When Man first stood upright and started foraging, he certainly found plenty of fruit that had fallen from the tree and become desiccated in the hot Mediterranean sun. And that's when he had his eureka moment-delicious, nutritious, and portable, what more could you ask of a food?
And so it went down through the centuries. The oldest known recipes, written on clay tablets in Babylonia, detailed scrumptious dishes that included dates, figs, apples, and pomegranates-all dried. In 3,000 BC, Chinese nobles indulged themselves with plums and peaches in dried form. And the Romans rewarded their victorious athletes with jars of highly-prized raisins.
Today, we value our dried fruits for the concentrated nutrition they provide, as well as for their mouth-watering goodness. From apricots to berries and plums to papaya, almost any fruit you can name is now available in this healthy and convenient form.
Bursting with Benefits
Dried fruits are almost entirely free of fats and sodium, and are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And because of their high polyphenol contents, they're a vital source of antioxidants that contribute to heart health and cancer prevention.
Try apricots for their beta-carotene, figs for their potassium, mangoes for their omega-3s, and plums (prunes) for their fiber and iron. For high levels of antioxidants, go to blueberries, cherries, apples, and papaya. And for vitamin A, seek out goji berries and peaches.
In the winter months, this is an especially effective way to get your necessary servings of fruit without having to buy flavorless produce from far-away climes. In fact, the National Cancer Institute specifies 1/4 cup of dried fruit as a proper single serving toward your daily requirement.
With that concentration of flavor and nutrition, however, also comes a concentration of calories. According to the USDA, a 100-gram serving of fresh plums contains only 46 calories, whereas the same size portion of prunes contains more than five times that amount. So find creative ways to enjoy these sweet treats in reasonable quantities. Stir a few dried blueberries into your morning oatmeal; include a handful of dried goji berries in a quinoa pilaf; add a few dried apple slices to a green salad; fold a few dried cherries into some fat-free yogurt-the possibilities are endless! Or try our recipes (p. 48).
Makes 2 cups
Lavish this tropical delight over grilled salmon, chicken, or shrimp. Or mix it with brown rice and steamed vegetables for a satisfying meat-free supper. Add the sambal oelek if you like it spicy!
1 cup diced fresh mango
1/4 cup diced dried mango
1/3 cup mango nectar
1/2 tsp. minced fresh peeled ginger
1/8 tsp. minced kaffir lime leaf*
1 tsp. organic coconut milk
1 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 Tbs. chopped scallion
1/4 tsp. sambal oelek,* optional
- Combine fresh mango, dried mango, mango nectar, ginger, and lime leaf in small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat, stir in coconut milk, cilantro, scallions, and sambal oelek, if using. Serve immediately.
* Kaffir lime leaf and sambal oelek (a chili paste) are available at Asian specialty markets
PER SERVING: 33 cal; <1g pro; <1g total fat (<1g sat fat); 8g carb; 0mg chol; 3mg sod; 1g fiber; 7g sugars
Cherry Goat Cheese Canapés
Makes about 30 pieces
Serve these tidbits along with a tart cranberry vodka cocktail, and watch your party soar!
1/3 cup roughly-chopped dried cherries
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
10 oz. fresh organic chèvre (goat cheese), at room temperature
¼ cup chopped marcona almonds
French baguette loaf, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- Combine cherries and pomegranate juice in small bowl, and microwave 30 seconds, or until hot. Set aside to allow cherries to absorb liquid and soften, about 20 minutes. Drain excess liquid.
- Mash chèvre lightly in medium bowl. Add cherries and chopped almonds, and stir to combine well. Refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to merge.
- Bring chèvre mixture back to room temperature. Spread on baguette slices, arrange canapés on platter, and serve.
PER SERVING: 56 cal; 3g pro; 3g total fat (1g sat fat); 6g carb; 4mg chol; 84mg sod; 1g fiber; 1g sugars
It's especially important with dried fruit to know what's in your food. Conventional commercial brands tend to add massive amounts of sugar-raisins and cranberries are the worst-and several fruits are often treated with sulfites to preserve their color, especially apricots and apples. Sulfites are known to create allergic reactions in about 10 percent of the population, so this is no small matter.
Read the labels, and as always, it's best to buy organic-it ensures no sulfites or other chemical additives. No added sweeteners is best, but if you must, look for natural sweeteners such as apple juice concentrate as opposed to corn syrup.
Neil Zevnik is a private chef based in Los Angeles who's devoted to the proposition that "healthy" doesn't have to mean "ho-hum." He also writes for the Huffington Post and has his own website, neilzevnik.com.