June 11th, 2012

The Plum Post

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Good morning, Friends!

As I write this post, squirrels and birds are finishing off the last of the plums on our little backyard tree. A frenzy, you can believe it. I don’t mind. In my kitchen, there’s a huge pot filled with simmering fruit, a pantry stashed with fresh preserves, and a table covered with bowls of the plucked, all in varying shades of red violet, awaiting their destiny.

So many plums. Too many to count!

Conditions must have been beyond ideal this year. A mild, wet winter and a warm, almost summerlike spring–our tree blossomed 2 weeks early, dazzling in its fleecy whites. Over time, its limbs became vertical, dragging the ground, overladen with ripening fruit.

In years past, I’ve been forced to act quickly, snatching plums as soon as they showed that first rosy blush, in order to garner any before my backyard menagerie decimated the crop. This year, no problem: there’s been a gracious plenty for all.

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Now, what to do with them?

Friend Maggie likes to make plum jelly: long-simmer the fruit and skillfully strain it for all its juices to make a pretty, ruby-clear spread for toast.

I’m more of a jam-preserves kind of girl. I’ve been cooking down the plums in a bit of sugar, allowing their skins to dissolve into the mix. The plums are juicy and tart; I cook them with just enough sugar to bolster their flavor, while still honoring that tartness. As they soften and release their juices, I fish out the pits. (Sometimes I run the cooked plums through the food mill to accomplish that.)

I pour the preserves into sterile jars and process them in a hot water bath for 5 minutes. I also keep some handy, in sterilized, but unprocessed jars, tucked in my fridge. (This freezes well, too–for those of you leery of canning.)

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This way, I have plums in a plain yet versatile form, ready to slather on crusty bread with goat cheese, ladle over ice cream, blend into a marinade for grilled chicken, or whisk into a vinaigrette. Add ginger, garlic, hoisin, and the plums take on an Asian flair. Lemon and cinnamon for an Italian plum-good cake.

In crisps or crumbles: whole ripe plums lend themselves nicely for this kind of dessert. I’ve concocted a gluten-free version that uses oatmeal and ground toasted almonds that I think you’ll enjoy. I look forward to learning your ideas, too.

Here’s a round-up of my plum goodies.

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BASIC PLUM PRESERVES/SAUCE

10-12 c. whole plums, washed
2 c. Sugar

large heavy-duty stockpot, canning tongs, clean jars, lids, seals

Place plums into your large pot on medium heat. Pour in the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so. Uncover. Spoon off the foam collected on the top. Stir and continue to simmer, uncovered for another 15 minutes or so.

When the skins seem to have melted into the liquid, and the flesh of the fruit gives way, you can begin straining the plum pits. Some you will see floating in the red sea–just spoon them out. For the rest, set a strainer over a large bowl, and begin pour the cooked plum and juices through. Press with the back of a wooden spoon to crush the fruit and release the pits. Or, run the plum-mix through a food mill set with the largest openings. You’ll get a lush puree. And the color, a knock-out!

Return the puree to the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.

Pour into sterile mason jars, seal and process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes.

Makes 6 half pints.

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PLUM VINAIGRETTE/GRILLED CHICKEN SALAD

3 T. White Wine Vinegar
6 T. Plum Preserves
1/2 t. Black Pepper
1/2 t. Salt
1/2 c. fruity Olive Oil

Place all the ingredients except for the olive oil into a bowl. Whisk (or use a hand-held immersion blender) until combined. The plum preserve acts as an emulsifier. Slowly add the olive oil while blending. Makes a thick creamy vinaigrette.

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For the Grilled Chicken Salad:
2 boneless Chicken Breasts
1 bunch of mixed lettuces
1/4 lb. Sugar Snap Peas
2 Green Onions
2-3 Nasturtium flowers

Plum Vinaigrette

Slather a couple of tablespoons of the plum vinaigrette onto boneless chicken breasts and allow to marinate for at least 2 hours.
Grill char the sugar snaps and green onions.
Grill the chicken breasts. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing onto salad.

Compose Salad: bed of lettuces, charred sugar snaps and green onions. Sprinkle with nasturtium leaves for color and peppery bite.
Place sliced grilled chicken on top and dress with plum vinaigrette.

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GLUTEN-FREE PLUM CRUMBLE

1/2 c. Oatmeal
1/2 c. Almonds, toasted and finely ground
1/3 c. Turbinado Sugar
4 T. melted Butter

2 c. sliced ripe Plums (about a dozen)

9″ pie dish

Toast almonds in the oven and cool. Place into the food processor fitted with a swivel blade and pulse until the nuts achieve a powdery form.

