Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Still-Life With Italian Plums, Heirloom Tomatoes and Lemon Verbena

I have found that a good way to cheer myself up on a drizzly late September day is by going to the local farmer’s market to look at beautiful produce. Seeing an array of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables automatically sets my culinary imagination racing, which is an effective way out of the rainy-day doldrums. A cloudy grey sky heightens the intensity of the colors at the market, practically throwing them into visual relief and making them seem all the more vibrant and bursting with possibilities.

This past Saturday was a most dreary and wet day, one in which I wanted to stay home watching Paul Newman movies all afternoon while eating my favorite microwave popcorn and ordering Indian food. Unfortunately that wasn’t option for me as I had to play two performances at “South Pacific”, but that did put me in close proximity of the Lincoln Center Saturday farmer’s market. And as you might imagine, I took one look at the crazy assortment of heirloom tomatoes and my mood quickly began to lift.

Look at all of these beautiful globes in a riot of colors! I came home with several heirloom tomatoes and Italian prune-plums, with a large sprig of lemon verbena thrown in for good measure.

Apples have tiptoed into the markets recently, keeping polite company with the late summer harvest. They are waiting their turn in the wings while the final bounty of summer has one last hurrah, but within another week or two, they will take center stage themselves. Picking season will begin in earnest and market stalls everywhere will boast apples and pears of all shapes and sizes, banishing the memories of stone fruits, tomatoes and corn from our minds until next summer.

I must confess that I’m not ready for that. I’m not ready for the leaves to turn colors or for jackets and shorter colder days. Not yet. There will be plenty of time for Honeycrisps and Jonagolds and Paula Reds in the coming months. Fall may be hovering in the air but since it hasn’t quite descended, I am clinging to the last vestiges of summer in this mild September while I still can.

There’s so much to say, but I’ll begin with the plums. Deep purple with a rosy blush, these were ripe and ready to yield beneath the gentle pressure of my fingers. Since they were of a rather tart variety, I decided that these small plums might enjoy simmering in a lemon verbena poaching syrup for a few minutes before lolling about on some ice cream.

I love lemon verbena. Lovely and lilting, it has a similar quality to fresh grated lemon zest. It combines well with all sorts of fruits, but I also like to infuse it in cream for a nuanced lemony ice cream, or blend it with sugar and fresh lemon juice to make the most perfect lemonade. I actually have a lemon verbena plant at home, but I depleted it of most of its leaves in a recent chocolate-related experiment, so I was happy to pick up a fresh bunch at the market this weekend. (I’m trying to create a new lemon verbena chocolate truffle for CocoaRoar, so I will definitely keep you posted on that.)

This is really so easy, I can hardly believe I’m writing a recipe for it. But wait till you try it! I made a very basic simple syrup of equal parts sugar and water, with a few sprigs of lemon verbena thrown in to perfume the syrup with its wonderful lemony-ness. You could also use fresh basil, mint, or ginger for a similar happy effect. Or if you wanted the lemon flavor but didn’t have any verbena on hand, you could peel several wide strips of lemon with a vegetable peeler and throw that into the syrup.

After the syrup had boiled for several minutes, I discarded the herbs and added the plums, which had been halved and pitted.

Three minutes was all it took for them to become tender and lush, infused with lemony sweetness and ready to come to the party.

(This is what my tiny stove looks like: pots and pans balanced on top of each other, with baking trays and casserole dishes stored inside of the oven. I fantasize regularly about having a more spacious kitchen someday, but until that becomes a reality, I have to juggle wildly in my small space. Ah, the joys of Manhattan living!)

I sliced the plum halves, making two lengthwise slices in each half but taking care not to cut all the way through. Since they remained attached at one end, it made it easy for me to fan the plums out decoratively. (This was more of a vanity step for this evening’s photo shoot, but it’s not at all necessary for thorough enjoyment.) I topped them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled a bit of poaching syrup around the edges. You could substitute lemon sorbet for the ice cream if you wanted, or a dollop of thick Greek yogurt or crème fraiche would also be delicious.

The syrup took on a brilliant pink color from the plum skins. After I poached the plums, I boiled down the syrup to make a lemon verbena-plum reduction, and it was delightful when mixed with seltzer. Whenever I poach fruit in an herbal syrup such as this, I love boiling down the poaching liquid afterwards to make a reduction which I can then spoon over fruit, drizzle on ice cream or yogurt, blend with spirits for a cocktail or combine with seltzer for a lovely non-alcoholic spritzer.

I will tell you about the tomatoes next time. You’re really going to laugh when you see what I did with them. Oh, they really were spectacular... Until the next time, I leave you with these very happy plums.


1 cup sugar
1 cup water
4 to 5 sprigs fresh lemon verbena (you can also substitute fresh basil, mint, or a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into several lengthwise pieces)
¾ pound small plums
Ice cream, sorbet, strained Greek yogurt or crème fraiche, for serving

Combine the sugar, water and lemon verbena in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil. Let the syrup boil for 4 minutes, then remove from heat. Discard the lemon verbena.

Cut the plums in half and discard the pits. Add them to the skillet, cut-side down, and bring the syrup to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Poach the plums for 3 to 4 minutes, occasionally spooning the syrup on top of them.

Serve the plums in small serving bowls over ice cream or sorbet, or topped with a generous spoonful of Greek yogurt or crème fraiche.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Thanks, Louise! I'm excited to try poaching these Italian plums, especially because they seem to be teasing me from every fruit stand around town right now! I almost always have fresh lemon on hand. When you say to peel the lemon into wide strips with a peeler, are you referring specifically to the lemon peel?