Pluots pack the best of both plum and apricot
While many still don't know what a pluot is, those who have discovered the sweet luxury of this hybrid of a plum and apricot clamor for more. While they make good crisps, they're really good all by themselves, eaten at the summer peak of their season.
IN THE BEGINNING, not much was as basic as fruit. Eve ate an apple in the Garden of Eden. The sundae had a cherry on top. Good things were peachy-keen.
Now, it's more complicated for growers of one sweet summer bite. "I'm amazed when I mention them to people in passing, how few people still know what a pluot is," says Mike Miller of Goosetail Orchard, who farms four acres of the plum-apricot hybrid.
Miller began growing the trademarked fruit about 10 years ago on his organic farm near Chelan. He had spent 30 years cultivating apples and peaches on his 100 acres, but was looking for something to replace the Red Delicious apples that used to be an Eastern Washington orchard staple. Contacts in California told him the pluot, a soft stone fruit developed by a California fruit breeder named Floyd Zaiger, was the next great thing.
At that point, Miller had never heard of pluots, either. Even now, they're on a fine popularity line, seeming equally poised between becoming a household staple or fading into a generic plum-like treat.
The juicy, smooth-skinned cross does owe far more to its plum mother than its apricot dad. (In many varieties, after years of breeding, the apricot is more like a barely remembered great-uncle.) When properly picked and properly stored, though, pluots are reliably more tasty than either ancestor. They're generally sweeter and more lush, they don't have an astringent aftertaste, and — perhaps most important — growers have traditionally focused a lot of attention on their flavor rather than appearance or convenience.
As pluot-obsessed author Chip Brantley wrote in his 2009 book, "The Perfect Fruit," markets tend to lump plums in homogenized bins of red or black, not differentiating between varieties and not always prioritizing flavor. Plums aren't inherently bad fruits, he wrote, but they disappoint often enough that "it feels risky to buy them."
Pluot breeds, while not as dramatically distinct as Granny Smith apples versus Galas, do have discernible varieties and characteristics. Many have a classic purple skin, though other varieties are yellow or mottled or reddish, all yielding a rush of sweet, soft flavor.
Miller's favorite pluot is the dessert-like Flavor King, which has a hint of complex, tart plumminess, but also a consistent brix rating (a measurement of sugar) of over 20, "super high for a fruit." Another popular seller is the yellowish Flavor Queen, a bit one-dimensional to his taste, but "super sweet like candy." His pluot-growing season starts at the beginning of August, with the Early Dapple, and goes full force through September.
Miller had never been a fan of plums and their sharp aftertaste, but took a field trip to Pike Place Market with his wife to search out pluots before deciding whether to grow them. Their verdict? "Man, this is pretty nice."
That's a restrained version of my reaction after finding them last year at the stand Miller's niece runs at the tiny Meadowbrook Farmers Market. (Miller also sells to local supplier Charlie's Produce and to Whole Foods, but it's harder there to pick out which ones are his.)
Every week, I would buy a bag at the beginning of the market, then decide before leaving that I needed another couple luscious pounds to make it through the week.
"I have really strived to let the fruit hang out to get full sugar, or full brix, before we pick them," Miller says. "Sometimes it's a little challenging to do that. I have to wait a little longer than some of the other growers tend to. They beat me to the market sometimes, but I get a good repeat clientele."
Seeking out a grower who knows the different varieties and goes out of the way to sell them in such peak shape is probably the best way to find your pluots. As the market has expanded and progressed, it's acquired more of the plum's old problems; becoming confused with plums, or picked too early, or stored and transported in ways that do it no good.
One researcher who studies fruit conditions after harvest "calls a certain temperature 'the killing zone,' " Brantley says. "It is, unfortunately, the zone that a lot of grocery stores keep their fruit in." Even the name "pluot" has issues, he noted. People don't instinctively understand how to pronounce it or what it is. Some growers now instead grow what they call "plumcots," which used to be the name for a 50-50 plum-apricot cross, or simply give it a descriptive brand name, avoiding any problems with the pluot trademark but further confusing customers.
Regardless of their future niche, we're lucky now on the West Coast to appreciate sweet pluots at their consummate peak.
Brantley, who now lives in Alabama, is less fortunate. "Once they have to get in a truck and travel someplace," he says, it gets hard to find a good pluot.
"You get lucky. But plums, I think, and apricots, and pluots, you're really rewarded for living close to them."
It's possible to cook with pluots, but to me they seem best fresh from the market stand, eaten out of hand. I was glad to see Brantley describe in his book how the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse once served a Flavor King pluot as the cap to a $65 meal. It was untouched, uncut, uncooked, unadorned, just one single piece of perfect fruit.
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer and blogger. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
Pluot and Boysenberry Cobbler
2 pounds pluots, peeled, halved, pitted, and sliced lengthwise 1/2 inch thick
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 pound boysenberries (about 1 1/2 cups)*
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, in 12 pieces
1/2 cup whole milk, plus more for brushing
About 2 teaspoons sparkling sugar (coarse decorating sugar)
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the pluots in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch until well blended. Add to the pluots and toss to coat evenly.
2. Add the boysenberries and toss gently. Put the fruit in a 9-by-2-inch round baking dish or other baking dish with a 1 ½-quart capacity.
3. To make the biscuit topping, put the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor and pulse several times to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the bits of butter are no larger than a pea. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the milk with a fork, tossing gently just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Knead gently with your hand, just until the mixture forms a cohesive dough. Turn it out onto a work surface and pat it into a 1/2-inch-thick round.
4. Using a 2 ½-inch round biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out six biscuits and place them on top of the fruit, spacing them evenly. Brush the top of the biscuits lightly with milk and sprinkle with the sparkling sugar.
5. Bake until the biscuits are nicely browned and the fruit is bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm.
— From "Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America's Farmers" by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher
*Note: Substitute other berries or stone fruits as you like.