A vision of dried fruit probably does nothing for you. On the other hand, the thought of a Middle Eastern or African stew gently simmered with dried dates, apricots and spices, or of a baked ham with a covering of dried apricots marinated in mustard, brown sugar and apple juice may make your mouth water.
Yes, there is more to dried fruit than meets the eye. It makes a wonderful seasoning for entrees, both heightening the taste of the meat and flavoring it at the same time. The natural sweetness of the dried fruit offsets the richness of the meat, and its fruity tartness complements almost every kind of protein.
Rarely does dried fruit overpower a meaty main dish, but it does offer a tartly sweet counterpoint. Even a little fruit goes a long way to bring out the sugar/acid or sweet/sour balance. About half a pound of dried fruit is generally enough to season meat or poultry for six to eight people.
Dried fruit is an integral ingredient in the recipes that follow for Spiced Lamb Stew with Orange Wedges and Dried Figs; Spiced Brisket of Beef with Mixed Dried Fruit; Pork with Spiced Apricots; Chicken Breasts with Peaches and Cinnamon; Chicken Wings with Apple Chutney, and Cornish Hens Baked with Apple Cider, Dried Apples, Pears and Raisins.
For the lamb recipe, pick if you can dried figs from the Middle East; these seem to be the plumpest and sweetest. Serve this stew from a great round platter, decorated if you like with a few colorful gourds of the fall season.
Mixed dried fruit, for the brisket of beef recipe, generally is available in bulk at larger supermarkets and at health food stores. As with individual fruits, look for softly yielding, but not decayed, slightly sticky fruit. The skin should not be excessively shriveled; this is a sign that the fruit underneath may be moldy, which can result when turnover is not high enough or fruit has been stored improperly.
Apricots, for the pork recipe, are among the most common and widely available type of dried fruit. Look for plump, not heavily wrinkled whole or dried apricot halves; they should be even-colored without any threadlike brown blotches on the surface or inside the fruit.
The dried peaches for the chicken breasts should, like apricots, be free of brownish spots; dried peaches are full of flavor, and their flavor is enhanced when spices such as cinnamon and ginger are included.
The concentrated flavor of dried apples is quite good when combined with other spices and flavorings and featured with Cornish hens or chicken wings. When buying dried apple slices, look for a tawny color, free of pitting or dark, brownish streaks. Even though the slices are dried, they should be moist, supple and pleasantly chewy. SPICED LAMB STEW WITH ORANGE WEDGES AND DRIED FIGS (Serves 6)
It's the freshly grated orange rind, along with some orange juice, that uplifts and enhances the taste of the lamb. At the end, dried figs, halved, are simmered briefly with the lamb, adding sweetness to the stew. But orange wedges are folded in at the last moment for a sweet-sour interplay with the figs. 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 5 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes About 1 cup all-purpose flour, spread out on a dinner plate Salt and pepper to taste 1 onion, finely chopped 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 3 tablespoons freshly grated orange rind (the zest, orange part only) 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves 1 cup orange juice 2 cups chicken broth 1 small imported bay leaf 1/2 pound dried figs, stemmed and halved 2 large navel oranges, peeled and cut into wedges 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves for garnish
In a large dutch oven or casserole (that can accommodate all of the lamb and liquid later on), heat the vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Pat dry the lamb cubes on paper toweling. A batch at a time, lightly dredge the lamb cubes in the flour, then brown in the hot fat. Remove the browned lamb to a side dish and season with salt and pepper. When all of the lamb has been browned, pour out all of the fat and add the 4 tablespoons butter.
Stir in the onion and garlic and cook over low heat until the onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the orange rind, thyme, rosemary, orange juice, chicken broth and bay leaf; bring to the boil, stirring. Boil 1 minute. Add the lamb chunks and bring to a boil. Cover and braise the lamb on the lower third-level rack of a 325-degree oven for about 2 hours, or until the lamb is tender to the piercing of a fork, but not falling apart.
With a slotted spoon, remove the lamb to a warm spot, and degrease the cooking liquid. Bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes, or until the liquid has condensed slightly. Add the figs and simmer until they are just tender, about 5 to 7 minutes (depending upon softness of the fruit). Add the lamb cubes and gently fold in the orange pieces so as not to break them up. Transfer the lamb to a deep heated platter and scatter the chopped parsley over top.
Serve the lamb with buttered rice, steamed tiny potatoes, or buttered noodles. SPICED BRISKET OF BEEF WITH MIXED DRIED FRUIT (6 to 8 servings)
This is a simple, easy-going braise of brisket. Adding the dried fruit at the end, mingling the pieces with the reduced pan gravy, sweetens up the sauce a bit; the last spark is when you scatter a little hot pepper sauce over all, which provides a good contrast with the sugar. 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 5-pound brisket of beef, preferably first cut About 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, spread out on a dinner plate Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 onions, finely chopped 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 2 tablespoons tomato paste 3 cups beef broth 1 small imported bay leaf 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/2 pound mixed dried fruit (large pieces halved if very large) 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley for garnish Put the oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large dutch oven or casserole (that can accommodate the brisket later on). Heat the fat over moderately high heat. Pat dry the brisket with paper toweling; lightly dredge with flour.
