The arrival of prune plums to the markets is one of late September's treasures. This sensational fruit appears for just a few short weeks. Don't miss the chance to savor this undervalued and relatively inexpensive seasonal delight.
Prune plums, also called Italian plums, are tasty raw, but they are outstanding cooked. Heat not only releases the plums' juices but it also intensifies their flavor and turns them a luscious burgundy color. Stewed prune plums are versatile and freeze beautifully. Delicious on their own, they are even better mixed with granola and yogurt. The plums can be added to coffee cakes or, my personal favorite, used as the base for fruit crisp. All you need to do is add your favorite topping, thicken the fruit with a spoonful of tapioca or cornstarch, and bake.
Prune plums range in color from a deep red to purple to dark blue with an overlay of smoky grey. Smaller than average plums, they are about the size and shape of an egg. When selecting prune plums at the market, look for fruit that is firm or just slightly soft to the touch.
Preparing the prune plums for stewing is simple. There is no peeling involved. Just follow the natural crease of the fruit with a knife and the plum will fall into two pieces revealing its green or yellow flesh. The freestone pits are easy to remove.
Put the halved plums in a pot on the stovetop. Add just enough water to prevent them from sticking and stir in some sugar. The plums are tart. Sweetening depends on your personal preference. There is no formula and you can always add more sugar at the end if they are not sweet enough for you.
Bring the plums to a simmer over medium heat and partially cover them with a top. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. As the juices release they will make a sauce and the plums will soften. This usually takes about 15 minutes. Stewed prune plums can be kept in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for a week or more.
This year's surprise recipe for prune plums was one for chutney. Chutneys are a staple in our household for gifts and, of course, for curries. Since this is also apple season I was checking an old cookbook for the recipe for Tea Lane Chutney, my favorite apple chutney. Clearly the recipe originated here on the Island, but somehow it ended up in the Junior League of San Francisco's cookbook, "San Francisco a la Carte," published by Doubleday and Co. in 1979. When I found the well-worn recipe for Tea Lane Chutney, there on the same page - somehow overlooked all these years - was a recipe for Prune Plum Chutney.
That evening I made a batch. The recipe was straightforward and the preparation was easy. The only change I made was to triple everything, since the original recipe only made three pints. The results outshone the effort. The Prune Plum Chutney is a delicious balance of spicy, sweet, savory, and hot. It's pretty too - a deep rich red. I'm hoping the prune plum season lasts long enough for me to make another batch and put more plums in the freezer. Then it's on to learning how to make a good curry to go with the chutney, but that's another story.
Prune Plum Chutney
(Makes three pints)
1 cup light brown sugar firmly packed
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. mustard seed
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup crystallized ginger
1 cup seedless white raisins
4 cups fresh prune plums, halved and seeded
In a heavy two-quart saucepan combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally for about one hour or until thick. Spoon into sterilized jars. Store in a cool, dark place.
Laura Wainwright, a West Tisbury resident, is a regular contributor to The Times.