You might not think of Bellingham Farmers Market as a place to search for golden treasure, but that's exactly what I found last weekend during National Farmers Market Week.
Specifically, what I found were perfectly ripe and lovely golden "Shiro" plums. If you've never tasted these beauties, get thee hence to the Broadleaf Farm market stall as quickly as possible!
I first encountered Shiro plums a couple of years ago through my friends Lis and Mark Marshall at Full Bloom Farm, just up the hill from where I live on Lummi Island. They had a bumper crop that year and I made a Jalapeño-Honey Plum Jam that was ambrosial (see recipe on my blog at whatcomlocavore.com/water-bath-canning-jalapeno-honey-plum-jam).
Last year the crop was smaller and they didn't have extras, so I've been keeping my fingers crossed that this summer's sun would make the plum trees more productive. It was an unexpected and welcome surprise to see the gorgeous yellow fruit offered by Broadleaf at the market. Shiro plums are somewhat translucent, so they appear almost luminous with the sun behind them.
There are two broad categories of plums available in the U.S. - European and Asian. European plums tend to be smaller with drier flesh than Asian varieties. Prunes are included in this category as well. European plums are usually freestone, meaning the pits are easy to remove from the fruit. Common European varieties are "Greengage" (green), Italian prunes (purple), "Damsons" (blue) and "Mirabelles" (yellow). Greengage is known for being especially tasty to eat out of hand.
So-called Japanese plums actually come from China, which is the largest plum producer in the world. Asian plums are usually larger than European varieties and very juicy. Their pits are generally clingstone. The flesh of the fruit is firmly attached to the pit, and so must usually be cut away to prepare the plums for cooking. Shiro plums, for example, are too tender when ripe to simply pull out the pit. The flesh would crush and you'd be left with a handful of juice.
In fact, the feel of ripe Shiro always reminds me of a water balloon - a taut outer skin enclosing plum flesh that is so juicy it is almost a watery gel. You'll want to be sure to hold the fruit over a bowl before you pierce the outer skin to make sure you don't lose a delectable drop. I pit them by cutting repeatedly down from the stem end of the fruit with a very sharp paring knife, letting the knife slide gently along the side of the pit.
A popular Asian variety is "Santa Rosa," developed in the late 1800s by Luther Burbank by crossing Asian plums with native American plums. In fact, many popular Asian plums are varieties imported by Burbank, hybridized and then later exported back to Asia.
Shiro plums are considered by many to be the best of the yellow plum varieties. I find the flavor to be quite pleasing when eaten as is. For cooking, I often sweeten them very lightly with just a touch of honey. Cooking seems to bring out a tartness I don't taste as much in the raw fruit.
Shiro plum trees produce a little earlier than many plum varieties, and a single tree can produce up to 200 pounds of fruit in its prime. Shiro trees are not self-pollinating (or minimally so), so if you want to try growing some, you should check with your nursery to find out which varieties cross-pollinate best. Trees of the Shiro variety are also not particularly long-lived, so they will need to be replaced after 10 to 12 years when production falls off.
Ripe plums will be somewhat soft, richly colored, and may have a whitish "bloom" that appears like a fine white powder on the plum skin. Plums are a good source of Vitamin C, of course, as well as Vitamin A, Vitamin K and dietary fiber. They are genetically related to peaches, nectarines and almonds. Research has shown that eating plums and prunes can increase iron absorption in the body.
Plums can be stored in the refrigerator for only a few days if they are fully ripe. Set them on the counter at room temperature if they need to ripen a little more. Plums can be frozen for longer-term storage, but the pits should be removed first.
SHIRO PLUM TARTLET
For the crust:
6 tablespoons butter (homemade with cream from Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
1/3 cup honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
11/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour (Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, Burlington)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
For the filling:
3 Shiro plums (Broadleaf Farm, Everson)
2 teaspoons honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
Preheat the oven too 350 degrees.
Make the crust:
In a small sauce pan over very low heat, melt the butter and honey together.
In a mixing bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. Add the butter mixture and blend thoroughly. Dough should stay together well when you form a ball with it in your hands.
Divide the crust dough and press into the bottom of tartlet pans (or other small oven-safe dishes - I used two 4-inch diameter soufflé dishes). The crust should be turned up on the sides about an inch to hold the filling. (Note: You might have some crust dough left over.)
Optional: If your plums are really ripe and juicy and you want to ensure a crisp bottom crust, pre-bake the crusts for about 15-20 minutes until very lightly browned. Use a fork to prick holes in the bottom of the crust before baking, or use dry beans to weight the bottom of the crust to keep it flat while baking.
For the filling:
Pit the plums and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Place plums into the crust and drizzle lightly with honey.
Bake the tartlets for about 20 minutes (25 minutes if you didn't pre-bake the crust).
Makes 2 single-serving tartlets.
Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day to day locavore activities, "like" Whatcom Locavore on Facebook (www.facebook.com/whatcomlocavore) and "follow" on Twitter, @WhatcomLocavore. For locavore menus, recipes, and more resources, read her blog at whatcomlocavore.com.
Reach JULIE SHIRLEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2261.