Category Archives: memoir

An ode to damson plums

Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam.  I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them.  I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.

There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.

We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something:  The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.

But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.

IMG_6115Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!)  All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.

“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.

It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone.  I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.

“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”

Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.

It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.

That, my dear readers, is little old me.

I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.

Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore.  Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.

Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.

It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade.  It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.

I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.

Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.

I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.

IMG_6113Did I know?

Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times.  I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I  developed a brilliant sleight of hand.  I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it,  separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz.  of readied product in just under an hour.

I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.

Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.

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My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
  • Print

Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.

3 1/2 lbs pitted damson

5 cups granulated white sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.

Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min. 

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Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums

¼ granulated sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.

In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt.  Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.

In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.

Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.

Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Fabulous fava

I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans.  You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean,  fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.

Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.

No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.

“What are these?” I asked and she spat out  “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.

I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.

Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island.  He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.

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Pre and post shucked fava

Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans).  Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.

Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had  white flowers with big black eyes.IMG_4717

In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky.  The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing.  A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.

“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.

My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.

Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.

Randy, I explained, was a dedicated  fava aficionado.  Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?

My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of  bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.

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Fava Beans in Pod

Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.

Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?

I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.

It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”

Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.

No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um,  little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.

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Dragon Tongue Beans

Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.IMG_5530

No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine.  While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.

And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.

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Herd Road Bean Curry

Herd Garden Bean Curry

If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.

2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil

½ large sweet onion, chopped

2 garlic, chopped

1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)

2 cups water

1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced

4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half.  Julienne if really thick)

½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

2 cups fava beans

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)

Fresh sage, sliced

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil.  Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers.  Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes.  Add fava beans and cook until tender.  Season with salt and paprika.  Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.

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Left: Peeled fava hearts Right: Bean casings