By Sanford D’Amato
With Halloween approaching, there is nothing better to strike fear into kids than a scary movie. One of my favorite old films is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the R. L. Stevenson book, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which became a way to describe the tug-of-war between internal good and evil.
It seems that some very common foods have that same good and evil DNA in people’s minds. These foods, and their split personalities, have the ability to paralyze us. There is no way our hands will deliver these foods to our mouths. Vegetables are the usual suspects but even some fruits have this ability.
My first realization of this was long ago...
I’m bounding down the painted cement stairs, half holding on to the concave handrail. It is worn away and heavily patinaed from years of supporting miniature grimy, sweaty hands fresh from the upstairs playground. As I hit the bottom stair, a nun points to the bathroom door to the right. Rough granules spill from the dry soap dispenser onto my darkened paws and as I rub them under the faucet, they magically brighten before my eyes.
I leave and as I’m walking toward the large arch, it hits me, that smell. It’s like an over-baked ziti casserole mixed with pencil shavings and lead—#2, if I’m not mistaken. It’s hot lunch time, the best part of my grade school day. As I grab my tray, I know that no matter what the daily menu is I can depend on there being a small parfait glass filled with some type of canned fruit. It ranges from the real crowd-pleasers—fruit cocktail, sliced peaches, or pears—to the almost exotic apricot halves or the dreaded prunes, bobbing in their mud-colored syrup. I say “dreaded” because of the angst that would spread through the line as the first person got to the window. Our only way out was to borrow a leftover wax paper bag from someone who brought their lunch from home, de-pit them, place the pits in the glass dish, deposit the prune flesh in the bag, then mule it out—all under the falcon-vision of the black-habited monitors.
As I make this dessert today, all I can think about is that the same folks who would have had trouble keeping down a stewed prune would be completely smitten with a plum tart. Prunes are the ugly, wrinkled, almost deformed Mr. Hyde to the handsome, smooth and dignified “plummy” Dr. Jekyll and most folks never put together the fact that they come from the same body!
Coming from the French or Italian varieties, in their fresh state, these dusky ovals are freestone, which means they are easy to handle. And they have a dry constitution, which during baking causes the internal juices to slowly render out and form their own delicious sticky sweet-tart glaze. When dried, their flavor intensifies to a higher plane giving even a small wedge the ability to explode on the palate with a deep, juicy, mature richness.
The first of my two recipes is with oven-half-dried fresh plums from the Northampton farmers market with “Halloween scary” liver from Sutter Meats, which I think you’ll find offal-ly good.
You may have forgotten that it was the law that you had to be at least on Social Security before you would willingly consume a prune. But have an open mind when you try my second recipe for Prune and Fig Kisses. After the first taste Mr. Hyde might not look so frightening. And even though he can’t go back to being a plum, I think you’ll see after trying both Jekyll and Hyde that they are not so very different after all.
Sautéed Liver with Plums, Bacon, Scallions, and Sage Brown Butter
If you don’t often cook liver at home, this is a nice introduction to this cut. Veal liver will be the mildest and with pork and lamb liver having a stronger flavor. You can roast the plums for this dish up to a day ahead of time.
3 Italian plums (also called prune plums; substitute another type of plum if Italian plums aren’t available)
2 slices thick-cut bacon, each slice cut into ¼-inch pieces
2 (6-ounce) slices fresh beef, veal, pork, or lamb liver (about ½ inch thick)
¼ cup whole milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Wondra flour, to dust liver
3 tablespoons butter
2 scallions, washed, trimmed, and cut in 1-inch pieces on the bias
6 fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Roast the plums: Cut plums in half, remove pits, cut each half in half, and bake in a 250° oven for 1 hour; let cool.
Place a sauté pan, large enough to hold the liver in 1 layer without crowding, over medium heat. When pan is hot, add the bacon and render until golden, about 3–4 minutes. Strain out the bacon and reserve the bacon and fat separately. Place liver in the milk, remove, and season with salt and pepper. Dust liver with Wondra.
Wipe out the sauté pan and place it back over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add the reserved bacon fat. When fat is hot, remove the liver from the flour and pat off the excess. Add liver to the pan and sauté until golden, 2–3 minutes per side or to your desired doneness.
Put the liver onto warmed dinner plates. Discard any remaining fat from the pan. Add butter to the pan and place over medium heat. When butter is golden brown, add the plums, scallions, sage, and reserved bacon and toss. Immediately add the vinegar and lemon juice, stir, spoon over the liver, and serve. Season with salt to taste.
Yield: 2 servings
Prune and Fig Cinnamon Kisses
Don’t let fear of frying keep you from making this dessert. Just make sure you heat your oil (about 2 inches) in a deep pot, and don’t crowd the oil with too many kisses at once.
2 cups dried pitted prunes, diced small
1½ cups dried Mission figs, stem removed, diced small
¾ cup pitted dates, diced small
2 bay leaves
4 star anise
⅜ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup dark rum
1 cup water
1¾ tablespoon orange rind
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon peanut oil
1 package wonton wrappers (need 48 wrappers)
2 egg yolks mixed with 1 tablespoon water
Cinnamon Sugar (recipe follows)
In a 12-inch nonstick pan, add prunes, figs, dates, bay leaves, anise, ⅛ teaspoon of the salt, pepper, rum, water, orange rind, and lemon juice and bring up to a simmer and cook, mixing, until dry. Remove the star anise and bay leaves and cool.
In a separate pan, mix together the almonds, oil, and the remaining salt. Bake in a 350° oven for about 12 minutes, tossing frequently during baking, until golden brown. Remove and cool.
Chop almonds into a small dice. Mix with the dried fruit mixture. Place about 1 tablespoon of the mixture in the middle of each wonton wrapper. Brush a bit of the egg mixture on 2 adjoining sides of the wrapper, about ¼ inch in from the end. Fold over the other side and seal well. Deep-fry in batches in 360° peanut oil for about 1 minute, until golden brown. Drain briefly on absorbent paper, then toss in Cinnamon Sugar. Serve warm.
Yield: 48 kisses
For the Cinnamon Sugar:
½ cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Mix ingredients together in a large bowl.
Sanford (Sandy) D’Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield. He is the former chef/owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more about Sandy and good Stock Farm cooking classes at GoodStockFarm.com.