Friday, September 4, 2009

When Life Gives You Plums, Part I

For my birthday last week, my friend Rudy gave me a brown shopping bag half full of Italian Prunes (plums) from his backyard tree. I'm guessing, based weight-training class, that the bag came in at about 15 lbs--it was far heavier than anything I have worked my way up to. It was my birthday, and I was already committed to canning 20 lbs of tomatoes, but I laid out all the plums on baking sheets and discarded the already overripe ones. Slowly and surely, the challenge of using these plums has taken over my every waking moment. It's friday night, I'm moving into a 3 day weekend, and all I can think about is getting to these plums before decomposition does.

A week or so back, Rudy brought in a smaller sampling for me. The fruit was extremely tart and even ripe I don't think they make the best eating plum. But after a few days of sitting on my counter and eventually attracting fruit flies, I decided to do something low impact: Plum Butter. Fruit butters essentially consist of cooking fruit, along with a little water, down to a pulp, straining it, adding sugar, and slowly cooking it until it is thick and unctuous. Having been on a canning and preserving kick since June, I figured I would tackle some apple or pear butter in the fall but the plums came to me first:

This didn't even make enough to fill an 8 oz jar, so I didn't bother processing it. I figure, nevertheless, it will last a spell in the fridge. And that's a good thing, because I have about 3 other jars of homemade preserves opened, and tens of tens patiently waiting their turn on my "canning shelf." Have I mentioned I prefer savory foods? Which got me to thinking...

Since my Grand Central days, I have been obsessed with fruit in sandwiches. Back when I was working the sandwich bar there we made a chicken and chutney sandwich (and though I created such classics as The Jawbreaker, this was not my recipe). It was sliced deli chicken, havarti, lettuce and a cranberry apple chutney, more Yankee than Indian. Still: Delicious. From there I just felt like sandwiches tasted better than fruit. I even went through a phase, while working in another restaurant, of putting raspberry jam on my turkey sandwiches (the ones I made for myself) because their turkey was too dry. When I opened Half & Half, one of my first stalwart sandwiches was the William Tell: Turkey, thinly sliced granny smith apple, red onion, lettuce, swiss and sharp dijon (and Best Foods Mayo, of course). From there, I loved to play with seasonal ingredients: peach chutney in the late summer, kumquats in the winter, strawberries and chevre in June. Now that I eat a lot less sandwiches than I used to, I don't get the chance to play with sweet and savory as much. But while sampling the plum butter and thinking about a pork loin sandwich, my mind drifted to an all-pork meatloaf with a plum butter glaze...and then things started to get really crazy.

If plum butter could be eaten with something savory, and tomatoes could be preserved into sweets, why couldn't I combine the two to compliment something herby and fatty and porky, like meatballs. I've always been morbidly fascinated by midwestern classic of crock pot meatballs in grape jelly, and learning that that sauce generally consists of equal parts grape jelly and chili sauce, I knew combining tomatoes with sour plums and some sugar would produce a similar, though surely more refined, effect. The thought crossed my mind a few days before the plums actually found me, so I spent some time testing out the idea on friend. Explaining my grape-jelly theory to people did not make the plum and tomato experiment necessarily seem like a noble undertaking, but I was, at this point, totally obsessed with "Italian plum-tomato" glazed meatballs. So my birthday bounty would become my muse.

The meatballs themselves were based on ingredients I had on hand. A pound of pork, half a red onion softened in olive oil and a followed by a good measure of garlic, lots of fresh sage, salt, pepper, dry bread crumbs soaked in milk, one egg. I combined a day ahead, fried off a smidgen to make sure the flavors were balanced, formed into ping-pong sized balls and chilled longer. Meanwhile (actually, previously), I combined equal portions of pitted Italian plums and
quartered plum tomatoes in a sauce pan with enough water to get things going. Under a fairly low heat the plums and tomatoes softened to a pulp. I ran this through a food mill, and replaced a seed-and-skin free version back to the pot, along with some sugar.
I would say to 1 qt of fruit I added about 2/3 cup of sugar. And then continued to let this cook until thick enough to both coat the back of a spoon and gurgle dangerous hot bubbles of molten plummy lava everywhere. Without being complex, the finished sauce was bright, clean, and tasted both of plums and tomatoes but not distinctively of either. Though when it comes to my own concoctions I am often the mom who is so blinded by love that she can't see the flaws in her children, I know in my heart I found something special in this combination.

The next step was to put it all together. I flash-fried the meatballs in some cheap Lebanese olive oil, drained them on paper towels, and then arranged them in a chafing dish. On top of this I ladled my sauce, all 1 1/2 reduced cups of it (which was probably too much, but I could not bear to have another condiment begging for a second life in my fridge. They baked, in a 400 oven, for about 15 minutes covered and an additional 15 uncovered. This is what they looked like, lacquered and bronzed, like a cheap Hollywood starlet:

The result: porky, fruity, savory, cocktail-meatbally delicious. Another pound of plums down, 14 more to go. Stay tuned for the next installment to find out what I've done with the other 14 pounds. I'm curious myself.

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