If you are lucky enough to spot wild plums growing, don't let the fruit go to waste. Make a batch of wild plum jelly or barbecue sauce, and you'll soon find your friends, neighbors and relatives asking if they can take home jars. Wild plum barbecue sauce is a subtly unique departure from the traditional tomato-based variety, and wild plum jelly possesses a tangy depth that is the perfect balance for hearty breads and soft cheeses. And its brilliant color is the reason plum jelly goes by another name, crimson jelly. My mother, who wild crafts fruits in rural Missouri is the source of inspiration for this particular culinary venture.
As mentioned in a previous post, Foraging in Suburbia, I found wild plum trees near our neighborhood and checked them periodically throughout the summer. One sunny morning in mid-September, which is the right time to harvest wild plums here along the Colorado Front Range, I picked a bucket full, leaving plenty for the birds, squirrels and bears.
American wild plums are small, oval and a bit hard, even when ripe. Plums need to be pitted for jellies and sauces, which can be quite a chore, unless you briefly simmer them first.
After picking, wash the plums thoroughly. Place in a large kettle and cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove plums from heat, drain and rinse with cold water. When the plums cool enough to handle, you're ready to start pitting.
Gently squeeze the plum and the seed will easily push out, similar to pitting a cherry. When pitting, I hold the fruit over the bowl containing the finished fruit to capture the juice. Just be careful not to let the slippery seeds fall into the pitted fruit. Turn on some good tunes, as the pitting will take some time. I recommend Beethoven's 6th (Pastoral) Symphony.
After pitting, the fruit can be returned to the kettle. Add one cup of water for every quart of fruit and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20-25 minutes until fruit is soft. Place fruit in two layers of cheese cloth, tie and string up the cheese cloth over a large bowl. Leave until juice stops dripping, usually within a couple hours. You'll use the juice for jelly making and the mash in the cheese cloth for barbecue sauce.
I typically make my jelly with Sure-Jell, which is simply dried fruit pectin. To make plum jelly, use five cups of juice and 7 cups of sugar along with one package of Sure-Jell. Follow the directions found inside the Sure-Jell box. I like to fill a mix of one-cup and half-cup jars; the smaller jars are perfect hospitality and holiday gifts.
Now for the wild plum barbecue sauce. Scoop the mash left over after the juice extraction into a bowl. I add some water as the mash contains less water than tomatoes, which is the usual core ingredient for barbecue sauce. The addition of water will also make the next step much easier. Run it through a food mill to remove the skin. Super tart and somewhat chunky, the processed plum mash is the perfect base for barbecue sauce. The origin of my recipe is from an old Ball Blue Book, The Guide to Home Canning and Freezing. Ball has moved its recipes online and still offers several great barbecue recipes, including this classic. The earlier version in my edition of the Blue Book calls for 1 1/2 cups of chopped fresh red or green bell peppers and a spice bag (cheese cloth) of peppercorns, which is removed after cooking. I use both these ingredients in my wild plum barbecue sauce. Also, because the wild plums are much more tart than tomatoes, you'll need to increase the amount of sugar in the recipe. The online recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar. I use at least two, sometimes more, depending on how tart the plums are.
While I describe the sauce as barbecue, it can be used as a side sauce for meats as well as like ketchup, with burgers, meatloaf or fries. Last weekend, we used the sauce for barbecued chicken. We dolloped it on roasted pork yesterday evening; it was the highlight of the meal!