January 18, 2018
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The Challenge of the Plum
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A ripe plum is rich and seductive, but also ornery. A dried plum is, well, the maligned prune. But plums have a passionate fan base, from Eastern Europe, Asia, and beyond.

As cookies go, triangular hamantaschen are generally terrible. But they’re a hell of a ritual.

The Purim story in the Book of Esther, in a nutshell: Mordecai, an adviser to the Persian king, insults a new viceroy named Haman by refusing to bow in obedience. Upon learning Mordecai is Jewish, the incensed Haman decides to kill not just him, but all the Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai discovers this plot and assists his niece Esther, the king’s bride and hero of the story, in thwarting the genocide. As recompense, Esther convinces the king to arm his Jewish subjects so they may slaughter his sons and soldiers. And Haman? She gets him hanged.

Today, Jews celebrate this victory by drinking, partying, and eating hamantaschen to spite the man who’d have us dead. In Hebrew, the cookies are called ozney Haman—Haman’s ears.

Modern hamantaschen are filled with everything from raspberry jam to chocolate, but I only have eyes for those with a nugget of lekvar in the center. A preserve made from cooked-down prunes whipped into a paste, lekvar is dense and chewy like caramel. My grandparents spread it on their morning toast and smeared it into buttery tarts; as a kid, my mother skipped the filler and ate it directly off the spoon.

Lekvar is just one of the many ways that plums fall into the Eastern European Jewish kitchen. We also stew the fresh fruit into sauces for dessert, or into braising liquid for brisket. And from our goyishe friends and neighbors we learned to bake plums into dumplings, cakes, and tortes—relishing the twangy, almost electrifying effect their tannic skins have on the tongue.

Like my ancestors, the Prunus genus of flowering plants, which includes plums and all other stone fruits, was born around Eastern Europe. And like the Jews, the plum is itinerant; dozens of varieties have laid down roots from Korea to California.

Here is the thing about plums: You can pick them in every color of the rainbow, but no matter the kind, they are a challenging fruit. A ripe plum is rich and seductive, but also ornery. Sweet, to be sure, but with an acidic spark and an astringent bite. Peaches are puppy dogs—sugary and desperate for your love. By contrast, plums are goats that won’t stop chewing on your clothes. They’re complicated fruits that take work to understand and must be appreciated on their own terms.

In synagogues and around the table, Jews learn from a young age that sweetness comes at a price: sacrifice in adversity, remembrance of the past, education for the future. Which is why I consider the plum to be a quintessentially Jewish fruit, a reminder that sweet tastes don’t come easily. But every culture learns this from the plum, one way or the other.

Technically, Prunus mume—the feisty, bracingly tart plum of China and Japan—is closer to apricots than other plums. But it’s called a plum by pretty much everyone and shares the brooding personality of its P. domestica relatives. Japanese cooks tend to salt-cure it into a piquant pickle called umeboshi, but in China, there’s wu mei, an intensely smoky and savory prune that’s at once snack, cooking ingredient, and medicine.

You can find wu mei—black and shriveled, redolent of smoldering coals—in the dry goods section of Chinese groceries and herbalist shops. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll happen on a concentrated syrup of wu mei with osmanthus, hawthorn berry, licorice, and rock sugar, made for diluting with water into suanmeitang, a cooling, salty-sweet drink served like lemonade in China and Taiwan.

Jonathan Wu, the chef of Nom Wah Tu in New York, grew up eating sour salted plums coated in licorice powder as a snack and is drawn to the Chinese plum as a source of acidity in his cooking. But his big obsession is that concentrate. “It’s like barbecue sauce,” he says in an almost conspiratorial whisper. He mixes it with hoisin, rice vinegar, and soy sauce to braise lamb until it collapses, then piles the meat over wheat noodles, which he tops with fried pickled peanuts and loads of dill. It tastes the way I always wished my grandmother’s brisket could and summons the full power of the plum: warm and familiar yet explosively multifaceted, tinged with an antediluvian darkness.

