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Plum Foolish

You Can't Beat a Perfect Plum. Or Even One That's Not Perfect.


When it comes to the ripest, juiciest and sweetest of plums, the obvious way to eat them is to wrap oneself in a towel and gorge.

But we don't live in an ideal world, and plums of that perfection can be hard to find. Fortunately, there's something about plums that makes them good to eat even when they're not at their absolute best. There's that tartness that rescues average plums when peaches, nectarines or berries of similar quality would fail.

What is it about plums that gives them their uniquely puckery quality? The answer is in the skins, where plums have high concentrations of tannins.

"People who like plums tend to like red wine," says Adel Kater, a post-harvest physiologist from the University of California at Davis.

Well, cheers to that most agreeable of scientific facts, particularly since California's plum harvest has just begun in earnest and the fruit should be streaming through until September. The plums will come in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a golf ball to that of an apple, from green to yellow to red to purply black.

This range of variety will extend to the tang. "Different plums have different astringencies, and as they ripen, the astringency lessens," Kater says. Some plums, such as the Black Beaut, stay relatively tart, while the Santa Rosa's skin gets sweeter as it ripens.

Kevin Day, a farm advisor from the University of California Cooperative Extension service, explains the variety in the quality of the plums as stemming from a mixture of effects: weather, farm husbandry and supermarket handling.

"Buyers have to be educated to ripen properly," he says. He offers these tips on choosing plums: "If you're buying a red plum, see that it is mostly red with a yellow background. If it's got green, it's not a good sign."

As for plums that are supposed to be green, Day says, don't insist on the yellow or they may be overripe. For black plums, Day says we should expect a little bit of "spring" or "give" to their flesh.

If you have plums that, for whatever reason, are a bit hard, a little cottony, a shade tart--relax. Few fruits cook so well with such pleasing results.

At the savory end of the spectrum, both plums and prunes create classic combinations with pork and game. The Chinese consider plum sauce a must as a condiment for roast duck. At the sweet end, because of their tannins, no fruits marry so agreeably with sugar, butter and brandy.

However, if a few plums should slip the net between being eaten fresh and transformed into a dish proper, there is still no excuse for letting them rot in a fruit bowl. Rather, we can always sling them into a vat of booze. The Germans set up summer fruits in brandy and call it rumtopf; the English take small, sour plums called sloes and preserve them in gin (hence the drink Sloe Gin Fizz). Either spirit works.

The general idea is to take washed, pierced or, ideally, pitted stone fruits and set them up in a large, clean crock with the peel of several oranges or lemons, and spices such as cinnamon, clove and allspice. Fruits--cherries, nectarines, apricots and peaches, and even plumcots and pluots--can be added as they turn up. For every pound of fruit, there should follow a cup of sugar. The whole business should be stirred when additions are made, and occasionally in passing for good measure.

The happy upshot is both improved fruit and booze (do not waste Remy or Tanqueray--use hooch). By the end of the fruit season, the soaked fruits will make the best topping for ice cream imaginable.

And while it's still hot, there is no law against requisitioning a bit of fruit-impregnated brandy or gin (as long as one tops up the crock with more) to be served over ice with a spritz of club soda and a large wedge of lime.

Prune Armagnac Ice Cream

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour plus 1 hour chilling time

California prunes come largely from a traditional French variety of plum tree called the Prune d'Agen. Here Nick Coe, chef of Nick's, a year-old patio restaurant in South Pasadena, gives local prunes a rich, cool and classic Gallic treatment.

1/2 cup water


1 cup chopped prunes

1/2 cup Armagnac

8 egg yolks

3 cups milk

3 cups whipping cream

* Bring water, 1/4 cup sugar and prunes to boil. Simmer 15 minutes. When partially cooled, add Armagnac, cover and set aside.

* Cream egg yolks and 1 1/4 cups sugar in mixing bowl.

* Scald milk in medium saucepan. Add 1 cup hot milk slowly to egg-sugar mixture, stirring constantly, then return to saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until mixture thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Strain into bowl. Stir in cream. Chill 1 hour.

* Place in ice-cream maker and follow manufacturer's directions. When ice cream is done, swirl in prune-Armagnac mixture.

12 to 14 servings. Each of 14 servings: 358 calories; 51 mg sodium; 230 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

Fresh Plum Sauce

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours * Easy

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