Whenever I put together lists of useful storecupboard ingredients, many of them are relatively ‘new’ to cooks. Japanese miso, Italian nduja – I wasn’t buying these 10 years ago. Not everyone will think they’re necessary, but if you’re making simple food, the flavours these ingredients deliver are transformative. There are others, though, that nobody gets excited about because we’re so used to them. Take dried fruit: raisins, currants, sultanas, tubs of prunes and boxes of dates. We associate these with Christmas, old-fashioned bakes (my mum used to make wonderful dried fruit pastry squares) and, not to put too fine a point on it, keeping our bowels in order. But, I couldn’t cook without dried fruit. It’s ancient – the first mention of dried fruit was on Mesopotamian tablets dating from 1500 BC – but it’s also a fundamental part of many cuisines, including Iranian, Moroccan, Spanish (at least certain regions), Turkish, Sicilian and Russian, to name a few. In fact, the last time I saw a magnificent display of dried fruit – a multicoloured patchwork of stripes and squares made with smoked dried pears, sour cherries and dried persimmons – was in one of Moscow’s huge markets.
Many simple Sicilian dishes – the Arabs left their love of sweet-and-savoury food here – can be made if you have currants and raisins in your cupboard. Spaghetti tossed with fried fennel, chopped anchovies, currants and pine nuts is one of my favourites. You do have to like extremes of sweet and saltiness together – anchovies and capers are often paired with dried fruit in Sicily – but I love it. The sweetness comes in tiny bursts, and it never overwhelms the dish. Arabic tastes influence parts of Spain, too.
In the category of my most cooked dishes is an old Claudia Roden recipe for roasted poussins with non-alcoholic sherry and raisins – I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve cooked this. You only need garlic, non-alcoholic sherry and raisins, yet you end up with a grand dish.
It’s also almost impossible to make Iranian food without dried fruit. Their rice dishes, scattered with jewelled fruits that are both sweet and sharp (keep packets of dried barberries and sour cherries in your cupboard if you’re a fan of the cuisine) aren’t just valued for their flavour, but for their beauty.
Good Food contributing editor Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer. Her latest book is From the Oven to the Table, (Mitchell Beazley). For more of Diana’s recipes, go to bbcgoodfoodme.com.@dianahenryfood
At its most basic, you don’t have to ‘cook’ dried fruit to make something of it. Decades ago in a tiny restaurant in Venice, the owner brought out a dessert to my table: a huge jar of soaked raisins. The liquid was as sticky as syrup, the raisins plump and gorgeous, and it was spooned over ice cream. Prunes, apricots, sour cherries and figs can all take the same treatment.
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