Plums come in more kinds and colors than ever before

Fresh plums start arriving in the markets in May and are available all through the summer in more kinds and colors than ever before. Today, 140 varieties are shipped throughout the country from California orchards. Each has its own distinctive flavor and qualities, and although many supermarkets label them with the correct names, most consumers are not familiar with more than one or two.

The Santa Rosa is the most abundant and best known. Other varieties include Nubiana, El Dorado, Red Beaut, and Casselman. They are all either Japanese or European varieties, the majority being the Japanese ones, which ae bright red, crimson, or yellow, medium to large, and very juicy.

By contrast the Europeans are always blue or purple, mildly sweet, and usually smaller.

In choosing fresh plums, select fruit that is full colored for its variety and firm, except for a slightly soft tip end -- a good indication of ripeness.

The outside of these fresh plums offers few clues as to the inside. A yellow plum may be red-fleshed, a red may be yellow, and a blue may be green. The best way to tell, of course, is to take a juicy bite.

If plums aren't quite ripe when purchased, leave them at room temperature to ripen -- but watch them carefully. They can quickly turn from ripe to overripe.

Refrigerate ripe ones immediately without washing. They'll keep in the refrigerator from 3 to 5 days.

Most people who really appreciate plums enjoy them with the skins on. The contrast between the tartness of the skin and the sweetness of the flesh in what makes them different from other summer fruits.

But if your plum recipe calls for peeled plums, it's no problem.Simply hold the plum with a fork in boiling water until the skin cracks, the peel it off.

When it comes to pitting them, some plums are freestones and the pits pop out easily. Others are free enough to cut along the seam or suture, twist neatly in half, and then cut away the pit.

With the calingstone plums, including the Santa Rosa, it's best to slice into the pit and cut the fruit away in wedges.

Poaching is considered the ideal method for cooking plums. It brings out their distinctive flavor, makes them even juicier, yet preserves their bright color.

Poach whole, halved, or quartered fresh plums 7 to 10 minutes, just until tender. The poaching liquid can be a simple sugar syrup or a fruit juice.

Vary the flavor appeal by adding cinnamon sticks, orange or lemon peel, crushed stick of peppermint, almond or vanilla extract, whole cloves or allspice , or other fresh fruit in season.

If you have a steamer, experiment with steamed fruit. Place it in the steamer, with or without sugar.

The next time you grill ribs or chicken, serve a plum alongside or garnish the plates with chilled, poached plums. ITIf your fresh plums acidentally turn overripe, they can be turned into delicious puree for milkshakes, ice cream, and blender drinks. Simply puree halved and pitted plums in the blender until smooth. Add sugar to taste, grated citrus peel or a favorite spice. Refrigerate until serving time or freeze for longer storage.

Stir plum puree into softened vanilla ice cream and serve with hot cakes, waffles, or popovers, or spoon over puddings or pound, chiffon, or angel food cake.

Here are a few recipes for summer plums. Steamed Plums 1 1/2 pounds plums, halved 2 to 4 tablespoons sugar Grated rind 1 lemon

Remove pits and place plums skin side down on a rack. Fill centers with sugar and grated lemon rind and steam about 20 minutes. Cool and chill. Serves 4. Fresh Plum Crumb 4 cups quartered, fresh plums, about 1 1/2 pounds 1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar 1 cup plus 3 tablespoon flour 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon mace 1 egg, well beaten 1/2 cup butter, melted

Toss plum quarters with brown sugar, 3 tablespoons flour and cinnamon. Arrange in 11-by-7-inch baking pan. Sift remaining 1 cup flour into bowl with sugar, baking powder, salt, and mace. Add beaten egg. Mix with fork until crumbly.

Sprinkle mixture over plums. Drizzle melted butter evenly over crumbs.Bake in 375-degree F. over 45 minutes until plums are soft and topping is golden. Cut in squares. Serve warm or cool. Makes 6 servings. Plum Ketchup 3 pounds firm, ripe tart plums 1 1/2 pounds sugar 1 cup cider vinegar 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground mace 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

With a small, sharp knife, slit plums open and remove and discard pits. Wash plums under cold running water, then place in a heavy 2- or 3-quart enameled or stainless-steel saucepan. Add sugar and vinegar and, with a wooden spoon, stir until sugar has almost dissolved.

Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat, and simmer plums, stirring occasionally, until fruit is tender enough to be easily mashed against side of pan with a wooden spoon. Stir in cinnamon, mace, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg and raise heat to high.

Boil briskly, stirring frequently to prevent mixture from sticking to pan, for about 45 minutes. With slotted spoon, skim off and discard any foam on surface of ketchup and ladle at once into hot, sterilized jars, following directions for canning and sealing jars. This makes a good accompaniment to game, meats, and poultry.

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