'Try these plums, they're delicious!" a woman with a thick Russian accent advised me at the produce market last week, pointing at some red-skinned fruit. She was right.
Usually I opt for the black plums, but these crimson ones with deep yellow flesh were juicy and, well, plummy.
In her country of origin, cooks are creative with plums, using them in soups, main dishes and desserts. Darra Goldstein, the author of A La Russe (Random House, 1983), makes an intriguing cold fruit soup of plums, pears and apples flavored with sweet wine, raspberry jam and cinnamon, and garnished with apple dumplings. For serving with meat, she prepares sour plum sauce seasoned with garlic, fresh coriander, fresh basil and hot pepper.
Plums are an "adult" fruit. Unlike bananas, peaches and oranges, sweetness is not their dominant attribute and so plums are not children's favorites. With their notes of tartness, they are, for many, an acquired taste. But once you like them, they're like bittersweet chocolate, and connoisseurs appreciate their assertive character. And the plum's personality makes it versatile in the kitchen.
Polish cooks also are resourceful in coming up with both sweet and savory plum recipes. Alina Zeranska, who wrote The Art of Polish Cooking (Pelican, 1989), prepares an easy rice plum pudding that makes use of leftover cooked rice and requires no further cooking. You layer the rice with sliced plums in a bowl, sprinkling each layer with sugar and cinnamon, refrigerate, then cover it with sweetened sour cream. Her September Plum Soup is seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and cloves, enriched with sour cream and served warm with macaroni.
My mother, who was born in Warsaw, prepared kneidlach from matza meal, but some Polish cooks even make knedle out of plums stuffed into potato dough, according to Old Warsaw Cook Book by Rysia (Roy, 1958), and serve them topped with buttered bread crumbs and powdered sugar.
Cooks in Asia also use plums inventively. Plum sauce, a popular dipping sauce in Chinese restaurants in the West, is made of plums, apricots, vinegar and sugar, writes Nina Simonds, the author of China Express (Morrow, 1993). Indian cooking expert Neelam Batra, the author of Chilis to Chutneys (Morrow, 1998) makes tangy raw plum sauce by pureeing the fruit with fresh ginger, hot peppers, fresh coriander, lime juice and toasted sesame seeds and drizzles it over roasted vegetables or uses it to marinate fish. Persians love plums so much they even eat them unripe and enjoy their sour flavor.
The Japanese like pickled plums called ume-boshi. If you're not familiar with them, they will definitely startle your palate. Elizabeth Andoh, the author of An American Taste of Japan (Morrow, 1985), writes that ume-boshi "possess the most explosively refreshing, mouth-puckering possibilities imaginable. Many Japanese wake up to pickled plums with their breakfast bowl of rice, just as a strong cup of coffee gets many Americans going first thing in the morning."
When the weather gets a little cooler, it's fun to bake plum cakes. In France I learned to make country-style cakes by topping butter-cake batter with small, pitted plums and sugar and baking it. Some Polish cooks do this with sweet yeast dough, and I plan to try this version soon.
With their pleasing texture - soft but with a bit of bite - plums are good both raw and cooked. Usually I make them into fruit salads or, when I have a little more time, I prepare plum compote or stewed plums. My mother taught me to add a few red or black plums to mixed fruit compotes to give the syrup a good taste and a rosy hue.
Any fruit of contrasting color, like nectarines, kiwis or fresh litchis, is good with plums. A mixture of fruit in season that is perfect with plums is pears, peaches and papaya.
Whether you turn the combination into salad or compote, the result is beautiful and delicious.
Compote of Plums and Late Summer Fruit
This recipe is easy to remember: all the fruits begin with the letter P. You can also add pomegranate seeds for a finishing touch. Some cooks add red wine to the poaching syrup for plums. Serve this colorful dessert on its own or with ice cream or plain cake. You can keep the fruit in its syrup for several days in a covered container in the refrigerator.
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup dry red wine and 2 cups water; or 3 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks or 1/2 to 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
a few pared strips of lemon zest
300 to 350 gr. plums, ripe but firm
200 gr. pears, ripe but firm
200 gr. peaches
1 1/2 to 2 cups diced papaya or mango
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Combine sugar, wine and water mixture, cinnamon, cloves and lemon zest in a heavy, medium saucepan and heat over low heat, stirring gently, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add peaches. Cook 1 minute. Remove syrup from heat. Remove peaches with a slotted spoon. Peel them and quarter them.
Quarter plums. Peel pears and halve them lengthwise. With point of peeler, remove flower end and core of each pear. Cut each half in two lengthwise quarters.
Return syrup to boil. Add pears and plums. Cover with a lid slightly smaller than diameter of saucepan to keep fruit submerged. Reduce heat to low and cook fruit for 4 minutes. Add peaches and papaya and continue cooking for 3 to 5 more minutes or until fruit is tender when pierced with sharp knife. Cool fruit in syrup to room temperature. Add lemon juice. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).