I have a curious fascination with dried fruit. Perhaps that associates me with socks-and-sandals-wearing health freak weirdos, but I don't care; I love the stuff. Not just your run-of-the-mill raisins and maybe dates or apricots, but other more overlooked fruits too. Prunes, often unfairly dismissed as a bit too virtuous, I find utterly squishy and divine, particularly simmered in a lamb tagine. I enjoy the crunch of a dried fig, with its sweet aromatic flavour and nubbly little seeds. Dried cranberries add a perfect sweet-sour zing to everything from porridge to salads. I relish the foamy sweetness of a dried apple ring and its slightly tangy flavour, reminiscent of Granny Smiths. Strips of leathery, golden dried mango are often far more promising than they look, delivering a gorgeous deep, sticky sweetness if you make the effort to sink your teeth in.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say I get a bit of a kick out of finding new and unusual dried fruits. Tragic? Perhaps.
Pears are something I'm rather intrigued by and have yet to sample. Blueberries and cherries are prohibitively expensive in dried form, even more so than when fresh, so I haven't yet managed to bring myself to purchase any. Dried pineapple - the proper stuff in ragged rings, not those artificial pastel-yellow cubes that taste like sugar and little else - is another one on the mental wish list.
I tried a dried strawberry for the first time the other day, in a packet of 'dried berry mix'. I have to say, it was vile and definitely one that has been crossed off said mental wish list.
I can see, however, why some people shy away from dried fruit. It can be quite strong, a bit too chewy, a bit musty-tasting. This is why you cook it, dear readers. You add some form of liquid, apply a little heat, and you end up with a completely different concept altogether. You end up with delightful sweet, squidgy morsels of fruity goodness that are oh-so versatile and oh-so delicious.
They taste like sweets...only they're good for you.
Dried fruit is excellent for perking up a lacklustre stew. Apples work well with pork in their fresh form; that's a given. But dried apple rings are also an unusual and lively addition to a pork casserole. Prunes are brilliant not only with lamb but also with beef, particularly oxtail, as my braised oxtail with prunes, orange and anise recipe shows. Apricots work well with lamb too, but also pork and duck, and sometimes chicken. The other day I stuffed some chicken breasts with cream cheese, thyme, toasted pecans and dried cranberries. It was gorgeous. Raisins or sultanas always make a good addition to curries or rice pilafs. The culinary possibilities of even the most basic dried fruits are endless; I can't wait to think up some ways to use things like dried mango, pineapple and pears.
This is a delicious way to use the more common dried fruits in a sweet, rather than savoury, way. When you think of fruit compote, fresh fruit usually springs to mind, but there's no reason why you can't make a gorgeous compote using the dried stuff. There's something a little bit magical about the transformation of dark, shrivelled morsels into plump, juicy globules of goodness.
I make this compote to top my morning porridge, but it would also be wonderful spooned over ice cream or served alongside a creamy dessert or a cake. I just love the contrast between the cold compote, which keeps in the fridge, and a piping hot bowl of creamy oats.
Dried fruit is simmered in a mixture of orange juice and spices until plump and juicy; you're left with a delightful sweet, sticky syrup full of tasty fruity pieces. I then add sliced blood oranges, which are still in season and which I am still obsessively hoarding due to my magpie-like culinary tendency to snaffle up anything shiny or pretty. These are both. Plus they have a lovely tang that complements the sweetness of the fruit perfectly. You can leave out the orange segments if you like, though - the compote is great either way. I keep it in the fridge, take out a bit every morning for my porridge, and add a sliced orange to it.
It's also pretty healthy, as there's no added sugar other than that from the fruit and orange juice, yet it tastes stupidly delicious.
OK, so this is barely a recipe and you're probably thinking "yeah, well duh...", but I love this compote so much that I had to share. If you've never seen dried fruit as anything more than those little Sun Maid boxes of raisins or the occasional dried apricot for snacking on, I hope this will make you a little more adventurous.
This is a very versatile recipe - use whatever fruits and spices you want, in whatever quantities you want. The basic premise is to poach them in enough liquid to cover them, until they turn soft and juicy. Use apple or cranberry instead of orange juice, add other fresh fruit rather than oranges...whatever you like.
Spiced dried fruit and blood orange compote (makes 6-8 servings):
- 200g dried apricots, halved
- 200g prunes, halved
- 200g raisins or sultanas
- 150g dried figs, roughly chopped
- Orange juice (bottled is fine, no need for fresh)
- 2 tsp mixed spice (or a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, star anise and coriander seed)
- Sliced blood or normal oranges, to serve (one per person)
Put the dried fruit in a saucepan with a lid and half-cover with orange juice. Pour over enough water to just cover the fruit, then add the spice(s). Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20-30 minutes until the fruit is plump. Keep checking as you may need to add more water or orange juice - you want there to still be some liquid syrup left in the pan when the fruit is juicy, and it absorbs more than you'd think.
Set aside and leave to cool, or serve hot/warm. When ready to serve, add a sliced orange per person, along with any juice left over from slicing, and stir into the fruit.