, allspice and cinnamon and served as a dessert or as a sweet condiment for roast pork or grilled chicken. Look for recipes in old cookbooks.