Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
The Pleasures of Plumming
"Within this Indian Orchard fruites be some/ The ruddie cherrie and the jettie Plumme," wrote William Wood in Massachusetts in 1635, describing the orchards that produced the plums for our first Thanksgiving dinner. Colonists discovered many kinds and colors of wild and cultivated plums, including the uniquely American beach plum. Long Island Indians so valued their beach plums that when they sold their lands to colonists they reserved "all liberty and privileges of plumming."
Today, we have several hundred varieties of plums -- in
colors red, purple, blue, black, gold, and green -- and a profusion of plum names such as damson, Santa Clara, Italian prune, angelino, royal, and greengage (which the French call reine claude). Some have extremely tart skins, while others, such as greengage, possess a juicy sweetness all the way through. Unripe plums of any kind are astringently tart, so let the buyer beware and let him also experiment in his plumming pleasures.
Nothing beats the taste of ripe plums in season, their taut skins bursting with juice. When I buy too many plums to eat raw, I bake them with something sweet like jelly and tart like orange. I might also put them in a nutty pastry crust or, on an Indian summer day, puree them to make a beautifully green or pink ice cream topped with a sprig of garden mint.
The Chinese have known for centuries the pleasures of combining the tart sweetness of plum puree with pork, duck, or chicken. If you have a superfluity of overripe plums, you can make your own Chinese plum sauce by simmering pureed plums with chili peppers, ginger root, and Chinese five-spice powder (cinnamon, fennel, star anise, cloves, and Szechuan pepper).
In summer and fall, our American colonists went a-plumming to garner fruits for winter, fruits they could preserve by bottling, jellying, or drying. Amelia Simmons, in American Cookery (1796), advises putting damsons in empty stoppered snuff bottles before treating them to a boiling-water bath. She also suggests preserving unripe plums by "coddling" (simmering) them "till they are as green as grass."
Drying plums to make prunes was ancient knowledge for the colonists, but they handed down to us terms of a certain laxity. "Plum" once meant any kind of dried fruit, in addition to fresh plums, so that we still make English "plum" puddings and cakes that are stuffed with raisins and currants but nary a fresh plum nor dried prune.
Although all our plum varieties are members of the genus Prunus, today the word "prune" is not held in high repute. Because my family was addicted to prunes for reasons of internal plumbing, I thought I could never with pleasure look a prune in the face. That was before I discovered the joys of plumping prunes in brandy and eating them as a counter to fresh grapefruit or as a sauce for vanilla ice cream.
For plums dried or fresh, the Indians knew what they were about in preserving their privileges of plumming.
1 pound plums (ripe but firm)
‡ to 1 cup currant jelly
grated rind and juice of 1 orange
Place whole plums in a single layer in a buttered baking dish. Melt the jelly and pour it over the plums. Add orange rind and juice to the plums. Cover the dish and bake at 250 degrees for 30-45 minutes, depending on type, size, and ripeness of plums. For a thicker syrup, remove plums carefully and boil down the juice. Pour over the plums and serve hot or cold. Makes a great sauce for Fresh Plum Ice Cream.
Fresh Plum Ice Cream
yields about 1 quart
1 pound sweet-skinned plums (such as greengage) to make 2
‡ cup superfine sugar, or to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups heavy cream
º teaspoon almond extract
Halve plums and remove the pits. Puree the fruit in a food processor. Stir in the remaining ingredients and taste for sweetness or sourness, adding more sugar or lemon as desired.
Pour mixture into the container of an electric or hand-cranked freezer, or freeze it in a metal tray in the refrigerator. If the latter, re-whip the ice cream mixture in a processor just before serving to get a creamy texture.
Betty Fussell is a food historian, home cook, author, English professor and freelance writer. Her book, The Story of Corn, was reprinted by University of New Mexico Press. Betty Fussells' latest work is My Kitchen Wars, which was transformed into a one-woman show performed in New York City and Hollywood. Fussell is currently writing a history of American beefsteak.