There are some fruits that I rarely, if ever, eat simply pure and unadulterated. While I'm happy to pick up an apple and take a bite straight away (although, a little neurotically/childishly, I prefer to take a knife and a plate and cut it into quarters then eighths, eating a piece at a time), or wolf down a banana before a trip to the gym, or eat bouncy, fridge-cold grapes mindlessly as I work my way through some PhD reading, or slice succulent chunks of mango straight from the skin onto my cereal, there are others that just don't quite cut it eaten raw, or untempered by some form of culinary enhancement.
Figs, for example. Unless you are lucky enough to be shopping during the week-long window in the year when figs arrive from Turkey, ripe and beading with luscious pink syrup, and aren't instead rock-hard, woolly, tasteless and crunchy inside, then your figs will probably need a bit of help before they're likely to provide you with any eating pleasure whatsoever. Baking them in sloe gin is a good idea, as is quartering them and sautéeing them in a little butter and brown sugar, adding a dash of balsamic vinegar if using them for savoury purposes (with cheese, for example).
Apricots are another - I must have eaten at least a hundred apricots in my life, and approximately four of those were nice enough to eat raw. They're usually hard, woolly-tasting and deliver very little flavour, despite their promising golden glowing skins. Once again, baking them is the key - I like to bake them with a little white wine or orange juice in a parcel, along with some warming spices - or simmering them with a little orange juice, sugar and spice to provide a beautiful sweet marigold compote.
Blueberries, too. While I do like a handful of these scattered over cereal or porridge, they seem to get used in my kitchen much more often when baked, usually in this delicious baked oatmeal recipe that I often make for brunch, either with rhubarb or bananas. I love the way cooking intensifies their flavour, as they can sometimes taste a bit bland when raw. Plus, you get the benefit of that gorgeous purple juice, which seeps into and stains deliciously everything it touches.
While I never cook strawberries - it's generally not a good idea - I find them bland and disappointing when raw. I always quarter them and toss them with a little sugar, allowing them to macerate for a while so the sugar can permeate the flesh and enhance their flavour. I usually also add a splash of balsamic vinegar (I have some incredible chocolate and vanilla infused balsamic that works wonders with the berries) or lemon juice, which brings out the sweetness of the berries. This way they are sticky, scarlet and delicious, so much more interesting than when bouncy, raw and tasteless.
And then we have plums. Often so inviting, with their beautiful colours - ranging from the bold yellows and magentas of imported plums to the more subtle, mottled autumnal hues of our native crops - plums can regularly disappoint, offering up flesh that is either solid and too tart, or almost jelly-like and possessing a sickly watery sweetness. Generally it's the former that is the problem.
Having been faced with one too many unsatisfactory plums in my time, I now don't even bother trying to eat them raw. Particularly because I think this is the most delicious thing one can do with plums, so why would you bother doing anything else?
Place some halved, stoned plums in a baking dish, cut side up. Next, get some of that stem ginger in syrup - the kind that comes in little amber globes, suspended in throat-warming sticky syrup. Take a couple of globes and finely chop them, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the ginger syrup over the plums. Next, scatter the plums with brown sugar, ground ginger, and cinnamon. Then scatter the plums with some dried orange peel powder (I get mine from JustIngredients) - this adds a slightly earthier orange flavour, though you can use orange zest if you don't have any. Add a splash of water or orange juice, then bake, covered, for half an hour or so.
The plums soften into tender sweetness, while the spices and syrup and liquid accumulate in the bottom of the dish to form the most amazing sweet liquor, warm with fragrant spices. The edges of the fruit caramelise slightly, while the centre goes soft and gooey. This is such a simple recipe, yet it's deliciously versatile. If you use less sugar and add a splash of balsamic or soy sauce, replacing the spices with Chinese five spice, you can use the plums in savoury recipes - along with roast duck or pork, for example. If you keep them sweet, they are delicious spooned over porridge or muesli for breakfast, either hot or cold, or served warm with a very cold scoop of vanilla ice cream as a dessert.
They also look beautiful and smell incredible as you remove them from the oven. There are few things as simple as a big dish of baked fruit, and I love the transformation that takes place every time I cut up some underwhelming plums, add these magic ingredients, and watch them become a glorious mass of soft, spiced sweetness. Incidentally, you can use other fruit - apricots, peaches and nectarines all work well.
So much better than taking a gamble on what will probably be a disappointing specimen.
Ginger and orange roasted plums (serves 4):
- 8-10 plums
- 2 globes stem ginger in syrup
- 2 tbsp syrup from the ginger jar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp orange peel powder
- (or the zest of 1 orange)
- 100ml orange juice or water
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Halve the plums and remove the stones. If you can't get the stones out without destroying the plums, don't worry - you can take them out later while eating. Place the plums in a baking dish where they can all sit snugly in a single layer, cut side up.
Finely chop the stem ginger, then scatter over the plums. Drizzle over the syrup and scatter over the brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and orange peel powder/orange zest. Splash over the orange juice or water.
Cover the dish with foil, then bake for around 30-35 minutes, until the plums have softened and the juices have turned pink and syrupy. Remove and leave to cool before serving (or chill in the fridge until you want them).