For Wu, that smoky languor is what makes wu mei taste so good. He’s not the only one who thinks so. In Szydłów, a Polish village known for exceptional plums, smoked prunes are a local delicacy, crazy good when roasted within the body of a duck or goose. And across the Atlantic, Sioux chef, educator, and cookbook author Sean Sherman has some turn-of-the-century photos of folks drying plums and other fruits by a smoldering log. “A ton of smoke flavor is going into the fruit that way,” he explains.

In plum-growing regions, Native American cooks pounded prunes into pemmican—an ancient power bar of dried fruit, nuts, and animal fat. Sherman adds prunes to the dough of toasted wild rice flatbreads, and even grinds fully dehydrated plums into a powder to use as a seasoning and flour.

Sherman’s a fan of the indigenous P. Americana that grows on Minnesota’s Red Lake Reservation, but for my money the greatest plums on the continent come from Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California, where Rebecca Courchesne and her husband, Al, grow a dozen-odd plums and plum-apricot hybrids. Their Santa Rosas, a native Californian variety developed by Luther Burbank in the early 1900s, are intensely sweet with moody undertones of earth and spice, but with skins tart enough to snap your eyes and heart to attention.

“I would never skin a plum,” Rebecca Courchesne tells me. “The skin is part and parcel of the fruit. But home cooks underestimate how bitter and aggressive it can be.” As the farm’s chef, she’s learned to pay plums their due respect. Instead of blasting them with sugar, which would cause their watery flesh to weep liquid everywhere, she uses plums to add verve to other fruits, such as blueberries for conserve and nectarines for galettes.

We learn to appreciate plums in our own ways, but the ancient fruit’s greatest lesson is the necessity of reinvention. A raw plum is best transformed into something else, and it in turn transforms us. “The plum is one fruit better cooked than raw,” says Marian Burros, whose plum torte recipe was famously published every September in The New York Times from 1983 to 1989, to mark the start of Italian plum season. “And that dish is part of my DNA.” To make the classic German dessert, you nestle plum halves into a simple cake batter, then bake until the torte rises around the plums, which soften into jam.

“Better to think of [plums] in their more decadent old-world iterations,” Anca L. Szilágyi writes in a cultural and personal history of the fruit. “Dumplings, jam, brandy—the sort of products that elicit both rabble-rousing and decorous ritual.”

Szilágyi’s family came to the U.S. from Romania. Mine is mostly from Poland. And despite the plum’s many colors and varieties and global instantiations, I’m still convinced that our ancestors understood it best. They’re the ones who baked hamantaschen, and who drank plum brandy to soothe their souls. Often called slivovitz, the potent fire water is the purest expression of the plum, with the most vivid sense of place.

Slivovitz tastes best when poured from a plastic bottle by a hairy-armed guy who distilled his own in a shed. It should be a touch sweet but not sugary, expansive in the throat and warming in the belly, and vicious in its bite, both toxin and curative.

“Into her suitcase it went,” Szilágyi recalls of her grandmother restocking her supply on a trip to the Old Country, “carefully transported back to the States so that it might properly ‘disinfect’ us before each dinner.”

Back in the Balkans, plums and plum brandy remained a vital marker of identity. In the early 2000s, an enclave of Serbs in the city of Mitrovica rankled under a looming American presence following the Kosovo War. A slogan of resistance arose, in defiant English for all to hear, and it was soon printed with artwork on postcards, flyers, and T-shirts.

In the painted illustration, a mustachioed man in a traditional cap stands beneath a bundle of plums on the tree. In one hand, he holds a circular bottle of plum brandy. In the other he grasps a glass filled to the brim. “Fuck the Coca, fuck the pizza,” the slogan reads. “All we need is šljivovica.”

