Emerald Beaut Plum Crumble

So, besides the salad already mentioned, here is where many of those green-skinned Emerald Beaut plums ended up. Surprise! They’re yellow inside! Don’t they look nearly like peaches, as yellow as they are? It’s only the lack of any red coloring around the pit cavity that gives them away as plums.

Chimp and I made a double batch – two 8×8 pans – of plum crumble at the start of the week; I took one of the pans down to the office on the day of a meeting and we kept the other one to enjoy ourselves.

This recipe became a major favorite of mine last summer, when we made at least four double recipes of it with large quantities of fruit left over from photo shoots. It’s adapted from the July/August 2006 Cook’s Illustrated, where it was originally a recipe for peach crumble (having tested multiple varieties of all three fruits in this recipe, sometimes in combination, I can vouch that plums work equally well, as do nectarines).

What I love about this recipe is that it makes a massive amount of topping – none of this little-bit-of-crispy-stuff-on-top-of-a-whole-lot-of-fruit problem. There is at least as much volume of crunchy, crumbly topping as fruit, and it’s like a miracle – you just pulse it up in the food processor, spread it out on a sheet to bake, and when it comes out, it’s made itself into all these little cookielike nuggets with bits of almonds in them. I have seriously considered just making the topping, rolling it out into shortbread cookies and forgoing the fruit altogether.

So there is a two-step baking process here – bake the topping, then place it on the fruit and bake the fruit – but it is entirely worth it. I use white whole wheat flour and I think the extra nuttiness makes for an even better end result than when I first made it with unbleached. After all, crumbles often have whole oats in them, so why not a whole-wheat flour?

We went ahead and peeled the plums on this occasion, but if you’re not fussy and the fruit isn’t fuzzy, I don’t think that’s even absolutely necessary.

Oh, and a tip – if you are baking and you find yourself with stone fruit that is clingstone, as we did on this occasion, don’t wrestle with trying to cut wedges off the pit. Instead, set the fruit on its stem end (on its head, basically) and cut down both sides of the pit to cut the cheeks off. Then cut off the other two sides that are left, then the little bit at the tip. You’ll lose a little bit that sticks to the pit, but that’s always the case with clingstone fruit, and cutting it that way is safer than trying to knife and extricate all those little wedges away from the pit while holding the slippery piece of fruit in one way or another.

Continue reading “Emerald Beaut Plum Crumble”

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A Whole Box of Emerald Beauts

This is one of the truly great things about living in Fresno. I can get a whole box of Emerald Beauts right from the source.

Joan Obra mentioned these in her article on plums in this week’s Fresno Bee food section – and they’re worth mentioning.

Green plums – and yellow plums too – have a tough time of it. I guess you could say – wait for it – it’s not easy being green.

(Groan, right? I’ve recently been watching old Muppet Show episodes on DVD and have suddenly realized what a debt I owe to the humor of the Muppets, especially Fozzie Bear – and that that might have something to do with nobody likes my jokes.)

Whether it’s the effect of primeval human conditioning (“hm, those green berries hurt my stomach last time”) or just that they look different-than-most, green and yellow plums get passed over because people assume they’re not ripe, or because they assume that because they’re green or yellow they must be tart and unpleasant-tasting. It’s not true – green plums and yellow plums can be just as sweet when ripe as a black, red, or purple plum.

And for these guys especially, that “not sweet” assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Underneath that dusty-looking green skin, they have a golden-yellow flesh and are regular old sugar bombs, even when they’re pretty firm.

The dusty-looking stuff is called bloom. It’s a natural wax the fruit produces while it’s growing; grapes do the same thing. Different varieties produce more or less of it. It washes off really easily, and your skin’s natural oil will pick it right up when you touch the fruit, leaving a print where your finger was.

When you see a box that looks like this, you know that the fruit’s been specially picked and handled. The only way to keep the bloom looking this pristine is to pick the plums with cotton gloves, not wash them, and pack them – again, with gloves – straight from the picking bins.

