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Plum Good: A Late-Summer Treat

Plum preserves on toast are a nice addition to a morning breakfast. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Plum preserves on toast are a nice addition to a morning breakfast. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

Plums are a late-summer pleasure overlooked in the rush for peaches, blueberries and apples. When properly ripe, they’re delicious for eating out of hand but they don’t freeze as well as berries and peaches, which might account for their relative neglect. And, as with other stone fruits, finding grocery store plums that are at the ideal point between rock-hard and mealy and over ripe isn’t easy. There are, however, orchards in the Upper Valley that grow plums hardy in this climate (consult Vital Communities Food and Farm list, at www.vitalcommunities.org, for which orchards grow plums). Some local markets also feature plums grown in Northern New England.

In this country, plums seem to be underrated for cooking. Try them in a tart or crisp and you’ll see why they’re worth baking. They dissolve into a kind of thick jam with the honeyed taste of peaches, apricots and apples. Depending on the color of the plum, they can be a deep rosy purple or a pinkish apricot.

They have one drawback when cooked. Their blush skin, which makes them so pretty, and which also contain such beneficial nutrients as vitamins A and C, and potassium, can be quite bitter when cooked. The first plum tart I made was nearly inedible because the skins were too sour and I also didn’t use enough sugar. The puckering sensation when biting into it killed my appetite. The debate whether to peel, or not to peel, is spirited, but I would err on the side of caution by peeling — at least when you first start using plums in cooking.

Put the plums you intend to use in a bowl, and cover them with boiling water. In about a minute, the skins should start to peel away. Remove from hot water and put them in a bowl of cold water, or run under cold water. The peel is easily removed at this point. They can be slippery little devils once the skin is gone, but they’re easy enough to pit and chop.

I started with two pounds of ripe, small red plums that I peeled, pitted and chopped. I put them in a heavy sauce pan with a cinnamon stick and added the juice of one lemon. I turned the heat onto medium and once they’d begun to simmer a little, I added about two cups of sugar. I don’t like to add too much sugar at the beginning because I think jams taste fresher and fruitier with less sugar. If the jam needs more sugar, add it until it meets your liking. Remember that the sugar concentrates the more you cook the jam, and the more sugar you add the denser and thicker it becomes. Rather than add packaged pectin for thickening, I just grate an apple into whatever fruit I’m conserving, which has the same effect.

It took about 30 to 40 minutes to make the plum jam, which had a beautiful color. I got about a cup of jam out of it. An easy test to determine whether the jam is done is to put a saucer in the freezer until it gets cold, put a spoonful of the cooking jam on the saucer and put it back in the freezer for a minute. If it’s gelled after a minute, it’s ready to remove from the heat. You can put it into sterilized jars and put it in a boiling water bath for canning, or one that’s clean but not sterile. If you use an unsterilized jar, you have to refrigerate the jam.

Plums are equally delicious in a crisp. We think of crisps and cobblers made with apples, blueberries and peaches, but plums get short shrift. If the recipe below doesn’t convert you into a plum-ophile, there is no hope.

Plum and Almond Crisp

(adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook )

2-3 lbs. ripe plums, peeled, pitted and quartered

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

4 tablespoons butter, cubed

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup sliced almonds

1 large egg, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together brown sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add the plums, lemon juice, two tablespoons butter and toss. Put in a shallow baking dish.

Combine the sugar, flour, salt, remaining two tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup almonds in a food processor and mix until almonds are ground. Add the egg and mix again until all are combined. Spoon the batter over plum mixture in baking dish. Sprinkle the 1/4 cup almonds on top. Put on a baking sheet and bake in the overn for about 50 minutes, or until the crisp is bubbling.

Delicious served alone, or with a dollop of plain or vanilla Greek yogurt. Ice cream would make this scrumptious dish too rich, I think.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.