Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and never so vividly as when a farm school classmate shows up with 20 pounds of leftover pig roast, just after breakfast, when you and that day’s cooking partner are sitting around, uninspired at cooking yet another quinoa-n-beans lunch for forty hungry farmers. Oh, the blessing of such generosity! And what to do with it? We had a lot of Southerners in our group that year, family-farm kids from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas, urban farmers from Alabama and Florida.
So, what do you do, California-style, with leftover pork but make pulled-pork sandwiches, on homemade whole-wheat rolls, drenched in homemade barbecue sauce with a side of fresh-picked cabbage slaw? This was a DIY kitchen, well stocked with olive oil, polenta, lentils, and spelt flour, but absolutely empty of anything resembling a pre-made product. Mustard was as close as we got to a condiment; anything special you wanted, from plain yogurt to ketchup and doughnuts, you had to make from scratch. We had a walk-in refrigerator overflowing with what we grew, but only with what we grew. Which meant no tomatoes until our own tomatoes were ripe. Which they weren’t, at that early-summer moment. Little green golfballs might have made a tasty New York deli-style green-tomato pickle, but they sure weren’t going to make barbecue sauce.
What we did have, however, was plums. Boxes of plums, buckets of plums, millions and billions and trillions of plums. Plums so ripe they were falling off the trees, plums that would, that same week, become sloppy magenta ammunition for the orchard crew’s awesome, never-to-be-repeated Plum War. I looked at the overflowing, overripe heaps of plums, and thought, what’s so different between a plum and a tomato? Didn’t they both have the same thin skin, holding back a juicy gush of acid-snapped sweetness? Given time to collapse on the stove in a big pot, bathed in vinegar and brown sugar, seasoned with molasses, garlic, onions, salt and spices, they’d make the same tart-tangy sauce. With no time to lose, we chopped onions and garlic and threw them in a big pot to saute while we pitted the plums. Added the plums, apple-cider vinegar, a scoop of brown sugar, plus a glug of molasses, plenty of salt, and a mixture of allspice, cloves, and coriander, plus a cinnamon stick.
Simmering in a heavy pot on low heat, it coalesced into a thick, deep purple lava. We stirred frequently to keep it from sticking or burning, tasting as we went. Just a few minutes before lunch, it was ready: spices tamed, plums, garlic, and vinegar married into something tangy, sweet, and just a little spicy. We slathered it over the pork, brushed it lavishly over slabs of grilled tofu, put out the buns and slaw, poured the iced sweet tea.
Afterwards, the 19-year-old from Nashville came into the kitchen to hug us both. “That was the BEST lunch we’ve had this whole time,” he drawled. Plum-stained and sweaty, we were happy to hear it.
Right now, my neighbor’s trees (and yours, too–just look down the street) are overflowing with gorgeous, sweet golden plums. I’ve filled bags there for the past few years, and no matter how much I take, there are always more plums up there, just out of reach. They made a splendid golden-orange jam last year that most people took for apricot. They would make a wonderful chutney, too, I’m sure. But this year, I’m going to rekindle my love for barbecue sauce. If you, like me, adore barbecue sauce but never buy it because of how much high-fructose corn syrup is in every supermarket brand, here’s your chance to make some one-pot, stove-top deliciousness. If you don’t have a backyard plum tree, ask your favorite farmer’s market fruit seller if they have any jam fruit or seconds. You can often get a big flat of less-than-perfect fruit (especially near the end of the market) for cheap.
Recipe: Plum Barbecue Sauce
Any kind of fleshy, juice-dripping plum, like the Santa Rosa, will work in this recipe. Whole spices retain their flavor and aroma much longer than pre-ground spices. You’ll save lots of money if you buy them loose in the bulk section of a health food store (like Rainbow Grocery or Berkeley Bowl) rather than in plastic bottles at the supermarket. As always, feel free to play around with the spicing; for an Asian-inspired sauce, try adding in grated fresh ginger, star anise instead of cinnamon, honey instead of molasses, and soy or fish sauce instead of Worcestershire.
Yield: 1 quart
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
10 whole allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp whole coriander seeds
10 whole cloves
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 lbs plums, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup apple-cider vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tbsp molasses
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes, or 2 fresh hot peppers, such as serranos or jalapenos, diced
1 tbsp salt, or to taste
a generous splash of Worcestershire sauce, optional
1. Using a small piece of cheesecloth, put whole spices in the center of the cheesecloth and tie corners together to make a little bag. Tie an 8″ piece of string to the knot.
2. In a large, heavy, nonreactive pot (enameled cast iron, like Le Creuset, works very well) over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add onions and cook until golden and just beginning to brown. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute or two.
2. Add plums and cook, stirring frequently, until fruit has collapsed and softened into a chunky puree. Add vinegar, sugar, molasses, mustard, hot peppers, and salt.For easy retrieval, tie the end of the string to the handle of the pot and drop the spice bag into the plum mixture. Add about a tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce, if desired.
3. Bring mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low, partially cover and cook, stirring often, until mixture is thick and smooth and flavors have blended. Be careful not to let mixture scorch or stick to the pan. Taste for seasoning, adjusting with more vinegar, sugar, molasses, or salt as needed. Remove and discard spice bag.
4. Pour into clean glass jars. Let cool, then refrigerate. Because of its high fruit/sugar content, this sauce can burn or char if exposed to high heat on the grill. Use as a table sauce, or brush over grilling foods during the last 5 minutes on the grill over medium to low heat.