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pitted prunes, roughly chopped
  • 1 ½ cup water
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2-6 tablespoons sugar, as needed

A staple of the Eastern European Jewish kitchen, lekvar can be made from a range of dried fruits, but the thick, intensely flavored version made with prune is the most iconic. Quality prunes will need little to no added sugar; try looking for the French d’Ente variety from Agen if it’s available. The lekvar will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks and is great on toast and pancakes, stirred into oatmeal, or baked into jam cookies and tarts. You can even use it for hamantaschen, if you wish to nibble on Haman’s ears.

  1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring prunes and water to a simmer, then cover and cook until prunes are meltingly tender, about 15 minutes. Depending on the moisture content of your prunes, you may need to add more water to keep prunes from drying out. If so, cook uncovered until the liquid in the pan is syrupy and bubbles stack on top of each other.
  2. Transfer mixture to a food processor and add kosher salt, then pulse until it develops into a thick paste. Taste, then add sugar in 2-tablespoon increments to desired sweetness, pulsing to combine between additions.
  3. Use immediately, or transfer lekvar to a very clean jar (a canning funnel is helpful), seal, and chill in refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

Ingredients

  • Pickled Peanuts
  • ½ cup raw, shelled peanuts
  • ½ cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup canola oil, for frying
  • Kosher salt
  • Lamb
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 pound lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, unpeeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced, whites only
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons diced onion
  • 1 ¼ cup plum concentrate syrup
  • ¼ cup hoisin sauce
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 2 pounds lo mein noodles, preferably whole wheat if available
  • 1 bunch dill

For this hearty noodle recipe, chef Jonathan Wu braises lamb shoulder in a complex, concentrated syrup of smoked plums (typically diluted with water to make a refreshing drink called suanmeitang) before combining it with thick noodles, loads of dill, and pickled and fried peanuts for a touch of acidity. Even in well-stocked Chinese markets, the syrup can be hard to find; look for it in the tea or sweetener section with other flavored syrups. You can also make your own syrup by simmering equal weights of smoked plums (wu mei), dried hawthorn berry, osmanthus blossoms, Chinese licorice, and rock sugar in water for 2 hours over low heat until the mixture has a consistency like maple syrup.

  1. Make the pickled peanuts: Combine peanuts with sherry vinegar, cover, and let marinate for 24 hours. Drain off the vinegar, pat the peanuts very dry with paper towels, and lightly toss in confectioners’ sugar. Heat canola oil in a tall, narrow saucepan over medium heat until oil reaches 375 degrees, then add half the peanuts and fry until amber and fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the peanuts to drain well on paper towels and season immediately with kosher salt. Repeat with the second half of the peanuts.
  2. Braise the lamb: Heat an oven to 300 degrees. In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then add lamb in a single layer and season with salt. Lightly brown lamb on all sides, then remove to a plate and add the ginger, scallion whites, garlic, and onion to the Dutch oven and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Return the lamb to the Dutch oven and cover with plum concentrate, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, brown sugar, and light and dark soy sauce. Stir to combine and bring mixture to a simmer, then cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Braise until lamb is fork tender, 3 to 4 hours.
  3. Transfer the lamb pieces to a bowl to let cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, carefully strain all solid pieces out of the braising liquid. Use 2 forks or your hands to shred the lamb into bite-size pieces, then combine with strained braising liquid in a medium saucepan. Keep mixture warm over low heat.
  4. Char the scallions: Heat a dry cast-iron skillet over high heat until it begins to smoke, about 7 minutes, then add scallions in a single layer. Let them char slightly with black spots before turning them to a new side. Char on all sides, about 6 minutes total, then set aside to cool. Once cooled, cut them into 1-inch lengths.
  5. To assemble: Cook noodles according to package instructions, drain and rinse in a colander, and divide the noodles into 4 bowls. Top with lamb and braising liquid, then garnish each bowl with a few pieces of charred scallion, several pieces of freshly torn dill, and 1 to 2 tablespoons fried peanuts.

Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.

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