I didn’t immediately have a plan for the 99-cent bundle of eight very ripe, “imperfect” red and black plums; I just knew I had to have them. (Produce bargains — my shopping vice.) Eventually they became preserves, made from start to finish in less than an hour. No pectin, no jar sterilizing, no awkward tongs.
I would gladly spend an entire day making preserves, don’t get me wrong, but with all the packing and planning and job-hunting and and and, a serious canning endeavor was not what my frazzled nerves needed. Though in retrospect, hovering over the pot, breathing in its intoxicating aroma and listening to the gentle bloop-bloop-bloop may have been exactly what I needed.
The quick method simply put: cook diced plums with lemon juice, half a vanilla bean, a pinch of salt and sugar, to taste. Mash gently to desired consistency as it bubbles away, and when it passes the frozen plate test, remove the vanilla bean and ladle the preserves into jars headed for the refrigerator or freezer.
A taste from my wooden spoon in the final minutes solidified my purchase and intentions — it was better than perfect. No exaggeration. I was pleased that the vanilla bean, an impulse add, didn’t dominate; rather it imparted a subtle richness to the bright, tart plums. And I also have to say that pale fuchsia preserves flecked with tiny vanilla bean seeds may just be the prettiest thing I’ve seen.
I know it’s no longer plum season, and I’d be asking a lot for you to remember this next year, but really I recommend you try. Try hard. Top warm slices of buttered whole wheat baguette at breakfast, toasted polenta bread as a mid-afternoon snack, and basic scones along with a dollop of freshly whipped cream at dessert. These rosy preserves are some of the best.
Two Plum and Vanilla Preserves [makes 2 cups]
1 1/2 lbs ripe red and black plums (anywhere from 6 to 10, depending on size)
a scant 1/4 c sugar
1 t fresh lemon juice
pinch of coarse salt
1/2 vanilla bean, slit open (other aromatics in place of, or accompanying, the vanilla bean: cinnamon stick, star anise, cardamom pods, cloves, a couple thick slices fresh ginger, bay leaf, sprigs of rosemary or thyme, juniper berries)
Place a few small plates in the freezer (to test for consistency later).
Bring a large pot of water to the boil for removing plum skins. With a paring knife, cut a large “X” in the bottom of each plum. Gently place plums in boiling water for 10 seconds and transfer them to an ice water bath to cool — a skimmer works well. When cool, remove the skins and discard. Halve the plums; remove pits and discard. Cut plum halves into 1/2″ chunks (no need to be precise).
Stir together plums, sugar, lemon juice, salt and vanilla bean in a large, heavy-bottom pot (preferably wide to promote the reduction of juices since there is no pectin). Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar and mashing fruit lightly with a potato masher. (I like my preserves on the chunky side; went easy on the mashing.) Skim foam from surface and discard. Cook, stirring more frequently as jam thickens, until it is the consistency of very loose jelly, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove pot from heat.
Drop a spoonful of the preserves onto one of the chilled plate. Return to the freezer for 1 to 2 minutes, then gently nudge edge of preserves with a finger. Preserves are ready when the shape holds. If it is too thin and spreads out, return the pot to the stovetop and boil, stirring frequently and testing every minute or two, until it reaches the proper consistency.
Ladle the warm preserves into clean jars and let sit a moment before screwing on the lid. Cool at room temperature, then place in the refrigerator where it will keep for several weeks, or the freezer for several months.