I know how you feel. Once those dog days of summer have come and gone, leading to the changing of leaves, then the chill of winter, you sometimes get that craving to bite into a fresh vine ripened peach, or dig in to a bushel full of ripe red cherries. But alas, last season’s bounty has come and gone and the upcoming season is months away. Heck, those fruit trees are still bare in winter’s hibernation. But you can still partake in fresh fruit … kind of. How about the bagged variety that’s simply missing a little moisture?
A Little Past Fresh
OK, I’ll admit that dried fruit is a little more than just fresh fruit without the water. The appearance, texture, flavor and even aroma changes when fresh fruits are dried. The first time I caught a whiff of dried peaches, the first thing that came to mind was “Where’s the Dr. Scholl’s deodorant?” Of course, I’ll also come clean about the fresh variety too. I don’t really care for them! My first experience with a tree ripened peach was at the Marin Farmer’s Market many years ago. I mean, fruit isn’t supposed to explode like a water balloon. And then there’s that liquid that runs down your arms, dripping off of your elbow on to your shorts and footwear, that eventually dries leaving a sticky, sticky mess. Until today, I would rather purchase a stone hard stone fruit from the supermarket than risk that watery sticky mess again, which never happens with dried.
A Longer Shelf Life
Along with its limited season, fresh fruit also has a limited shelf life. You can refrigerate it upon purchase (required in the 50th where ambient summertime temperatures can reach 100 degrees in a closed house) but even then you’ll only extend the effective life of that peach or pear another week or two until you discover that you’re either refrigerator-drying your fruit or creating another compost pile in your produce bin.
With the dried variety, the season is year-round and they’re readily available at any supermarket, not just the gourmet markets. And once you open the package, tightly seal and they’re good for weeks, either at room temperature or refrigerated.
But What About the Added Sulfites?
The lighter colored dried fruit usually have sulfites added to preserve their light color. Brown dried peaches, apricots or apples aren’t bad, they simply look bad, so if you suffer from asthma or have a sulfite intolerance, but don’t mind brown dried fruit, simply indulge in sulfite-free fruit. The USDA requires sulfur/sulfite to be listed on the ingredients if it exceeds 10 parts per million. However, many manufacturers also label as sulfur/sulfite free if none is added — since sulfur is naturally occurring, it’s hard to be totally devoid of sulfites. But since I personally don’t have a reaction to sulfites, I purchase the variety with sulfites just for the appearance. And in any case, most of my sulfite consumption comes from wine.
Also Plays Well with Heat
Since vine ripened fruit is primarily meant to be consumed early, as is, they’re not great cooking companions. In fact, the fresh fruit used in many baked items, whether they’re pies or cobblers, use slightly under-ripe fruit because the reduced moisture level won’t make your pastry crust soggy. But along with consuming as is in trail mixes and granolas, dried fruit also takes to heated applications just as well. For starters, they bring intense fruit flavors to the party, and while these flavors aren’t the same as the fresh tree-ripened variety, they are more complex as they simply aren’t just another sweet flavor sensation. And during moist cooking they also absorb flavors from the surrounding liquid. Furthermore, cooked fruit always is a great dancing partner with roasted poultry or pork.
My favorite cooking application with dried fruit is compotes. Basically, it’s rehydrating the fruit with flavored liquids along with herbs and spices and a touch of extra sweetener. The basic sweet compote can function as a side to roasted poultry or pork or used as a topping on frozen yogurt, ice cream or pound cakes. The sweet fruit flavors and accompanying acid perfectly balances a buttery pound cake or rich dairy-based frozen dessert. In fact, I add leftover compotes to my morning weekday oatmeal.
The following compote performs those very functions, great as a side to an opening cheese course, as a side to a savory course, as a topping to the dessert course or simply with your morning oatmeal or yogurt.
Gingered Fig, Peach and Apricot Compote
3/4 cup dried peaches, roughly chopped
3/4 cup dried figs, roughly chopped
3/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 12-ounce bottle strong ginger beer or ale
1 cup Riesling or Moscato
1/4 cup honey
1 piece peeled fresh ginger about thumb size
1 star anise
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Add all ingredients to a saucepan, bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes until the liquid develops a syrupy consistency.
The next compote can play differing supporting roles depending on whether you add the optional ingredients — without makes it more dessert like, which makes it more savory … unless you like cooked onions in your dessert …
Cherry, Prune and Pear Compote
2 cups dry red wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
Salt to taste
3/4 cup dried sour cherries, roughly chopped
3/4 cup pitted prunes, roughly chopped
3/4 cup dried pears, roughly chopped
Fresh ground black pepper (optional)
1/2 cup cooked onions (optional)
Add all the ingredients to a saucepan, bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes until the liquid develops a syrupy consistency.
Best of All Worlds
So for the Gochiso Gourmet, dried fruit fulfills the best of all worlds. It still has great fruit flavor but it’s portable, is readily available year-round and has a shelf life rivalling even canned products. It’s great to enjoy as is or as a cooked side dish. And though most of you still lust after that perfectly vine ripened fruit, I simply see that variety as the bikini model of the fruit world. They appear just during a limited time of the year, but are simply over inflated, with fruit juice bursting from the seams in its voluptuous sweetness. The dried variety, on the other hand, is your classy companion, sleek but refined, enjoyable throughout the course of a meal and always available.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.