Winter warmup: Sunny days are here again, thanks to dried summer stone fruit
If you have read any of my cookbooks, or eaten in my restaurants, you may have noticed that I have a certain fondness for dried fruit. You'll find them in my desserts, of course. But you'll also find them turning up in many savory dishes, from stews braises, and sautes to appetizers and side dishes, to salads and soups.
Some of those guest appearances trace back to culinary history. In Austria, where I grew up, it was traditional for frugal people to save some of the harvest for culinary use at other times of year. That's why raisins would appear with fresh apples in a strudel, or prunes and apricots might help thicken the red wine sauce for slowly braised short ribs.
Flavor, of course, is another key reason why dried fruits are used in so many savory dishes. I like to talk about how good cooking should have a "yin-yang" quality; that's the Asian term sometimes used to describe the way that opposites can complement each other in the right balance. For instance, I like how tart, tangy dried fruit can brighten something savory or highlight and pleasantly contrast the brightness of sweet ingredients.
There is also another reason why I like to use dried fruit. During the cold months of autumn and winter, when our choices in fresh, locally grown produce can be more limited, they make it possible for you to enjoy the taste of the warmer months. That's reason enough to keep a good supply of dried fruit in your pantry -- all sealed in airtight bags or containers that help keep them from drying out any more than they already have.
To illustrate that last point, I'd like to share one of my longtime favorite recipes: An apricot pine nut tart that offers up the golden color and tangy-sweet flavor of a signature late-summer stone fruit in the middle of this chilly winter.
After prunes (dried plums) and raisins, apricots are among the most widely available dried fruit. You've probably seen them sold in two different forms: sulfured and unsulfured. That refers to the common use of sulfur dioxide gas as a preservative during the drying, which also helps the apricots keep their bright orange color. The Food and Drug Administration has found that only the slightest traces remain by the time the apricots are packaged; but if you're at all sensitive to sulfites, or have any concerns at all, you can certainly make the recipe with unsulfured dried apricots, which will have a dark brownish color but still taste delicious.
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Feel free to experiment with other dried fruit in this recipe, too. It will give you many ways to enjoy the cornucopia until spring and summer arrive.
APRICOT PINE NUT TART
Makes one 10-inch (25-cm) tart, serves 8 to 10
1 cup (250 mL) water