Brown the brisket in the hot fat on both sides until a deep golden color. Remove the brisket from the casserole to a big plate and season all over with salt and pepper.
Pour out the fat and add 4 tablespoons of fresh butter. Stir in the onions, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. Cook over low heat until the onion turns soft and translucent. Stir in the tomato paste and beef broth; bring to a boil. Drop in the bay leaf. Add the browned piece of meat and bring to a simmer; baste the meat now and then.
Cover the casserole and braise the beef on the lower third-level rack of a 325-degree oven for about 3 hours or until fork tender. Turn the meat every half hour. When the meat is tender, remove it from the liquid. Skim off the fat from the liquid and cook it over moderately high heat to reduce it to a light gravy. Add the hot pepper sauce and the dried fruit, stir, and cook the fruit in the gravy, partially covered, until it just turns tender, about 10 minutes. Very soft dried fruit will take only 4 to 5 minutes. Adjust the seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper to taste.
Carve the brisket into slices, arrange on a warmed platter, and pour the fruited sauce over all. Scatter the finely chopped parsley on top.
Serve the brisket with baked or steamed rice, or buttered Noodles, or tiny boiled potatoes. PORK WITH SPICED APRICOTS (Serves 6)
Prepare the spiced compote of apricots before cooking the pork; then the apricots have a chance to turn lush and plump in the syrup. FOR THE APRICOTS: 1/2 pound whole dried apricots, or apricot halves 1 cup hot tea 1 cinnamon stick 5 whole allspice berries 5 whole cloves 5 whole black or white peppercorns 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar 3 tablespoons water FOR THE PORK: 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 6 loin pork chops, cut 1-inch thick About 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, spread on a plate Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 1/4 cup minced shallots, or onions 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup chicken broth 1/3 cup blackberry jam blended with 1 tablespoon mustard, perferably dijon Parsley for garnish (optional)
To prepare the apricots, steep the apricots in the hot tea for 1 hour; drain and set aside. In a large noncorrosive saucepan, combine the cinnamon stick, allspice berries, cloves, peppercorns, sugar, cider vinegar and water. Cover and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves completely. Uncover, raise the heat to moderately high, and boil the syrup steadily for 5 minutes. Add the drained apricots and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes or until they barely cook through and absorb some of the syrup. Cool the apricots in the syrup, uncovered.
To cook the pork: Heat the vegetable oil and butter in a sautoir (a saute' pan with a cover) until the butter is very hot and the foam has subsided. Pat dry the pork chops on paper toweling and lightly dredge them, a few at a time, in the flour. Brown the pork chops, in batches, in the hot fat, doing so quickly without cooking them for too long. Remove the chops as they are browned on both sides to a side dish and season with salt and pepper. Add the shallots (or onions) to the pan and cook slowly until they become translucent (about 5 minutes). Pour in the white wine and chicken broth and bring to a boil, stirring. Boil for 3 minutes. Stir in the jam-mustard blend and 3 tablespoons of the syrup from the apricots.
Add the browned pork chops to the pan, tucking them in, and bring the liquid to a simmer, basting the chops while doing so. Cover and simmer the chops for about 20 minutes or until they are cooked through. Transfer the chops to a warm oven and add the apricots to the cooking liquid. Cook down the liquid over moderately high heat for about 4 minutes (the apricots will reheat as you do so). Adjust the seasoning with additional salt and pepper to taste. Place the chops on a warm serving plate and pour the sauce over all. Sprinkle some finely chopped parsley over the top, if you like. CHICKEN BREASTS WITH PEACHES AND CINNAMON (Serves 6-8)
The chicken breasts, glazed with a gently spiced pan sauce made from the reduction of the ingredients, look and taste as if you've spent hours in their preparation. Keep this little dazzler of a recipe for the times when you need a quick and fashionable kind of main course, made from the ingredients readily available at the supermarket. 4 bone-in chicken breasts, halved 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 tablespoons unsalted butter About 1 cup all-purpose flour, spread out on a plate Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 pound dried peach halves, halved again 1 cinnamon stick 1 onion, finely chopped 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1 cup chicken broth 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper Parsley for garnish (optional)
Pat dry the chicken breasts on paper toweling. In a large sautoir (a saute' pan with a lid), heat the oil and 2 tablespoons butter until very hot over moderately high heat. A few pieces at a time, lightly dredge the chicken in the flour and brown the breasts on both sides in the hot fat. Brown only as many pieces as will fit in the pan without crowding, otherwise the pieces will steam instead of brown. Remove the browned chicken to a side plate and season with salt and pepper. When all of the chicken has browned, pour out all of the fat and pour in the white wine. Let the wine sizzle and boil until it has reduced by half, stirring all the while. Reduce the heat to low, add the peach halves and cinnamon stick. Cook slowly for 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the peach halves and cinnamon stick to a bowl and pour off the wine mixture into another bowl; set aside.