Mix ground almonds, oats, brown sugar and melted butter. Add a pinch of cinnamon, if you like.

Take half of the mixture and press it onto the bottom and sides of a 9″ pie pan.

Slice plums and arrange in overlapping concentric rings on top of the crust. Continue until the dish is well filled. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar and dot with butter.

Take remaining almond-oatmeal crust and press over the top.

Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.

Delicious served warm with vanilla or ginger ice cream. Garnish with some plum sauce. Serves 6-8

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Posted in Desserts, Fruit, Gluten Free, Recipes, Salads, Sauces | 29 Comments »




November 10th, 2010

Green Tomato Madness

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I have told you all about my friend Maggie and her place out in the country, where I take carefree breaks from my city ways to hang in her kitchen, drink coffee, visit, and cook. On a given day, we might bake bread, or stir up a pot of gumbo, or can tomatoes, or fix a grand salad, using her garden’s finest. All, I should note, with splendid results.

This time was a little different. I know, everything looks pretty nice in the picture. But, things went a bit mad, green tomato mad.

It was unintentional, this madness. Our initial plan had been to cook with pears harvested from her craggy, fruit laden tree–perhaps we would make pear butter, or pear butter coffeecake.

But, this fall had odd weather, super warm in September and October, and Maggie’s tomato plants had an unexpected resurgence. They were covered, almost as much as they were in summer, with fruit. When her husband Steve learned that a hard freeze was coming, he hastened to the garden to gather what he could. He returned with a 10 gallon bucket, piled with all manner and size of green tomatoes.

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So, outside of breading them in cornmeal and frying them crisp, what do you do with 10 gallons of green tomatoes?

Maggie and I decided to find out.

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Some ‘net surfing turned up ideas for charred green tomato salsa, green tomato ketchup, and green tomato cake. A few recipes called for slicing, salting, and sweating the tomatoes to remove excess water. Other recipes called for tying the slices up in cheesecloth, and letting them drain overnight.

Needless to say, this notion was rejected.

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We plunged headlong into green tomato projects, making things up as we proceeded. It would be some time later before certain aspects of a green tomato’s nature would be revealed.

We oven-roasted green tomatoes, jalapenos, garlic, and onions to a char for salsa.

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While those cooled, we chopped more tomatoes for the bundt cake, and improvised a quickbread style recipe, not unlike ones that you use for, say, carrot cakes, or zucchini cakes.

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Maggie had a small bundt pan. So, we used the excess batter for muffins. The muffins, we thought, would be our afternoon snack with coffee. Then, we turned our attention to the task of the green tomato ketchup.

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Whoa. We quickly cleaned, cored, and quartered a mighty mound, and tossed them into a big pot. For spicing, we used the same ingredients–cinnamon stick, whole clove, and allspice– as I had for my Real Red Ketchup.

At one point, Maggie surveyed the counters, covered with cake pans and batter, vinegars and spices, food mill parts, canning jars, and then the cauldron of green gurgling on the stove and said, “I feel like we’re mad scientists and this is our laboratory.”

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And, like any good mad scientists, we recognized that cooking in this manner was very experimental. And, our green tomato experiment yielded mixed results.

Our Assessments:
1. Charred Green Tomato Salsa: This had terrific heat and tangy flavor, not unlike tomatillo, which it resembled also in texture– that gelatinous mouth feel, the kind you notice, at times, with cooked eggplant. We decided that this would be better as a sauce baked over enchiladas.

2. There was likely a good reason to salt and drain the green tomatoes in advance. Our ketchup did not get as thick as we would have liked. The taste was surprisingly good, pretty ketchup-y, really. There was something visually jarring about the color. Close your eyes when you taste it.

3.Green tomatoes need to be chopped very very finely for the bundt cake. Or, pulse them in a food processor. When the muffins were warm, the larger pieces of green tomato were fine—they reminded me of apple, in a way–but as the muffins cooled, the pieces became weird, a little unpleasant–that same gelatinous texture thing. Otherwise, we gave this cake a thumbs-up. I’ve given you the recipe, with the appropriate remedies.

4. It’s always a good idea to find clever ways to use what you’ve got. (Think–there have been thousands and thousands of farm women who had bushels of green tomatoes and little else to work with.)

5. Mad or not, kitchen experiments are fun. And, we welcome any green tomato tips, tricks, or recipes! Suggestions?

GREEN TOMATO BUNDT CAKE
2 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 t. Salt
1 t. Baking Soda
1/2 t. Cinnamon
1/2 t. Allspice
1/4 t. Clove
1/4 t. Black Pepper
2 Eggs
1 c. Brown Sugar
3 c. Green Tomatoes, chopped very finely
1/2 c. Buttermilk
1/2 c. Canola Oil
1 c. chopped Walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Measure and sift dry ingredients together.
Whisk eggs and brown sugar together. Stir in buttermilk and oil, then tomatoes. Stir in dry ingredients and walnuts. Pour into greased and floured bundt pan.