Plum bloom is, in all seriousness, one of those little things that makes life worth living, as far as I’m concerned. Rub a bloomy plum gently against your lips the next time you get a chance. Okay, do it in private if you have to, but do it. It’s like a kiss from the fruit; it’ll make your day if you have a sensual bone in your body.

So – I have to make a plan this weekend. There’s way too much stone fruit at my house right now – here’s a picture from earlier today of what was hanging around besides the roughly 12 lbs. of plums above.

The peaches have now been dispensed with – they were baked this evening with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, a splash of lemon juice and a little brown sugar, and eaten unadorned, warm from the oven – but the Moyer plums (the oval ones) and the Royal Diamond plums (the round ones) remain, as do these Emerald Beauts.

Stay tuned for recipes, hopefully, or just me being knocked down by a tide of ripening plums.

(Or if I keep the jokes at the caliber above, by them being hurled at me.)

Foods I’ve Come to Love: Apricots

This is the first in what I intend (best laid plans of those with CFS, of course) to be an occasional series of lessons from a year of eating locally.

There were quite a few fruits and vegetables that I came to a new appreciation of this year because of the Eat Local Challenge – items I saw new sides of, new parts of what they have to offer, things I had never had a love for that I came to adore – things I had never known before. Here’s the first of them.

Apricots.

I once put together an alternative Easter basket filled with dried fruit instead of candy for a friend who was trying to eat healthier. I put dried pineapple rings on dried papaya spears to make flowers to go in the plastic grass. It was silly fun.

There were some unsulfured dried apricots in the basket too. Dried was primarily how I knew apricots at that point. I never had liked fresh ones very much – my East Coast experiences with them had pretty consistently delivered wan flavor and mealy texture. And it was usually a lot of money for something that didn’t taste very good.

But as I’ve found with so many fruits, once you land in California, you suddenly understand what all the fuss is about. It was some apricots I got from Fred at Savage Island Farms early last summer that changed my mind.

Apricots come on after all the other stone fruits – cherries, peaches, plums and nectarines – have already begun. “Hey guys,” they say, walking in when everyone’s already ensconced in conversation and well into their second drink, “I came to the party too!” The peaches, plums and nectarines are going to keep on coming well into the fall, though, and the cherries and apricots are going to run their season’s course by July.

So, in deciding what fruits to make yourself sick on when, I’d suggest you start with the cherries, move on to the apricots, then shift to the other stone fruits. It’s a strategy that works for me.

This was Fred’s first weekend of the season with apricots. The market crowd parted when I was about a dozen paces away from his booth, and I spotted the pink-blushed golden fruits beaming in their little green baskets. By the time I got to the table I was smiling from ear to ear.

Fred saw me coming. I think he thinks I am crazy.

I bought five pint baskets of cherries last week – and Fred doesn’t skimp on packing the pints – and had eaten them all by Friday night without devoting any of them to a pie or a tart. “I finished all those cherries,” I told him. I’m not sure if I was expecting praise or admiration or a comment on the apparent robustness of my digestion. He gave me that smile that I can never decide if it’s pleased or wary. But he keeps selling me fruit, and that’s all that matters.

Fred’s apricots – how can I explain them? They’re sweet and dense and perfumed and carry the barest note of tartness, just enough to smooth out the fruit’s sweetness. It’s not the super-sweetness of cherries, nor the exuberant brash tartness of a traditional yellow peach. What the fruit is really about is that floral note that the meaty flesh conveys as it separates cleanly from the stone as you bite into it. It calls out to be combined with raisins, or walnuts, or basil, or honey, if you can restrain yourself long enough to come up with a recipe idea.

I restrained myself in terms of how much I bought, anyhow. I got two pint baskets each of apricots, Ranier cherries and Tulare cherries from Fred.

But my restraint is not holding. I have already eaten six apricots in the last two hours. Okay, now the count is up to seven.

