PLUM FOOLISH

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to the ripest, juiciest and sweetest of plums, the obvious way to eat them is to wrap oneself in a towel and gorge.

But we don't live in an ideal world, and plums of that perfection can be hard to find. Fortunately, there's something about plums that makes them good to eat even when they're not at their absolute best. There's that tartness that rescues average plums when peaches, nectarines or berries of similar quality would fail.

What is it about plums that gives them their uniquely puckery quality? The answer is in the skins, where plums have high concentrations of tannins.

"People who like plums tend to like red wine," says Adel Kater, a post-harvest physiologist from the University of California at Davis.

Well, cheers to that most agreeable of scientific facts, particularly since California's plum harvest has just begun in earnest and the fruit should be streaming through until September. The plums will come in all shapes and sizes, from the size of a golf ball to that of an apple, from green to yellow to red to purply black.

This range of variety will extend to the tang. "Different plums have different astringencies, and as they ripen, the astringency lessens," Kater says. Some plums, such as the Black Beaut, stay relatively tart, while the Santa Rosa's skin gets sweeter as it ripens.

Kevin Day, a farm advisor from the University of California Cooperative Extension service, explains the variety in the quality of the plums as stemming from a mixture of effects: weather, farm husbandry and supermarket handling.

"Buyers have to be educated to ripen properly," he says. He offers these tips on choosing plums: "If you're buying a red plum, see that it is mostly red with a yellow background. If it's got green, it's not a good sign."

As for plums that are supposed to be green, Day says, don't insist on the yellow or they may be overripe. For black plums, Day says we should expect a little bit of "spring" or "give" to their flesh.

If you have plums that, for whatever reason, are a bit hard, a little cottony, a shade tart--relax. Few fruits cook so well with such pleasing results.

At the savory end of the spectrum, both plums and prunes create classic combinations with pork and game. The Chinese consider plum sauce a must as a condiment for roast duck. At the sweet end, because of their tannins, no fruits marry so agreeably with sugar, butter and brandy.

However, if a few plums should slip the net between being eaten fresh and transformed into a dish proper, there is still no excuse for letting them rot in a fruit bowl. Rather, we can always sling them into a vat of booze. The Germans set up summer fruits in brandy and call it rumtopf; the English take small, sour plums called sloes and preserve them in gin (hence the drink Sloe Gin Fizz). Either spirit works.

The general idea is to take washed, pierced or, ideally, pitted stone fruits and set them up in a large, clean crock with the peel of several oranges or lemons, and spices such as cinnamon, clove and allspice. Fruits--cherries, nectarines, apricots and peaches, and even plumcots and pluots--can be added as they turn up. For every pound of fruit, there should follow a cup of sugar. The whole business should be stirred when additions are made, and occasionally in passing for good measure.

The happy upshot is both improved fruit and booze (do not waste Remy or Tanqueray--use hooch). By the end of the fruit season, the soaked fruits will make the best topping for ice cream imaginable.

And while it's still hot, there is no law against requisitioning a bit of fruit-impregnated brandy or gin (as long as one tops up the crock with more) to be served over ice with a spritz of club soda and a large wedge of lime.

Prune Armagnac Ice Cream

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour plus 1 hour chilling time

California prunes come largely from a traditional French variety of plum tree called the Prune d'Agen. Here Nick Coe, chef of Nick's, a year-old patio restaurant in South Pasadena, gives local prunes a rich, cool and classic Gallic treatment.

1/2 cup water

Sugar

1 cup chopped prunes

1/2 cup Armagnac

8 egg yolks

3 cups milk

3 cups whipping cream

* Bring water, 1/4 cup sugar and prunes to boil. Simmer 15 minutes. When partially cooled, add Armagnac, cover and set aside.

* Cream egg yolks and 1 1/4 cups sugar in mixing bowl.

* Scald milk in medium saucepan. Add 1 cup hot milk slowly to egg-sugar mixture, stirring constantly, then return to saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until mixture thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Strain into bowl. Stir in cream. Chill 1 hour.

* Place in ice-cream maker and follow manufacturer's directions. When ice cream is done, swirl in prune-Armagnac mixture.

12 to 14 servings. Each of 14 servings: 358 calories; 51 mg sodium; 230 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

Fresh Plum Sauce

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours * Easy

Spicy plum sauce is to Chinese roast duck what in American cooking mustard is to ham. Orange County restaurateur John Sharpe gives the recipe used at his Newport Beach restaurant Aysia 101. It is also quite nice with grilled foods, such as shrimp or pork.

