Ask Peter: Plums surfeit
My plums all ripen at once, so there are too many to eat fresh. I’d quite like to bottle them or make jam or chutney but would like to do something a bit different. Can you suggest some combinations of spices and additions that work for sweet and savoury preserves and chutneys?
In my opinion, plums are one of the more versatile of the stone fruit as they have a natural acidity that you don’t really find in apricots or nectarines. What that means is that they still taste like plums when cooked with lots of spices and vinegar in a chutney, or cooked sweet with vanilla and loads of sugar in a dessert.
When I was a child, black doris plums were my favourite of all the plums — and they still are. A can of them opened for pudding would always be a welcome treat, served with vanilla ice cream or turned into a crumble with apples and served with hot custard.
In Britain plums are different and I’ve still to find an elusive doris but over here, in season, we have damsons (a very sour dark blue plum) and greengages (when ripe they’re still green and almost toffee-sweet). So in the world of plums there are many varieties and many ways of dealing with them.
If you think of the Chinese kitchen, plum sauce is something that appears here and there. The sort of spices I associate with that cuisine that would go well with plums are ginger, star anise and cassia. In a savoury chutney, combine that with caramelised onions and sliced plums, cook it over a gentle heat for a few hours with some black vinegar (a Chinese specialty) and sugar and you have a delicious chutney.
Flavour a simmering liquid with the same items and gently poach your plums and you have a fabulous dessert to serve alongside some mascarpone cream whipped with vanilla.
If you were to think of a British kitchen, then you could substitute cinnamon for the cassia, add some cloves and a few gratings of nutmeg, use cider vinegar in place of black vinegar and pretty much do the same thing — a chutney or a dessert — although drop the vinegar for a dessert and add some fresh lemon juice instead.
To make a lovely dessert, cut plums in half and remove the stone (a small sharp knife is the best way to do this if the fruit are still a little firm). Lay in the bottom of a greased baking dish and sprinkle with vanilla sugar and alittle chopped red chilli, then bake in a moderate oven until the fruit is just beginning to collapse and weep colour.
Pour over a cake mixture — pretty much anything from a sponge cake to a madeira cake will work — but spice the mixture with some cloves, chopped candied ginger and cinnamon, then bake as per the cake recipe. The fruit will remain moist and the cake will get a lovely crust. You’ll have something that isn’t a crumble but isn’t a steamed pudding either.
For a chutney, mix equal quantities of sliced red onion and plums together with some chopped garlic, ginger and chillies to taste. Add spices such as whole star anise and cinnamon quills, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano. Add ⅓ the volume you now have of caster sugar (the whiter the sugar the more vibrant the finished chutney will be) and the same of vinegar.
Bake in a roasting dish or two, depending on volume, and cook at 180C for around 90-120 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes to ensure even cooking. Cook it to the desired consistency — wetter or drier, then season with salt and bottle in sterilised jars.
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