Prunes are an unfairly overlooked ingredient. Perhaps this is because of their rather menacing appearance: prunes are dark, wrinkled and gnarled in comparison to their plump, sunny cousins - dried apricots. Apricots just look much more user friendly, with their fat, honey coloured flesh. They crop up in many more recipes and seem to be the 'go-to' dried fruit for a lot of cooks, perhaps after raisins or sultanas. I think prunes carry a lot of unfair associations with school dinners, health food, and elderly people. It's sometimes easy to forget that they are, in fact, just dried plums - nothing remotely ominous about that.
Prunes have a huge amount to offer, both raw and cooked. They have a gorgeous rich stickiness to them that, in common with dates, I think makes them just as satisfying as a dessert. They have a real complexity of flavour, with notes of berry, wine, sometimes even chocolate. They are hugely versatile, working equally well in both sweet and savoury dishes - lending a sweet squidgyness to a chocolate brownie or tart, for example, or a bite of fruitiness to a rich lamb tagine.
Prunes are also pretty good for the health-conscious. They count as one of your five-a-day, are full of vitamins, and are low-GI so fill you up for a long time. They can also be used to great effect in healthy (but not boring) recipes - I make a delicious chocolate brownie that replaces the butter with prune puree, making it a lot more justifiable to eat several in one go. I've fed them to people who never guessed they weren't ordinary brownies (but mostly I've saved them all for myself). I imagine you could try a similar trick with general chocolate cakes, or other dark cakes.
I was recently sent some California Prunes to try, and couldn't refuse given my love of dried fruit. 60% of the world's plum production occurs in California, where the environmental conditions produce fruit that ripens fully on the tree, resulting in a perfect sugar content and full flavour. The prunes are delicious; sweet, rich and the perfect moist, sticky consistency - I'm not a fan of those over-dried ones that resemble leather and have to be rehydrated before eating. These also came individually wrapped, which I kind of loved. They looked like sweeties...only substantially better for you! (Should you want some for yourself, they sell them in Holland & Barrett and Tesco.)
I was fascinated by one of the recipe suggestions that accompanied my sample: a salad of prunes, broad beans, watercress, feta and pecans. Given my love of unusual salad combinations and anything involving fruit (particularly with meat and/or cheese), I had to try it. I've only ever used prunes in savoury recipes involving quite rich meat before, never something light and vegetable-heavy, so I was intrigued.
This is a surprising salad. I wasn't sure it would work, and in the end I was rather astounded by how tasty it was. There's a simple dressing of wholegrain mustard, honey and white wine vinegar - but I didn't have any of the latter so used lime juice, which was great. Watercress, mange tout and broad beans are tossed in the dressing (the recipe uses raw mange tout, but I boiled mine briefly to take the bitter edge off), then some chopped prunes, chopped pecans and crumbled feta. That is it.
The result is a fantastic combination of textures: grainy broad beans, crunchy mange tout and pecans, soft feta and delightfully squidgy prune pieces. There's just the right balance of saltiness (from the feta), acidity (from the mustard and lime juice/vinegar), sweetness (from the prunes) and bitterness (from the watercress and mange tout). It's a really pretty salad, very nutritious, and very filling too. I'm looking forward to trying out more salad recipes with prunes in the future, maybe with some leftover roast chicken or lamb, and some pine nuts...
The original recipe is here, on the California Prunes website, along with a vast number of other tempting suggestions (I'm particularly excited by the prune, amaretti and citrus tarts, and the prune, pecan and celery stuffed chicken). My slightly altered version is below; adjust quantities if you wish - you might want lots more pecans, if you're a big fan, or more feta, if you like salty food, et cetera.
If you're sceptical, I promise you this salad is really delicious. If you can't bear the idea of a vegetarian meal, I reckon it would make a great side dish to chicken or lamb.
Eat, enjoy, and give the poor prune a chance!
Prune, broad bean, feta, watercress and pecan salad (serves 1, easily multiplied):
100g frozen broad beans
40g mange tout, roughly chopped
1 tsp honey
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp lime juice (bottled or fresh) - or use lemon juice or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Two big handfuls of spinach, watercress and rocket salad
15g pecan nuts, chopped (toast them first if you like for extra flavour)
50g feta cheese, crumbled
6 prunes, quartered
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Add the broad beans and cook for 5 minutes. One minute before the end, add the mange tout. When tender, drain well and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the honey, mustard and lime juice with some salt and pepper. Add the broad beans and mange tout and the salad, and toss together. Add the pecans, feta and prunes and toss together before piling onto a plate. Serve immediately.