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Local plums float in a spiced, sweet pickling syrup. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Recipe-phile: Preserve season's 'a-licious' bounty to sample when winter winds howl

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I had plans to let myself off the hook this year with canning, to sit this one out.

But then I saw the plum tree, its branches so heavy with plums that it has parted into two great arching clumps. And picking through the loaded tomato plants, I found some resigned, low-lying ones slumped in the dirt like soggy, deflated gym balls.

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I just couldn't do it. I gave in today and made two kinds of tomato sauce and a batch of pickled plums.

But it makes me wonder: why did I capitulate to the canning impulse? Because of thrift or duty?

I suspect it's driven more by duty. I like to save money, and I love uncorking a little taste of summer in the middle of the winter, but more than anything my canning is motivated what I've come to recognize as "vegetable guilt."

Whenever I see a flat of tomatoes on the verge I automatically think: "it's a sin not to use them!"

Letting the garden go isn't quite the same as letting meat go to waste, but to me it doesn't feel right to throw away something I've spent quality time raising, even if it goes into the compost pile. (Let's be honest: composting vegetables is a good thing, but not as good as cooking or preserving them.)

I guess I'm trying to say that vegetables have a vitality that we should honor. They're just vegetables, but they're not flat-dead. Heavy with liquid and warm from the sun, vegetables are uniquely irregular; each one looks different from the other, even if they're in the same family. Round ones roll off tables and long ones resist neat piling.

I walked down the hill to get a better look at the plum tree and lifted one of its heavy limbs, causing a soft thunder of plum hail to fall around my feet. I felt I should just get down and say three Hail Marys now because how in the world was I going to use all of them?

Thankfully I have a 2-year-old who likes to take a bite or two out of a plum, pronounce it "a-licious," throw it down the hill and reach for another one. This not only occupied him for an hour, but he burned through a good half a bushel.

For what remained I reached for my old canning books in search of unusual, fun recipes that work with the slight astringency of these small, sweet northern-growing plums.

I've always used the plums from my tree to make a Chinese plum sauce, fragrant with cilantro and ginger, to serve with pork - but I've lost the recipe so I'll print this one from one of my favorite books. And the pickled plums, on this first day of a painfully slow and old-fashioned recipe, already have a deep, floral aroma. Safe to say, they're going to be a-licious.

Chinese-style Plum Sauce

Adapted from Preserving by Oded Schwartz

4 pounds red plums

2 cups rice or white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup dark soy sauce

1 cup honey or dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1/2 cup thinly sliced cilantro (mostly stems)

3 star anise

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

4 small dried red chilies

Make a spice bag by placing the star anise, coriander seeds and chilies in the center of a clean square of cheesecloth, tying up the four corners into a bundle. Rinse and drain the plums. Put the plums, vinegar, salt and spice bag into a noncorrosive saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the plums become soft and mushy.

Take out the spice bag and reserve. Pass the plums through a sieve. Place the puree in the cleaned pan and stir in the soy sauce, honey and ginger. Return the spice bag to the pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 45 minutes, or until thick enough to hold the trail of your spoon.

Remove the spice bag and discard. Pour the sauce into clean half-pint jars and process in a boiling water bath.

(This book doesn't specify an exact processing time for this recipe, but generally calls for processing pints 20 minutes when the recipe has a sufficient amount of acidity and thickness, or low water-mobility, as this one does. I learned to be better safe than sorry at the U of M's Better Process School (a.k.a. canning school) so I process my half-pints for 20 minutes, counting after the water returns to a boil.

For any questions about safe processing, contact an Extension agent or go to www.freshpreserving.com.)

Pickled Plums

From The Good Cook: Preserving, by Time Life Books,

Richard Olney, Editor

(Makes about 6 pints)

4 pounds slightly underripe plums, each pricked in server places with a needle

8 cups sugar

1 cup water

2 1/2 cups vinegar (white or apple cider)

5 cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces

20 whole cloves

Make a spice bag by placing the cinnamon and cloves in the center of a clean square of cheesecloth, tying up the four corners into a bundle. In a large saucepot, bring the sugar and water to a boil over high heat and cook for about 10 minutes to make a clear syrup. Add the vinegar and the spice bag and boil for five minutes more.

Add the plums and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat; to avoid breaking the fruit do not boil it hard. Skim.

Remove the fruit from the syrup with a skimmer, then boil the syrup over high heat for five minutes. Remove from the heat, return the plums to the syrup and allow the mixture to cool. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

The next day, bring the mixture to a boil, remove the plums, boil the syrup for five minutes, return the plums to the pan and let the mixture cool. Let stand another 24 hours. Put the plums into jars, cover and process in a boiling water bath. Store for at least six weeks before using.

(Great, another old book that doesn't provide processing time. As with the Chinese plum sauce, this recipe has enough vinegar and sugar to make it safe. Experienced canners may process these pints for 25 minutes - a little excessive for a pickle, but better safe than sorry. You can also run the recipe by an Extension agent or go to www.freshpreserving.com.)

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