08/12/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 10/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Sweetness of plums balances nicely with tart or savoury accompaniments

LONDON, Ont. - According to the nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner was quite pleased when he pulled a plum out of his Christmas pie. So what do Jack and the rest of the world know that Canadians don't?

According to the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers' Marketing Board, plums are the second most cultivated fruit on the planet. In Europe especially, plum cakes, tarts and crumbles are traditional favourites. But homegrown Canadian plums are relegated almost exclusively to the "fresh" market for lunch bags and out-of-hand snacks. Plum-flavoured products and recipes calling for plums are less common than those using many other types of fruits.

It's somewhat of a vicious circle of cause and effect, says Jim Campbell, industry specialist with the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture. "Because it's not a commodity that's in high demand" for processing here, farmers can't make significant money with plums so not that many are grown. Thus, they're not promoted like other fruits and demand remains static.

The reputation of sweet Canadian plums may also suffer because of the influence of some "virtually tasteless" varieties imported from California, Campbell says. People who try those "assume all plums are that way so they don't buy" more flavourful options.

B.C. has about 120 hectares of plums (mostly blue Italian plums). Ontario's plum crop is about three times larger, with about 360 hectares (roughly two-thirds being yellow plums). Nova Scotia has a small commercial crop. California is a major producer of plums, many of which are turned into prunes.

Tawfik Shehata, executive chef at The International Centre (a large Toronto convention facility) and also a chef with the Ontario Agriculture Ministry's Foodland Ontario, likes cooking with plums and says their sweetness balances nicely with tart or savoury accompaniments.

Yellow and red plums have a high moisture content and are good for jams and sauces or any recipe where the flesh is broken down. But for applications where he wants to maintain the shape of the fruit, he prefers blue and Italian plums, which have a "firmer, crunchier texture.

"I cut them in half or in quarters and sear them, cut side down, and then sprinkle a little bit of sugar on them and bake them in the oven at 180 C (350 F) for five minutes at the most."

You can caramelize yellow and red plums, but Shehata recommends using a brulee torch instead of a frying pan, where it's too easy to overcook them and turn them to mush.

Shehata likes to use the caramelized plums in salads with something like arugula or sharp sheep's milk cheese to balance the sweetness of the fruit. He also uses raw plums in salads but says the caramelization "adds another dimension of flavour."

Caramelized plums or plums in sauce form are a nice complement to roast pork, he says. They also can be served with lamb, providing they're seasoned with more savoury spices such as cardamom, cumin or coriander seeds and even a splash of vinegar. Plums or prunes are also called for in some stuffing recipes for fowl.

In Canada, homegrown yellow plums are usually available in July and August, major red varieties in August and September and early and late blue varieties from late August to mid-October.

Plums are related to peaches, almonds and nectarines and most varieties are good for eating fresh, with some being a little sweeter and others a little juicier. However, damson plums are very tart and are mainly used in cooking and for making jams and jellies. Plums can range in size from as small as a cherry to as large as a baseball.

When buying plums, choose those that yield slightly to pressure and feel heavy. They are often sold slightly under-ripe but ripen quickly at room temperature (in a paper bag, not plastic, and out of direct sunlight). You should not wash plums before storage — wait until you're ready to use them.

If you want to peel plums, dip them in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, immediately place them in ice water and rub skins off by hand.

Nutritionally, one medium plum has about 40 calories and is a source of vitamin C, potassium and fibre. Plums are high in sugar but also have a high antioxidant content.

For cooking purposes, 10 medium plums equals about 500 grams (one pound) and two sliced medium plums yields about 75 millilitres (1/3 cup).