By: Co+op

Know why "plum pudding" is so named? It's clearly not because it's full of plums (since it's usually made with nary a plum). Well, during the Middle Ages, "plum" meant any dried fruit, so "plum pudding" is really an assorted-dried-fruit (plums included) pudding. Today when we talk about plums, we're referring to the sweet fleshy stone fruit and relative of the peach, nectarine and almond.

Plums are considered drupes, which means they're a fruit with a hard stone pit around the seed. Hardy trees, plums grow well in many temperate climates throughout the world. The main commercial producers of plums are the United States (especially the Pacific Northwest), Russia, China and Romania.

A very good source of vitamin C, plums are also a good way for you to score some vitamin A, vitamin B2, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber. They're also high in antioxidants, but make sure you choose a ripe plum; the ripest plums have the highest antioxidant concentration.

Prunes (which are dried plums) have the highest rating of fruits on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) test, used to rank antioxidant sources.

With over 2,000 varieties in the world, you'll find plums in a wide range of saturated skin colors, including red, purple, blue-black, green, and amber skins. One bite unveils delightful yellow, green, pink or orange flesh.

The flavor of plums ranges from dessert-ready sweet to pucker tart; darker-colored plums are usually more bitter than the red and yellow-skinned varieties.

Plums are generally grouped in one of three categories: Japanese, Damson, and European. Japanese varieties, which tend to be very juicy, have a yellow or reddish flesh and crimson to black-red skin color. They're round and often have a small, pointed tip. Popular Japanese plums include Santa Rosa and Red Beauty. Elephant Heart, good for cooking, is a large plum with red flesh.

Damson plums are small, very tart, and used mainly for preserving and cooking. Varieties include Shropshire and French Damson.

European plums are teardrop-shaped, with a blue or purple skin and golden yellow flesh. Some are sold fresh, but many are made into prunes. Varieties include: Italian President, Empress, Stanley and Tragedy. In general, European varieties are better than Japanese varieties for cooking.

Juicy, ripe plums may be eaten out of hand, of course, but they also lend themselves to a wide array of recipes. Arrange a variety of fresh plums on a tray with goat cheese and walnuts for a delectable appetizer. Top a green salad with small chunks of plum and sprinkle with a balsamic vinaigrette. Use them to make a refreshing cold soup or fruit salad.

If you haven’t had plums cooked—baked, poached, grilled or stewed—you're missing out. Use plums to make a rich purple sauce to serve over poultry or meat (learn how to incorporate plums into a pan sauce for serving with pork or other meat). Keep in mind that you can substitute plums for other stone fruits in just about any dish. They'd stand in perfectly for apricots in this recipe for Grilled Apricots with Smoky Blue Cheese and Almonds, for example. These Grilled Fruit Kebabs would be a lively addition to your summer grilling repertoire, served alongside jerk-spiced chicken or tofu.

Concoct a glistening plum filling for pies, tarts, and cobblers, or to serve as a pudding or ice cream topping. An upside down cake is a great way to celebrate plum's color and delectable taste. Plums make for beautiful jams and jellies, juices and smoothies, too. Use plums to make a surprising plum lemonade or to fashion a plum brandy cocktail. If you have access to Japanese green plums, you might try your hand at concocting Umeshu, a Japanese plum liqueur.

Lemon, walnuts, hazelnuts, brown sugar, goat cheese, and cream cheese are all good with plums. In savory foods, basil is a fine seasoning. For sweeter treats, try poppy seeds and cinnamon.

Red wine, like a Beaujolais, Tempranillo, or red Bordeaux, is the perfect beverage accompaniment to plum dishes.

You're most likely to find plums at the co-op from May through October, with peak months in August and September. The Japanese varieties arrive on the market first, while European varieties arrive in the fall.

A ripe plum will yield to gentle pressure and be a bit soft at the tip. While they'll continue to ripen at home, they won't sweeten, so don't purchase very unripe (hard) plums, because they make no promises.

Look for plums with rich color and smooth skin, free of bruises, breaks in the skin, and any decay.

If you do wind up with an unripe plum, leave it at room temperature in a loosely closed paper bag to soften. Once ripe, store it in the refrigerator for up to three days. But take it out a half hour or so before serving; plums at room temperature taste sweeter and juicier than those served cold right out of the refrigerator.

From appetizers to desserts, fresh or cooked, beautiful, delectable plums are a treat for both the eyes and the tastebuds.