Sunday, July 10, 2011

Girls in Trees

Cherry Plum Picking
“Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable; with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats.”
- Woody Allen, Director, Actor and Writer

            If you were a girl, you probably remember being pelted with berries at some time in your elementary school existence. Most were pretty harmless – unless you got the squishy kind. The kind that goes splat on your back, leaves a stain on your my Little Pony t-Shirt and leaves you crying on the way home (no bad memories here…). More than likely that berry was probably Prunus cerasifera, or cherry plums.
            While other stone fruits (drupe is the technical botanical name), such as peaches, nectarines and apricots[1], get all the attention during July and August, cherry plums never go to the ball. And that is a pity, because once you realize they are there, your pantry will be full of amazing plum jam, plum wine and even, homemade plum sauce.
            But where are they? That’s the amazing thing. They are really quite common. In Northern Europe they are commonly used as hedgerow plants, mainly because they are quite easy to grow and need very little maintenance. They are also popular plants for landscapers as they tolerate urban environments quite readily, especially poor or clay packed soil. Furthermore, they are often the first plants to flower (in February or March), spreading some flower power during the dreary days of late winter/early spring.
Cherry Plum Leaves
            Their fruit and their leaf shape readily identify the plants. First, the fruit look like cherries in color and size (their scientific name, Prunus cerasifera, means “plum that bears cherries”), but if you take a bite of them, you will realize quickly that it does not have either the strong almondy flavor/scent of cherries (this comes from the strong presence of benzaldehyde). Plums, on the other hand, have a more lactones, lending themselves to the particularly “peachy” smell. Second, their tree (see picture) has small razor-edged leaves and their fruit is hanging on stems, much like cherries. Third, the tree itself is rather bushy – more like a shrub or small tree – with small branches. Some can grow up to 15 meters (75 feet) high, but those are not the norm.
            But the real question is, how do they taste? SOUR. Well, I have to admit, unlike apples or pears, you cannot eat them out of hand. But they make for great jam and fantastic pastries. You can put them in cake or pie, or make it into chutney to go with pork. And if you are a boozehound, you can also make it into slivovitz, the famous Balkan plum brandy (warning: the stuff is STRONG). Whatever you do – don’t let them go to waste. Every fruit deserves to go the royal ball.

Plum Cherry Crumble

Cherry Plum Crumble

            The nice thing about plums is their high pectin content. This means you don’t have to add any thickener, such as cornstarch, to the fruit – it will thicken on its own. Also, you don’t need to pick completely ripe fruit. It won’t affect the flavor and in fact, overripe cherry plums are a pain to de-stone – they are very mushy and mealy. And please note, the stones (pits) contain hydrogen cyanide – yes, as in will-kill-you cyanide. (This is also the chemical that gives bitter almonds, used in marzipan and amaretti, their characteristic flavor). The cyanide is contained also in the leaves, but trust me, you won’t be tempted to eat either the pit or the leaves; they are distinctly bitter. And not to worry hypochondriacs. The amounts of cyanide in both the pits and leaves are so miniscule that you won’t be going to the hospital – unless have a panic attack.  By the way, if you go tree climbing for these yummies, wear long pants and a tight fitting shirt to avoid being scratched by all the twigs and have some Advil on hand. I’m still sore from hours of climbing.

1 1/4 c. flour
3/4 c. oats (old-fashioned or steel cut – NOT instant)
1 1/3 c. of brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of salt
1/2 c. butter (1 stick) cut into small pieces and chilled
2 pds. cherry plums, halved and pitted
1 tbs. liquor such as amaretto, eau de vie, or kirsch (optional)
crème fraiche or ice cream for serving

1.     Pre-heat oven to 350 F. Mix flour, oats, 1/2 cup of brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl. Take the butter and rub butter into the flour mixture until it has a meal-like consistency. (If not using immediately, set aside in the fridge)
2.     In another bowl, take 1 cup of brown sugar, plums, and liquor (if using) and mix thoroughly. Taste and add more sugar if necessary (you may need to, if your plums are particularly sour). Place plums into a 9-inch deep dish pie or tart pan, sprinkle crumb topping on top and bake until the fruit bubbles and topping is browned, about an hour.
3.     Cool slightly and serve warm or room temperature with ice cream of crème fraiche.

[1] All stone fruits, including peaches, cherries, nectarines, plums, etc. are directly related to the Prunus genus (which are all part of the Rosaceae or rose family). Almonds also belong to this group of fruits as well (Almonds are the seed of the Prunus amygdalus plant). All fruits belonging to genus Prunus are not self-pollinating, thus they must have a steady pollinator –usually bees – to pollinate them. This is why the development of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in bees is so devastating for California’s fruit production.
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