Sunday, August 12, 2012

Making Plum Leather

Plum trees grow like weeds in our town, often springing up unbidden. At peak season ripe plums drop onto sidewalks and you have to step around the sticky paste of crushed fruit. Maybe that's why we've never paid a lot of attention to the little copse of plum trees in our backyard once the burst of bloom in early spring wanes. For so many years we've let the fruit drop on the ground and rot away in the ivy.

This year there has been an abundance of especially delicious and juicy purple plums. The easiest way to enjoy them is to stand by the tree and eat the fattest, purplest, sun-warmed specimens within reach. A bowlful on the dining room table make a nice accent and an occasional snack.

But so much goes to waste. What to do with this bumper crop? Even though the season is pretty much over, it seems a shame to let it pass without making an effort to preserve some of the bounty. Make jam? It takes too much time, is really messy, and needs a lot of sugar. Hmmmmm . . . . . what about plum leather? It can't be that hard to make. The only ingredient is ripe fruit. There is a dehydrator gathering dust under the bed.

Step 1: Gather the best and ripest fruit you can find. Wash it thoroughly.

Step 2: Remove the pits by squeezing the fruit between your fingers and picking out the pits from the gooey pulp. Be sure to capture all the liquid.

Step 3: Puree the pit-free mass of pulp and skins in the blender.

Step 4: Push the blended pulp through a strainer to remove the skins. Possibly you could do this before blending, but letting some of the skins mix into the pulp adds color, and perhaps adds nutrients.

Step 5: Brush some olive oil onto the drying rack in the dehydrator -- not too much or the end product is too greasy. You need a special drying rack for making fruit leather.  

Step 6: Gently pour the strained puree onto the drying rack, using only enough to completely coat the surface of the rack. Store extra puree in the fridge for the next batch. Alternatively, invest in more drying racks because they stack and you can do several at once. (I haven't tried that.)

Step 7: Optional -- sprinkle on some grated coconut.

Step 8: Put the top on the dehydrator and set it on the highest temperature (155 degrees F). After a couple of hours, turn the temperature down to 135 degrees F and keep it going until the puree is thoroughly dried out. It helps to set things up in an out-of-the-way place like the garage, so the continuous noise doesn't drive you batty. The puree takes a long time to dry out. Turn the machine off at night, of course, if it takes longer than a day.

Step 9:  Periodically test the puree by touching it gently with your finger -- if it's the least bit sticky it's not done. When finally done (hooray!) lift the lovely, translucent wreath of plum leather out of the machine. Plums have lots of natural pectin so the final material is firm and stretchy.

Step 10: Cut the wreath into pieces and wrap the pieces in waxed paper.

Step 11: Roll up the covered pieces and secure them well.

Step 12: Store in a covered plastic container in the fridge. Eat some right away and marvel at the fresh, fruity taste -- a much more concentrated flavor than the fresh fruit itself. Essence of plums. Share some with friends to hear their delighted response.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Season of Plenty

The blooming of the pink lilies signals the season of plenty in our backyard. As the blossoms gradually opened this week, we brought in several harvest baskets of lush produce:

Dona tomatoes
Better Boy tomatoes
Sungold cherry tomatoes
Padron peppers
Fairy Tale eggplant
Prosperosa eggplant
Ronde de Nice zucchini
Emperor's Jade zucchini
Genovese basil (the best for pesto)
Summertime lettuce
Michelle lettuce
A few stray leaves of volunteer arugula
Assorted leaves of volunteer yard chard
Purple plums (last few of their waning season)
Yellow plums (more than we can deal with)
Pears!!!!!!! (See below).

And that's not even the full roster. Still to come are:

Roman Stripe paste tomatoes
Indigo Blue tomatoes
Sweet Million cherry tomatoes
Pimento peppers
Lemon cucumbers
Blue Lake beans
Fortex beans
Volunteer mystery squash most likely descended from the Trombetta di Albenga of previous summers (judging by the size of the vines).

The lilies bloom in early August, announcing the all too short season of feasting on our summer specialties: Insanely Great Pasta Sauce and the inimitable Pear Tarte Tatin.

When the lilies bloom the pears are ready to drop. It's time to start watching the pear tree carefully because pears, counter-intuitively, should not be allowed to ripen on the tree. When the first one falls the whole harvest must be picked at once.

This year we got impatient and didn't wait for that first plopped pear before sending H. up on a ladder to gather in whatever he could reach -- everything but a few fat ones clinging to the topmost branches.

I think the blooming lilies are now so strongly associated in my mind with the season of plenty that, like Pavlov's dog, I start to salivate when I see them! Fill the harvest baskets; it's the time of fruiting and feasting!