Picking Up a Few Items: Gleaning, Like Foraging, Feeds You for Free

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frozen plums

“… Louisa drew Captain Wentworth away, to try for a gleaning of nuts in an adjoining hedge-row…”
—Persuasion, Jane Austen

This is supposed to be a story about me trolling the sidewalks of San Francisco, magically finding fruits and vegetables and herbs along the way. I had gleaned my own Captain Wentworth years ago, and if he and our progeny wanted to join me, that would have been grand.

Such a story was inspired by the fact that edibles are everywhere in our fair city. Fruit trees drop their bounty over fences; fennel litters vacant lots; herbs pop up through the cracks in sidewalks.

Unlike foraging, gleaning has a breezy air to it. There is no mud in gleaning. There is no need to crawl around on the forest floor. No special guide or instruction or equipment would be needed.

Foraging is the seeking out, the searching and rummaging for foodstuffs. It is the hunting of flora, with all the effort hunting implies. One is likely to need provisions as you search for your provisions when one forages. One can, as I’ve learned the hard way, go foraging and return remarkably empty-handed.

Gleaning, however, is simply gathering. When applied to food it implies that you are gathering food that isn’t yours to start with (that would be straight-up harvesting), hopefully with but perhaps without permission. The original gleaners were those who went, well-stooped, into the fields after the threshers had been through; they picked up the grains scattered in the field, the crumbs fallen from the main harvest. Sometimes they were hired, their finds going back to the farmers; other times they were invited to do so as an act of charity from the landholder to poor tenants in need of food.

Such gleaning still takes place in farmland areas, whether it’s my friend’s family who would illicitly glean potatoes under cover of night after the harvest from fields near their Long Island house or CSA members invited by the farm to come and pick the last of the strawberries or tomatoes.

But the new gleaning is almost the urban version of foraging. To glean is to collect free food growing right under all of our noses.

My own San Francisco gleaning history has included picking all the lemons I could possibly use from our former neighbor’s tree, grabbing a blackberry snack during a walk up on Bernal Heights and walking away with bags of pears from a colleague’s Noe Valley yard. Other San Francisco gleaning may involve apple tree branches hanging over fences, plum trees planted by the city, or—it ain’t right but people do it— grabbing a head of lettuce or a few ripe tomatoes from a community garden plot.

My plans to glean for this story were cut short by good intentions. My cousin knew I was looking to glean, and late August/early September in the Bay Area is prime plum season; I was welcome to his plums trees if I wanted to glean in relative privacy.

Yet the idea was planted in his head that his cousin needed plums, and he’s a can-do sort of guy. Next thing I knew, a bucket of plums arrived at my front door before I had a chance to pick them myself.

And by “bucket” I don’t mean a sand pail or a household bucket one might use to mop the floors. What crossed our threshold was a tall white plastic five-gallon painting bucket, full to the brim with dusky purple Italian plums.

It was an accurate representation of what results in general from having a plum tree—they are prolific and ripen all in one shot. It was also an accurate reenactment of what would have happened had I gone over there to pick them myself. I am a natural gleaner. I like to gather and collect things into a single mass or container. Take me berry picking and god help you if you thought we were going to pick a pint or two and head home. I will pick well past reason, well past when I have an amount the number of people I live with could possibly eat, well past even what there is space for in the freezer.

Yet I also have a serious aversion to wasting food. How to justify heading off to glean more plums when I had over 10 pounds sitting on my kitchen floor? Left alone with the results of my projected gleaning, I got to work.

when you have scads of plums…

-plum chutney-

We don’t eat much jam at our house. In truth, the only jam that gets eaten at our house is by my dad when he visits. So I have a hard time getting motivated to make a big batch of plum jam, even when a big bucket of the dusky beauties shows up at my door. Plum chutney, however, whether on the fruity side or the spicy side, is something we can all get behind. It’s delicious on sandwiches, alongside pork or chicken, or on crackers with a bit of cheese. Be bold and serve it instead of cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.

Start off with a whole mess of plums:  3 to 4 pounds of them  make 4 to 6 pints of chutney. I feel silly pointing this out, but you don’t want to use rotten plums; you can, however, use plums that are a  bit more ripe than you might use in other dishes, and you can also use plums that perhaps got picked a bit sooner than was good for them. They all get cooked down with lots of sugar and aromatics, so texture is of little concern and a bit of sourness can be accommodated.

Rinse the plums clean, pit them and roughly chop them. You want to end up with around 10 cups chopped plums, or so-chutney is very flexible. If you want to halve or double this whole thing, do so with abandon.

Put the chopped plums in a big, heavy-bottomed pot. This is a case where I like to turn to an enameled cast-iron pot: It looks pretty on the stove, and it can keep the mixture at a steady, reducing simmer without scorching any of the chutney inside.

Add 1 or 2 finely chopped red onions, 1 to 4 cloves of minced garlic ¼ to ½ cup cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. Also add 1½ cups brown sugar, but have more on hand—you may want to sweeten it more before you’re done.

