Dried plums can star in a variety of recipes

Dried plums, or prunes, simmered with port, make an elegant sweet treat with ice cream. BY JACK CLEMONS
January 21, 2013

Looking for a sweet snack the other day, I discovered a forgotten box of prunes - excuse me, dried plums - at the back of our pantry shelves. The container had never been opened and was still within the sell-by date, so I was optimistic. I wasn’t disappointed; the prunes were sticky, soft and chewy, with a rich, sweet flavor.

Of course, now that the package was opened, prunes became the focus of our next few meals. Breakfast was easy: stewed prunes. This is a great way to recover prunes that may be past their tender days (it also works for raisins that have become too dry to chew). Toss the fruit in a saucepan with some water and simmer for 20 minutes. You now have a supply of juicy, moist sweets to stir into yogurt, oatmeal or muffin batter.

You can also add flavorings to the simmering liquid to create the basis for a wonderful syrup. I’ve tried lemon juice, orange zest, cinnamon sticks, star anise and vanilla. If you have an aggressive sweet tooth, leave the stewed prunes in the liquid and serve them with it. Otherwise, drain the prunes, return the juice to a saucepan and reduce it until it reaches a honey-like consistency - try it instead of hot chocolate on your next ice cream sundae.

A popular use of prunes is found in most recipes for tagines. This is the name for the vessel used to cook the dish as well as the food itself. Originating with the nomadic people of Morocco and Tunisia, a tagine is a type of slow-cooked stew containing highly seasoned meat, vegetables and dried fruit. It cooks over a low heat for several hours, concentrating the flavors, tenderizing the meat and creating a thick, spicy sauce.

Traditionally, tagines were prepared in two-piece portable ovens (called tagines) which include a shallow, flattened bowl as a base and a tall conical cover. Made from unglazed clay, their elegant shape is both decorative and functional. The top seals tightly over the base, trapping the cooking heat and sending steam back down to keep the ingredients moist as the dish simmers.

To serve a tagine, the entire vessel is brought to the table and the knob at the top of the cone is used to remove the cover, releasing the tantalizing aromas of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron. Tender pieces of meat swim in a thick sauce slightly sweetened by the prunes.

Today, you can purchase a tagine (the pot) online or at a gourmet kitchen supply store. They’re available in decorated earthenware as well as with a heavy cast-iron bottom compatible with modern stovetops. Alternatively, you can save the cost of the special pot and make a tagine (the stew) in a casserole or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid – just resist the urge to lift the top during cooking.

I’ve included recipes for prunes, from the simple stewed fruit with lemon, to port-stewed beauties seen in the photo with ice cream. The tagine recipe calls for beef, but you could readily substitute lamb or chicken thighs. Although the list of spices is long, the mixture is what creates the complex flavor profile of the dish.
And for those of you prune-haters who remember the Sunsweet television commercial, I would have to agree, yes, “They're still rather badly wrinkled.”

Prunes in Port

1 seedless orange
1/2 lb dried plums (prunes)
1/2 t nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
1 C ruby port

Slice the orange very thin and add to a small saucepan along with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a slow simmer, and cook uncovered for about 20 minutes. Serve over pound cake, ice cream or apple pie. Yield: 2 1/2 C.

Basic Stewed Prunes

12 dried plums (prunes)
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t lemon zest
1 C water

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and gently simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve over yogurt or oatmeal, or dice stewed prunes and stir into muffin batter.

Beef Tagine

1 T olive oil
1 lb beef cubes
1 onion
10 dried plums (prunes)
1 sweet potato
pinch saffron
2 C chicken broth

Spice Mix

1 t cumin
1 t cardamom
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t salt
1/2 t garlic powder
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t ginger

Combine spices in a zip-top plastic bag. Pat beef cubes dry with a paper towel and add to bag of spices. Turn to coat beef with seasonings, seal bag and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour and up to one day. Dice the onion and prunes; set aside. Peel and chop the sweet potato; set aside. Mix the saffron with the broth; set aside. In a tagine or lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the meat and cook until lightly browned. Add the onions, prunes and sweet potatoes, tossing to collect spices. Pour in the broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cover tightly and simmer over very low heat for approximately 45 minutes. Serve over rice or couscous. Yield: 2 to 3 servings.