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 »




October 25th, 2011

Quince Quest

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Serendipity and A Tale of Quinces

I had never seen a quince, let alone eaten one, but the benevolent forces aligned last week…

It started the morning I read Rachel’s latest blogpost, “Quincing My Words.” Her description of this odd but intriguing fruit drew me right in: Illusive. Ancient. Properly Sensual.

Picture, if you will, a bulbous cross between an apple and a pear, with a heady fragrance both floral and citric.

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My mind whirled, imagining its heft and scent, a fruit both exotic and seductive. (Perhaps these were the love apples of Venus?) I could envision bowls of quinces perfuming kitchens of antiquity, and prized trees laden with great yellow-green knobs planted outside Persian homes.

Rachel made the quince sound paradisaical, something from a dream. I doubted that I’d ever have the chance to taste this fruit, but enjoyed the read, and went about my day. My cousin Cathy was soon arriving to visit, and speak at the Southern Festival of Books.

That night we went to Anatolia’s, our favorite Turkish restaurant, and Cathy inquired about dessert.

“We have a special tonight,” our waiter said. “Baked quince. It is stuffed with walnuts and pistachios and we top it with cream. It is beautiful dessert, only here for a few weeks.”

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Ahhhhhhhhh. Yes!

He presented the confection, half an oblong fruit baked firm but spoon-supple, its center filled with a mixture of finely chopped nuts, cinnamon, and sugar. The pastry chef had garnished it with sweetened whipped cream and a scatter of pomegranate seeds.

The quince was like nothing else I’d ever eaten. Its texture much firmer than apples or pears–but smooth, not grainy–and its sweet-tart taste embodying a bit of both, but with layers of lemon and rose.

The whipped cream indeed gilded the lily, and the pomegranate seeds were little tangy firecracker bursts in each bite. Sublime!

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And so was born our mission to seek them out, and recreate the dish.

The next day, Cathy and I began our quince quest. First stop: Whole Foods, as recommended by the waiter at Anatolia’s. No luck. We drove across town to a large global market, again to no avail. And then Cathy made this observation, “This is a Middle Eastern dessert. We need to shop at a Middle Eastern market. Do you have one?”

Of course! We motored from the west side of town to the southside, out Nolensville Road, Nashville’s diverse global corridor for shopping and dining. A sign with distinctive script advertising fruits, vegetables, and Halal meats held promise but its owner had sad news; he had sold out a couple of days ago. “I have a friend. He may have some at his store.” He made the call, turned to us and said, “Only two pieces.”

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Sold. Two would be all we needed.

Blocks away, there they were, awaiting us, in a small market that held other delicacies worth exploring.

You’ll notice a light downy fuzz covering the quince that you’ll need to rinse off. And, until cooked, they remain devilishly hard. The yellower the quince, the riper. But, the oven-poach will transform even a green quince into a wondrous thing.

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At the Turkish restaurant, they may have baked the quince in some rosewater–a splendid idea. We chose pear nectar and lemon, which imparted lovely notes to the poach, and its resulting caramel-like sauce.

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When Cathy visits, she likes to bring recipes for me to try. The wedge you’ve seen plated with our quince is Oat Pudding, a simple rustic dessert from the Friuli region of Italy that Cathy had been making recently. We knew that this pudding would be an ideal accompaniment to the fruit.

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OVEN-POACHED QUINCES, STUFFED WITH WALNUTS AND PISTACHIOS
2 Quinces, cut in half, and cored
1/4 c. Pistachios, finely chopped
1/4 c. Walnuts, finely chopped
3 T. Sugar
1/2 t. Cinnamon
2 T. Butter
1 1/2 cups Pear Nectar (or juice)
1 1/2 cups Water
1 Lemon, cut into strips

Optional: Pomegranate seeds (taken from a quarter section)
lightly sweetened Whipped Cream

You’ll need a good sharp knife for this. The quinces are hard-hard, but will remarkably soften and yield their marvelous flavor in a long oven-poach.

Mix water and pear nectar in a deep casserole dish. Add lemon strips.
Mix nuts, sugar, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Press nut mixture into the center core of each quince half. Dot with butter.

Place each half, facing up, into the pear-water bath. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven. Bake for an hour and uncover. Baste the quinces. Bake uncovered for another 20-30 minutes.

Serve warm, and drizzle the caramelized juices over the quince.
2 Quince=4 large half-size servings, or 8 nice wedges to eat with Oat Pudding.

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OAT PUDDING
adapted from Recipes from an Italian Farmhouse by Valentina Harris
1 1/4 c. Oatmeal
2 1/2 c. Milk
4 Egg Yolks
7 T. Sugar
2 T. Pear Nectar

Spread oatmeal on a baking sheet and toast in a 225 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

Bring milk to a boil. Sprinkle in oatmeal, lower the heat, and stir constantly for about 10 minutes. Add more milk if the mixture seems too stiff. Remove from heat.
For a smooth pudding: puree oatmeal in a blender. For heartier texture, leave the mixture as is.

Beat egg yolks until fluffy and light lemon colored. Add sugar and beat for at least 5 minutes longer. Fold into oatmeal mixture and cook on low heat for 7 minutes, stirring until thickened and custardy.

Coat the bottom of a small mixing bowl with pear nectar. Pour in oat pudding mixture. Chill for at least 4 hours. Turn out and serve.

Serves 6-8

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Posted in Desserts, Fruit, Gluten Free, Recipes | 34 Comments »