Veggie of the Week - Dried Fruit
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Dried fruit are currently in vogue as a snack food, but drying is an ancient means of preservation, particularly of fruit. Removing most of the water from fruit (or vegetables, meat, or milk - we can think of cheese as more or less dried milk, depending on the kind of cheese) preserves it by greatly reducing the osmotic pressure in it, making it nearly impossible for any spoiling microbe to remain active. The chemical ripening processes inherent in the fruit are also virtually stopped in the relative absence of water.
Surrounded as we are by refrigerated, canned and frozen goods, it's easy for us to overlook the culinary and dietetic significance of dried fruit in other times and places, and to see it as something of a novelty; but our modern substitutes for drying require a lot of industrial infrastructure, electricity, just for a start. Drying fruit needs only dry air and a bit of space. I once bought a carton of raisins produced in pre-Soviet Afghanistan which contained stones, bits of straw and other evidence making it obvious that they'd been spread on a patch of ground recently occupied by goats. The raisins, though, were excellent.
Besides preservation, drying confers concentration on fruit. Dried fruit weighs roughly a fifth to an eighth as much as it would fresh, with a corresponding reduction in bulk, which are handy properties for storage and transport, ones we appreciate on a hike, and which are much more significant to the Taureg or Bedouin. Sweetness and flavor are also concentrated, in a way that turns fresh fruit, which is sweetish (prunes) to sweet (grapes) into something which has a sweetness approaching that of sugar. We don't give a second thought to the ready availability of pure sugar, but this was not always so, and dried fruit supplied much of the sweetness that sugar does today, both in cooking and in confectionary, as it still does in many places.
Flavor is also concentrated by drying - compare the intensity of a fresh with a dried apricot - and changed to a greater or lesser degree. A dried and a fresh apricot are unmistakebly the same fruit, though there are changes in the apparent acidity and sweetness, as well as in the way the flavor develops in the presence or absence of juice; but it's a bit of a stretch to identify fresh and dried grapes - the only really obvious shared property is sweetness. The degree of difference is at least as great as that between grapes and wine.
Concentrated sweetness and flavor are very useful culinary properties, and ones we are familiar with in baked goods and hot cereals, and, more recently, in cold cereals. We might also find dried fruit used in stuffings and occasionally in sauces. Other cuisines make much broader use of them - one thinks of Near and Middle Eastern cooking, which will incorporate raisins, dates, prunes, dried figs or apricots into savory dishes as well as having dried fruit (including annab, the Iranian dried jujube) turn up here and there on their own during the course of a meal.
In their concentrated sweetness and flavor, dried fruit resemble jam, but this similarity is rarely exploited. If you like dried fruit, it's worth doing. You might consider grinding walnut meats and raisins together to make a rich gooey sandwich filling; or you might save yourself some trouble and simply sprinkle raisins or sliced apricots or figs (or a mixture) over peanut butter on bread. If you want something really sweet, use chopped dates. If you replace the bread with rolled oats, you've got 'energy bar' (or 'blob'), with the opportunity to adjust the ingredients to get just the combination of gooiness, sweetness and crunchiness that you want. Thinking of it as meat free pemmican ads that bit of romance.
The 'Date Girl' sells a number of kinds of dates, year around, at the Montecito, Goleta and Santa Barbara markets. Just don't ask her for 'a date'. Another farmer sells a wide selection of dried fruit (and nuts) at the same three markets. Keep your eyes open and you'll likely see a few other stands selling one or two kinds of dried fruit.