Into the cleaned pan, add 4 tablespoons of butter, place over low heat to melt the butter, then add the onion, garlic and rosemary. Cook slowly until the onion turns soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and ginger; cook 1 minute. Pour in the chicken broth and reserved wine. Add the chicken breasts and cayenne pepper and bring to a simmer, basting the breast with the liquid. Cover and cook slowly for about 20 minutes, or until the breasts are cooked through.
Remove the chicken pieces to a warm oven and bring the liquid in the pan to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the peaches and heat them through. Place the chicken breasts on a warm platter, and pour the sauce over all. Sprinkle finely chopped parsley over top, if you like. CHICKEN WINGS WITH APPLE CHUTNEY (Serves 4)
This casserole of oven-baked chicken wings is a delicious way to incorporate a quick homemade chutney into a cooked main course. After all, chutney is not just a spread or side-dish sauce, and cooking with it builds up the flavor of any kind of protein. FOR THE CHUTNEY: 2 tablespoons dry sherry 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar 2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 tablespoons water or apple cider 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon allspice 1/4 teaspoon ginger Pinch ground cloves 1 garlic clove, minced 1/3 pound dried apples, coarsely chopped 1 large cooking apple, about 1/2 pound, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped, and tossed with the juice of half a lemon FOR THE CHICKEN WINGS: 3 pounds chicken wings, wing tips cut off (the wing tips may be saved in the freezer and used for making broth) 5 tablespoons vegetable oil 3 tablespoons butter About 1 cup all-purpose flour, spread out on a dinner plate Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 1 cup chicken broth Parsley for garnish (optional)
First make the apple chutney. Combine the sherry, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and water or apple cider in a heavy noncorrosive saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat until the sugar melts completely. Uncover and stir in cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cloves, garlic, and both kinds of apple and stir, bringing the mixture to a boil. Simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes, or until lightly thickened and shimmery. Cool to room temperature. (Chutney may be prepared up to 1 week in advance; store the cooled chutney, covered, in the refrigerator.)
Pat dry the chicken wings on paper toweling. Put the oil and butter in a heavy 6-quart casserole; place over moderately high heat to melt the butter. When the foam from the butter has subsided, lightly dredge a few of the wings in the flour and brown them on both sides in the fat. Brown only as many wings as will comfortably fit in the bottom of the casserole without crowding; remove the browned wings to a plate and season with salt and pepper. Brown the remaining wings in batches. Pour out all of the fat from the casserole and pour in the broth; cook, stirring until the broth reaches a boil. Boil for 4 minutes. Stir in the prepared chutney, add the chicken wings and stir everything together.
Cover the casserole and bring to a rapid simmer. Place the casserole on the middle rack of a 375-degree oven and bake the wings until they are tender, about 45 minutes. Uncover the casserole for the last 5 to 6 minutes to slightly condense the cooking liquid. Serve the wings from a warmed platter, garnishing the top with minced fresh parsley, if you like.
Plenty of steamed or baked rice is just the right accompaniment to sop up the sweet-savory sauce. CORNISH HENS BAKED WITH APPLE CIDER, DRIED APPLES, PEARS AND RAISINS (Serves 6)
Marinating the hens in apple cider for a short time is a wonderful way to keep them moist, juicy and full of flavor. When cooking, a small quantity of apple cider is used again -- along with a mixture of butter, spices and onions -- as the aromatic basting liquid. 2 cups apple cider 2 tablespoons brown sugar 6 cornish hens, trussed 1/4 pound dried apples, cut into 1-inch pieces 1/4 pound dried pears, cut into 1-inch pieces 4 tablesoons dark raisins 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 onions, finely chopped 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon allspice Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves 1 cup chicken broth Parsley for garnish (optional)
Combine 1 1/3 cups of the apple cider with the brown sugar; pour over the hens, refrigerate them covered for several hours or overnight.
Combine the remaining 2/3 cup cider with the apples, pears and raisins; set aside. In a small skillet, melt the butter and stir in the onions and garlic; cook over low heat until the onions turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the ginger, nutmeg and allspice, and season with salt and pepper. Add the thyme and chicken broth; bring to a boil, then simmer 3 minutes. Drain off the cider from the dried druit, add it to the onion mixture and bring to a boil.
Reserve the dried fruit. Drain the hens of the apple cider and pat them dry with paper toweling. Arrange the hens, breast side up, in a large roasting pan (preferably on a rack) and place them on the middle rack of a 400-degree oven. Cook for 10 minutes, then pour over all the onion-cider-broth mixture. Baste the hens every 10 minutes for about 40 to 50 minutes or until cooked through, golden and tender.
Remove the hens from the pan and keep them warm. Pour off the pan juices to a saucepan, degrease to remove as much as the fat as you can, then add the dried fruit pieces. Cook at a simmer for 4 to 5 minutes or until the sauce is lightly condensed and the fruit is cooked but still slightly firm. Arrange the hens on a platter and pour the fruited sauce over all.
Sprinkle freshly chopped parsley over the tops of the hens, if you like. Serve the hens with baked brown rice, buttered noodles or buckwheat groats steamed in broth.