If you can manage to stash some in a folded-over paper bag or a fruit bowl for a day or two, you will really be rewarded. I’m one of those people who likes really ripe stone fruit – a “leaner,” as we say, for the posture you’re forced to adopt to try to avoid being dripped on – and really ripe apricots are incredible. The tartness starts to wane as they ripen, and the fruit’s cell walls weaken until it really does taste like you’re biting into some sort of mythical ambrosial fruit plucked from the heart of a magnificent flower.

Which you are, I suppose – but it’s a tiny pink unassuming-looking apricot blossom.

The Birds and the Fresno Bee

I love the tack Dennis Pollack took on this headline for an article about the great flavor of this year’s stone fruit crop: Birds Give Tree Fruit High Marks.  Perhaps he’s trying to reach the avian market.  It surprises me a little bit, because their readership is generally limited to what’s on the bottom of the cage.

From the article:

"Birds know the difference," said Gordon Wiebe, a Reedley grower, explaining that he’s seeing more bird pecks in the fruit this year. "Last year the quality was down."

Signs of Harvest

I know that the fruit harvest is starting where we are.

Leaving work last night, by the time I was a mile out of the small town where my office is, I had seen five white passenger vans carrying workers, each with two big yellow-and-red Igloo water coolers attached to the front grille.

Two miles out of town, well into the stretch of road entirely lined with vineyards and orchards, I saw that there had been harvesting going on in an orchard that day. There was a taco truck parked along the orchard, and some yards down the road, a pickup truck with a trailer with a porta-john on it.

In the morning, I had seen the latest two in what sums to an uncountable number of semis carrying boxes from the local box factory to a local packinghouse. The trailers are always double-stacked with pallets, with clear plastic sheeting over everything. Each pallet of unconstructed boxes has one flat box displayed on its side, to show what the pallet contains. This makes spotting the trucks fun, because if you know a few fruit labels, you usually know where the boxes are going. If you don’t recognize the label, just knowing who’s down the road in the direction the truck is going will often tell you.

There are refrigerated trucks leaving the packinghouses, too, pulling out with wide swings onto the road, the first turn of a long trip to Somewhere Else where people also want fruit.

In the winter, there are four-by-four plastic bins of oranges stacked on the tractor-trailers, looking like some sort of agricultural Legos. In the summer, those bins hold peaches, nectarines or grapes. In the fall, you see processing tomatoes in big open hoppers on their way to canneries. Carrots by the hundreds of thousands travel the highways in metal-mesh sided trailers.

Sometime soon, there will be a morning when on my way to work, I will get stuck behind a farm tractor hauling a long, low trailer with two steps on each side, each step full of buckets that are precariously full of peaches. The driver will be taking it very easy, not wanting to bruise the fruit. I will not mind being stuck behind this tractor.

I will not be able to help but smile at the swaying, jiggling buckets of juicy peaches, and I will hope that none of them fall off on their way to be packed.

The First Peach

The last couple months before stone fruit season are the worst.

The fruit is on the trees, growing bit by bit; you can pull over on just about any road south of town and pretend you’re a farmer doing an orchard check, looking at how the fruit is sizing, farmer-ese for “How big is it getting?” (Likewise, if you want to ask about the organoleptic properties of the fruit, you don’t say “How good does it taste?” you say, “How does it eat?”)

At the end of March or so, we fruit nuts start talking about how much we want a peach right now, standing around in the kitchen, getting our lunches out or peeling an orange. Some of us entirely forgo the Chilean stone fruit season, either for ecologic or gustatory reasons.

Especially for those of us who have eschewed the winter crop from the Southern Hemisphere and not had a peach since October, this conversation and the waiting itself are a pleasant sort of torment, knowing we must wait, and knowing that most years we’ll probably eat our first peach before we should, not being able to resist the first one we see.

I love apples, but around the beginning of May I cease to see them as apples eaten and begin to resent them as the spare and utilitarian fruit they feel like, as I’ve been eating them almost every day since October. They feel like the embodiment of the economic principle of opportunity cost; every apple eaten is a peach forgone.

