Every year around the autumnal equinox (September 22nd this year) the food and drink world is all abuzz with warming spirits, simmering satisfying comfort foods and aromas of baking pears and apples. After the three-month parade of moms and dads laden with umbrellas, coolers, and sand toys with tiny tots in wagons, young bronzed sun & surf worshipers strolling past our door, surf boards in tow, and pasty-white mainland vacationers sporting one-sided lobster burns; I’m ready to welcome the gentle breezes, cooler days and softer light of my favorite season. But for southern Californians, it seems that summer began in September with temps well in the 90′s and 100′s inland – if you watched the Emmy’s, that was the main topic of conversation besides what designer the stars were wearing.
What’s so great about autumn? Well for starters, a large selection of produce is plentiful in most areas of the United States, from apples and pears, grapes and plums to figs and fresh cranberries. This abundance of fruit, and herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme, is a wonderful source of inspiration for seasonal dishes and cocktails. Developing recipes for me is not purely an exercise, tasting the flavors of the season is a must, but I also have to be IN that season and since autumn only lasts 13 short weeks, autumn hits me (us) a little late relative to the rest of the U.S.
You never know everything about anything (how profound of me) and this summer I learned so much about plums (and grapes and peaches) when I traveled with a small group of food writers and chefs on a growers tour, sponsored by Melissa’s Produce, to “America’s Salad Bowl”, California’s Central San Joaquin Valley.
We had the opportunity to meet three growers that Melissa’s works closely with – all three were passionate farmers but with three distinctly different approaches to farming. Gisele Perez of Pain Perdu observed that Jim Beagle, along with his partner, Jack Pondol, of The Grapery, who in their buttoned down, starched shirts, and heavily invested in scientific research are the “MBA farmers”. Doug Phillips, is the quintessential image of what most of us envision a farmer to be, and David “Mas” Masumoto, a philosopher/farmer in the great American tradition has pioneered and embraced innovative marketing methods and social media.
Above: Jim Beagle tells us about new varieties of grapes they’re growing: Cotton Candy is going to be the next big thing (you heard it here first!), Black Muscato grapes being picked and packaged for Melissa’s, and measuring the brix level – commonly used in winemaking and organic farming, it measures sugar (carbohydrate) level – 21 degrees and up and the fruit is sweet and ready to go to market. I believe those are Red Muscato and they’re brix is off the charts. A higher brix level is important in gardening as well resulting in healthier plants, less insect pressure, better taste, better nutrition, and a longer shelf life.
Doug Phillips (above) grows plums and plum hybrids like cherry plums, pluots, apriums, and nectacotums (a nectarine, apricot, plum hybrid) and travels the world searching out unique varieties of fruit, like Finger Limes from Australia and Buddha’s Hand (both available through Melissa’s). And here’s something I didn’t know: the light covering on a plum is called “bloom” – it’s perfectly normal, not dust or pesticide, and can be eaten as is. A view of the fields at Phillips Farms and Doug’s truck touting the local’s drinking spot, Dead Rat Saloon.
We came home with a bag full of cherry plums,several varieties of pluots and a few Finger Limes – aren’t they cute, known as citrus caviar, they’re favored by chefs as a textural component and for a delicate pop of citrus flavor to enhance seafood appetizers, desserts and cocktails.
Using Emerald Gem and Dapple Dandy pluots that Melissa’s sent me, I created a salad/appetizer for a neighborly cocktail get-together on Sunday, the remote control got a workout switching between the Emmy’s and the New England Patriots game and my Grilled Plums with Mozzarella and Pistachios on a bed of Watercress and drizzled with Sweet & Tart Pear Vinaigrette winning an Emmy for best flavor in a feature presentation.
It’s an easy preparation for plum or pluots that requires no cooking – only a grill, or a broiler if you choose. The pear vinaigrette highlights the sweetness and lovely pale yellow color of Starkrimson pears and is simple to make and extremely versatile – just add the herbs or spices of your choice each time. I added cardamom and served it as a glaze on broiled salmon, as a vinaigrette to dress a shrimp and avocado salad, and with basil for this crowd-pleaser appetizer platter – just add grilled or toasted baguette slices and you’re good as gold!
Grilled Pluots with Mozzarella, Pistachios, and Basil
1 bunch watercress (often labeled Upland Cress)
1- 8 ounce container fresh mozzarella
1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios 2 tablespoons fresh basil, cut into ribbons (chiffonade)
1/2 cup Pear Vinaigrette (recipe below)
Directions: 1. Preheat the grill to medium-high.
2.Pick out a beautiful (or sexy) serving platter – as the food disappears, it becomes a conversation piece
3.Cut the pluots (or plums) lengthwise, twist to separate, remove the seed, and cut crosswise into slices.
4. Spray the grill rack with cooking spray. Grill the pluto slices until grill marks are present, two minutes or so per side.
5. Arrange the pluots on the bed of watercress, tuck slices of mozzarella among the pluots, sprinkle with basil and pistachios, and drizzle with vinaigrette.
Sweet & Tart Pear Vinaigrette
With 5 minutes prep time and no cooking, this versatile pear emulsion can serve as a viniagrette to dress a salad, a glaze for fish or chicken before grilling or baking, or drizzle on fruit for added zing – just add the herbs or spices that you desire.
1/4 cup Meyer lemon oil
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
2 teaspoons agave nectar
In a blender or processor, process the pears with rice vinegar and agave nectar until smooth, add the Meyer lemon oil and blend until fully incorporated.
Yield: 3 cups