1 pound red plums, quartered

1 cup sugar

1 (2-inch) piece ginger root, sliced into 4 pieces

2 tablespoons vinegar

Salt

Cold water

* Place plums, sugar, ginger root, vinegar and pinch of salt in nonreactive pan. Cook over low heat until thick and syrupy, about 1 hour. Cool at room temperature about 45 minutes.

* Puree in food processor. Thin with a little cold water if sauce is too thick. Serve as dipping sauce.

1 1/2 cups. Each tablespoon: 42 calories; 10 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

Plum Clafoutis

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 50 minutes * Easy

Suzanne Goin, chef-proprietor at the West Hollywood restaurant Lucques knows exactly what to do with plums: Use their acidity and astringency to stand up to butter, cream and Cognac in an adaption of the French cherry-studded dish clafoutis.

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling on dish and top of batter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup whipping cream

6 tablespoons melted butter

Seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean

1 tablespoon Cognac or plum brandy

2/3 cup flour

Butter for greasing pan

2 cups sliced plums (1/4 inch thick) tossed with 1 tablespoon sugar

* In food processor, pulse together eggs, sugar, salt, cream, melted butter, vanilla bean seeds and brandy. Add flour and process until smooth.

* Coat 1-quart ceramic gratin or baking dish with butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. (You will be serving clafoutis from this dish.)

* Pour half of batter in dish and distribute 3/4 of plums evenly on top. Pour in remaining batter and scatter last of plums on top. (Don't worry if they start to sink.) Sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

* Bake at 450 degrees until top is light gold and sides are set but still slightly soft in middle, about 20 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes; serve immediately.

8 servings. Each serving: 248 calories; 270 mg sodium; 144 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

Plum Sherbet

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour plus 1 hour chilling time

Chez Panisse in San Francisco has a way with plums. Its former pastry chef, Lindsey Shere, used Santa Rosas in simple plum tarts. One of her successors, Charlene Reis, makes this sherbet. At the restaurant, they make three different sherbets, using different colored plums, say Santa Rosa, Greengage and Elephant Heart. Of course one doesn't need to make three versions at home. Whichever plum or variety of plums you use, Reis advises adjusting the sugar according to the plums' individual sweetness.

1 1/2 pounds soft plums

1 1/2 cups water

Sugar

Kirsch or Plum eau de vie

* Cut plums in half, remove pits and place plums in saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring often to keep plums from sticking to bottom. When plums are heated through, about 5 minutes, add water and 1 cup sugar. Cook until sugar dissolves, stirring, about 5 minutes.

* Pass through food mill or puree in food processor. Taste for sweetness and add sugar as needed. Add eau de vie to taste. Chill 1 hour. Freeze according to instructions of ice-cream maker.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 145 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.51 gram fiber.

Chocolate Cream With California Plum Ragout

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time

Alsace-born chef Serge Burckel, chef-proprietor of One, a new Los Angeles restaurant on La Brea Avenue, brings the flavors of a Christmas pudding--cinnamon, cloves and sugar--to his plum ragout. He serves it with a chocolate cream, which was a controversial combination in the Times Test Kitchen. Some hated it; some loved it. All agreed, however, they could imagine the sauce shining in many contexts, not the least over ice cream. Pomegranate paste can be found at gourmet groceries such as Surfas, 8825 National Blvd., Culver City.

CHOCOLATE CREAM

4 ounces bitter chocolate

1 (1/4-ounce) envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

3/4 cup cream

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup sugar

1 egg white

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

2 tablespoons orange liqueur

* Melt chocolate in double boiler over, but not touching, simmering water. Stir frequently.

* Soften gelatin in cold water. Set aside. * Make sabayon by whisking cream, milk, sugar, egg white and yolks in double boiler over, but not touching, simmering water until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

* Add gelatin to hot custard and mix well. Strain into melted chocolate and whisk to combine. Beat whipping cream and fold into mixture along with Cointreau. Pour into 9x5-inch loaf pan or other pan of similar size. Chill 2 hours.

PLUM RAGOUT

10 small plums

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup pomegranate paste

1 1/2 cups red wine such as Co^tes du Rho^nes or Cabernet Sauvignon

1 cinnamon stick

2 cloves

* Cook plums, sugar, pomegranate paste, wine, cinnamon stick and cloves in saucepan over medium heat until plums are soft and can be pierced easily with a knife, 8 to 10 minutes. Lift plums from pan using slotted spoon and cool slightly. Pit and slice plums and set aside.

* Simmer sauce, stirring, until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.

* Return plums to sauce and chill 1 hour. Remove cinnamon sticks and cloves.

* Spoon Chocolate Cream into serving dishes and top with Plum Ragout.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 667 calories; 63 mg sodium; 194 mg cholesterol; 38 grams fat; 71 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.92 gram fiber.

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