And I desperately want change, once the spring vegetables start to roll in. Apples’ virtue is their very steady sameness. They are hardy and taut and crispy, everything a peach, nectarine, plum, cherry or apricot is not.

This week was the first peach.

The early stuff has to grow and mature quickly; it gets less time on the tree than the fruit in the later parts of the season does. Stone fruit is bred for timing in addition to flavor and appearance. Because each stone fruit variety is only ripe for seven to ten days, there are hundreds of varieties that make up the season’s progression.

It’s tougher to breed fruit for the start of the season, so early ripeness and flavor necessarily take first priority in the season-leading fruit, and appearance is slightly less important than it would usually be. You’ll notice that these peaches have a prominent point and are a little mottled rather than having an even brush of color.

The point is a trait fruit breeders try to avoid encouraging, as it makes it easy for the peaches to inflict wounds on each other and receive them themselves, but when breeding for the early season, good flavor and the right timeframe trump the point. As far as the mottling goes, these pieces of fruit don’t get the same measure of sun on their shoulders as later fruit will to develop a smooth wash of color. It takes time to develop, and early peaches don’t have the luxury of that.

I sliced one of these fruits into quadrants last night. It was soft, almost alarmingly so, and the knife and flesh made a nearly imperceptible wet zipping sound as I bisected it. I nudged a quarter away from the pit with the blade and a gentle tug, handed it to Chimp, and loosed another for myself. We bit into it.

I made a noise. It was the best first peach I’ve ever had.

I’m hoping that Mother Nature has just been testing our patience this year with the wet spring and its accompanying delays, and that she’s getting ready for a great payoff. Honestly, if what I have here is the first peach of the season, there’s a lot of great flavor to come.

Trees in Training

Coming into the produce business with plenty of food knowledge but no agriculture background to speak of, I’ve learned a bit on the job. There’s not much agriculture knowledge required for what I do, but it’s nice not to be completely ignorant when you spend at least some time talking to farmers, so I’ve been on a few field tours and I try to ask good questions on occasion. I love to observe, and I learn a lot from just noticing practices and then asking an expert if what I think I’m seeing is correct. Here’s a recent one like that.

These trees are tied down. It’s not to keep them from blowing or washing away (although with the sixth-wettest March since record-keeping began in 1878 – 4.73 in., with normal being 2.2 in. – this would be the point at which you’d start to worry about things washing away, even in the basketball-court-flat San Joaquin Valley).

This is an orchard of plum trees that are tied to stakes in the ground for training. Plum trees have a strongly upright growing habit. (Peaches and nectarines have a spreading habit.) Training plums this way helps them grow a little more spread out, in what’s called an “open vase” or an “open center” style.

These trees, planted last year and now on their “second leaf,” have four or five branches (technically called “primary scaffolds”) that will eventually support the weight of the tree’s fruit. These long branches will probably be cut back this year to between two and three feet, and two secondary scaffolds will be allowed to grow from each primary scaffold.

As with just about every agricultural practice, there are other ways to accomplish this. One other I’ve seen, and haven’t had a chance to take a picture of yet, is the use of lengths of wood – sometimes prunings taken straight from the same orchard – in the center of the small tree to prop the future scaffolds apart. This takes less time than staking, but is also less secure.

Either method achieves the same result: it makes the trees easier to manage as they grow and need to be thinned, harvested and pruned. However, training is not simply for the sake of convenience. Having a tree with an open center allows more sunlight to reach the fruit, which helps the plums gain color better as they mature. Additionally, an open tree enjoys better air circulation, reducing the risk of fungal diseases taking hold.

Though if left to their own devices they might produce a small crop of plums, these trees will likely not be harvested this year. The fruit will probably be knocked off the tree – in order to allow it to put more energy toward growing the structural framework that will make it a strong bearer in its third leaf.