Along with all that, you can add other flavorings:
Traditional chutney would likely have some dried fruit cooked in with the fresh. About ½ cup dried currants is yummy here, but I like chopped dried blueberries even better.

Mustard seeds add flavor as well as chutney-like texture. As much as 1 tablespoon is worth throwing in the pot.

Ginger is delicious with plums. One teaspoon ground ginger gives this chutney a kick, although a few teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger adds a nice hot note too.

The depth of flavor and slight heat  from black pepper ensures this is a chutney and not a jam—½ to 1 teaspoon freshly ground should do it.

Make it flat-out spicy with red chile flakes. Up to 1 teaspoon, as you like.

Bring everything to a boil, stirring to combine the mixture as needed. Once it’s boiling and splattering your stove and counter with brilliantly fuchsia spots, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle but steady simmer.

Stir and again when you think of it, scrapping down the sides of the pot if you like, until the whole thing is reduced by 1⁄3. It should seem slightly thickened, too. The chutney will set up when it cools, so you don’t want to cook it into a paste, though.

Taste it. Add more sugar if a puckering sourness comes through. Stir in the sugar, simmer a few more minutes, and taste again. Don’t worry too much about the other flavors—they will still be fairly strong and singular. It’s the time in jars coming up that will mellow and blend the flavors.

You have two choices: You can simply store all the chutney in the fridge or you can hot-water-process them. To store in the fridge, simply ladle the chutney into clean jars, seal them, let them cool and tuck them in the back of the refrigerator for about 6 weeks to let them “cure.” These will need to be kept refrigerated until you eat them.

To process the chutney, bring a large canning kettle of water to a boil. Sterilize the pint or half-pint jars and their lids either by putting them in the boiling water for 10 minutes or running them through the dishwasher. Fill the hot jars with the hot chutney and screw on the lids. Gently lower them into the canning kettle, making sure that the water covers the jars by at least an inch, and boil them for 10 minutes.

Take the jars out, let them cool, and store them in a dark, cool place (such as a cupboard!) for 6 weeks before opening. Is this 6 weeks absolutely necessary? Maybe not, but it lets all the flavors get to know each other better. I highly recommend that you exercise some patience here. Once opened, store the jars in the fridge. Because of all the sugar in there, the chutney will last a good long while chilled.

-frozen plums-

Know also that plums freeze beautifully. Halve and pit them, lay them in a single layer on baking sheets, and put them in the freezer until frozen through (overnight usually does it). Transfer to sealable plastic bags and keep for up to 6 months. Use them to make chutney later, when you feel like it, pop them into plum tarts, or whirl them into pleasingly sharp smoothies.

when you have a small pile of plums…

-plum tart

There are lots of ways to make a plum tart, but this is my favorite because 1) it is fabulously beautiful and 2) it is crazy easy.

Start off with a tart crust. Make your favorite or buy one, whatevs. For the record, these days I use 1¼ cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon salt into which I work 1 stick of butter. I put that in the fridge for about 5 minutes and then stir in 3 tablespoons of ice-cold vodka (alcohol has less water for the amount of moisture, so less gluten develops as you work with the crust and you get a flakier crust in the end—the alcohol burns off when it bakes). I knead that mixture into a single mass in the bowl, turn it onto a piece of plastic wrap, pat it into a disk, cover it up and chill it for at least 30 minutes—better for an hour or even overnight.

On a well-floured counter I roll it out, turning it 45° after each pass of the rolling pin to make sure it isn’t sticking, throwing more flour underneath if I sense even the slightest resistance to the turn.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Lay the crust  in a tart pan, letting it drop down into the corners, and trim and crimp the edges. Cover with plastic wrap and chill while you prep the plums.

Halve and pit 18 small plums—you want them to all fit cut side down in the tart crust.

Take the crust out of the fridge. Sprinkle the bottom with 1 tablespoon instant tapioca. Taste the plums. If they are on the sweeter side, sprinkle ½ cup sugar on the crust; if they are on the sour side, sprinkle in up to 1 cup of sugar. It is fully optional, but either cardamom or cinnamon goes beautifully with plums. People will ask why it tastes so good and you can tell them or not—sprinkle up to ½ teaspoon of either into the tart along with the sugar.

Lay the halved plums face down in a single layer in the tart pan. I like to make this in a square tart pan so the plum halves can make a grid, but circles within a circle are nice too.

Bake until the filling in bubbling all over—that means in the very center too!— and the crust is brown, 45 to 60 minutes. Let cool so the filling can set before you cut it.


when you have just a few plums…

The sour edge of plums works fabulously in salads. Think of them as tomatoes!

Halved plums are beyond tasty when grilled. Brush them with vegetable oil and set them on a hot grill for about 5 minutes—you want them to soften and to get some pretty grill marks. Use them as a savory side, almost like a grilled vegetable, or add a sprinkle of sugar and a scoop of ice cream and dessert is served.

Chop plums, add some minced shallot or red onion, salt, pepper and fresh herbs (mint is my favorite here) for a quick salsa that is divine with fish. Any plums can be turned into salsa, but red plums are by far the prettiest.