Bake 50-60 minutes. Allow to cool, and remove. Dust with powdered sugar.

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Beautiful collection! Maggie is ready for winter.

Posted in Breads, Recipes, Sauces | 28 Comments »




October 25th, 2010

Ketchup, for Real

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Ketchup!

That All-American condiment with Indo-Chinese roots is indeed much loved in our household, finding its way onto all the usual suspects: burgers, fries, and the like. And a few other less-than-usual items: Bill is a ketchup fiend, and his plates of scrambled eggs, stir-fried rice, or cottage cheese would not be enjoyed without a healthy slap of bright red. (Does anyone remember when the USDA labeled ketchup a vegetable?)

I have been wanting to make ketchup for some time. I’ve been told that it is easy-peasy to concoct a rich and zesty mix, and also as simple as canning tomatoes to put up. However, July and August came and went. I never got around to it, and thought that I had missed my window of Tomato Opportunity.

But, because we’ve experienced an extended Indian Summer in Tennessee, there’s been an astonishing burst of tomatoes at our markets of late –Bradleys, Beefsteaks, and Romas. The last vestige of glorious summer, these tomatoes! Though smaller in size, they are still intense with flavor.

Three weeks into October, who knew?

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An unlikely basket of romas (labeled San Marzano Style) at Smiley’s stand in our farmer’s market caught my eye last week. Ideal! Since our plan for the October Third-Thursday Community Pot Luck included grilling little grass-fed beef burgers, I decided that this was the right time to try my hand at ketchup-making.

I bought about 2 lbs. for my experiment.

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Into the pot, I also tossed in handfuls of cherry tomatoes, still diligent, productive in my guerilla garden, along with some garlic, onion, and sweet red peppers.

Recipe research turned up many variations, but I chose to use cider vinegar, brown sugar, and whole spices in the batch. A piece of cinnamon stick, a few beads of allspice, and bits of clove would impart more vibrant piquancy than dried-and powdered. And so, in they went, and in quick-time, my kitchen was filled with their heady aromatics.

(About halfway through the cooking process, I did fish out the spices. They had done their job well. For large batches, you could secure them in a bundle of cheesecloth for easy removal.)

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This is not the sort of cooking that you have to hover over and fret into perfection. It’s already perfect! Everything just needs its time to reduce and thicken. Keep the heat on low. Give it a stir and go about your business. Didn’t you need to water the plants and sweep the leaves off the front porch?

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Red-Red. You can see how nicely this reduced and thickened. Let the mixture cool a little bit before running it through the food mill.

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To extract all the flavor, be sure to take the throw-off of tomato skins and such, and run it through the mill again. It will result in a luscious bowl of rich red ketchup, like this one.

Not quite as thick as Heinz, but plenty thick.

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It’s the Taste that’s going to amaze you.

I felt certain that this would be Very Good, but, I must admit, the ketchup experiment far exceeded my expectations. Perhaps because I’ve spent too many years using a product made with high fructose corn syrup, but Ketchup, for Real is a Revelation. Tomatoey Sweet–but not too sweet–and layered with pungent spice; its complex flavors greater than the sum of its parts.

Almost worthy of that USDA vegetable label.

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KETCHUP FOR REAL

2 lbs. Roma style Tomatoes
1 Pimento or Red Bell Pepper
1 ripe Jalapeno Pepper
4 cloves Garlic
1 medium Onion
1/2 c. Brown Sugar
1/2 c. Cider Vinegar
1 stick Cinnamon
2 t. whole Allspice
6 whole Cloves
2 t. Salt
a few grinds of Black Pepper

helpful equipment: Food Mill

Place all the ingredients into a 5 or 6 qt. stock pot on medium heat, and add I c. water. Stir and cover. Let this simmer, covered, for at least an hour.
Uncover, stir, and simmer uncovered for another half hour, stirring occasionally.

Remove whole spices and continue cooking for about an hour.Mixture will become very thick. Allow to cool and run through the food mill. Run the “dregs” through a second time to extract more sauce. Put into clean, sterile jars.

If you increase this recipe to make a large quantity for canning, process in a hot water bath, as you would for canning tomatoes. (see my “Yes We Can Can” blogpost )

Makes Almost 2 Pints

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Posted in Recipes, Sauces | 24 Comments »