A golden treat for Tu Bishvat

Dried apricots are so delicious that it's easy to forget how valuable this fruit is in the kitchen.

apricots yummy 88 (photo credit: )
apricots yummy 88
(photo credit: )
Dried apricots are so delicious as a snack that it's easy to forget how valuable this luscious, golden fruit is in the kitchen. Unlike other dried fruits, such as raisins, dates, prunes and pears, apricots contribute more than sweetness to dishes because of their pleasing tartness. This bittersweet, vitamin-A-rich fruit is equally at home in desserts and in savory dishes and is a perfect food to feature on Tu Bishvat menus. When I was in Istanbul, I tasted wonderful dried apricots. There I learned that Turkey is the world's largest producer of apricots, followed by Iran. "Apricots originated in Armenia on the northwestern frontier of Persia where they have been cultivated for more than 2,000 years," wrote Margaret Shaida, in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. Perhaps this explains why their Latin name is Prunus armeniaca. When the Romans invaded Persia, she wrote, they took apricots back to Rome, and they soon spread all over Europe. But not everyone agrees. According to the California Apricot Council, the fruit originally comes from China, and cuttings made their way across the Persian Empire to the Mediterranean. Spanish explorers brought apricots to California, which grows 95 percent of the apricots in the US. Cooks use apricots enthusiastically wherever the fruit flourishes. On the savory side of the menu, the fruit is most popular paired with poultry, lamb and grains. California chef Akasha Richmond, author of Hollywood Dish, makes honey glazed chicken with apricots and dried plums. First she marinates the chicken and fruit with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, oregano, thyme, shallots and green olives, then bakes the mixture, drizzled with honey. Chef Annie Somerville, author of Fields of Greens, featuring recipes from San Francisco's Green's Restaurant, likes dried apricots in couscous salad. To make it, she plumps the couscous with orange juice, olive oil and champagne vinegar, then adds the apricots, fresh ginger and toasted pine nuts. Armenians use dried apricots in lamb stew with walnuts, or combine them with prunes, raisins and cinnamon in a chicken stew. Even a hearty lamb soup is accented with apricots, as well as potatoes, tomatoes and walnuts. For festive occasions, Armenians roast poultry with a rich stuffing of dried apricots, roasted chestnuts, ground lamb, walnuts, sweet spices, bread cubes and pomegranate juice. Persians use dried apricots to enhance a lamb casserole scented with cinnamon and nutmeg and layered with saffron basmati rice. When they want a stuffing for lamb shoulder, they mix rice with sauteed onions, dried apricots and almonds. Moroccans combine the golden fruit with meat in an unusual way - they stuff apricots with meat. Rivka Levy-Mellul, author of Moroccan Cooking (in Hebrew), soaks dried apricots and fills them with spiced beef, then dips them in honey and ground almonds, cooks them gently and serves them sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. For a simpler fruity dish to celebrate the tree-planting holiday, try the apricot walnut stuffing below. DRIED APRICOT, WALNUT AND APPLE STUFFING Fruit stuffings like this are popular in much of Europe as well as in North America. You can use this bread-based mixture as a stuffing for roast chicken or bake it in a separate dish alongside the bird for easier serving, or as a vegetarian casserole. 1 cup finely diced (6-mm. dice) dried apricots (about 140 gr.) 1⁄4 cup raisins 1⁄2 cup apple brandy, orange juice or apple juice 1 cup walnuts About 225 to 275 gr. day-old or stale white bread (preferably good-quality French or Italian bread) 4 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 cup chopped celery 21⁄2 cups peeled, finely chopped tart green apples (about 500 gr.) Salt and freshly ground pepper 1⁄8 tsp. ground cloves 1 tsp. minced fresh thyme or 1⁄4 teaspoon dried, crumbled 1 tsp. minced fresh sage or 1⁄4 teaspoon dried, crumbled 4 to 6 Tbsp. chicken or vegetable broth, plus 1⁄2 cup more (if baking in a casserole) Combine apricots, raisins and apple brandy in a small saucepan and mix well. Bring to a simmer. Cover, remove from heat and let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Preheat oven to 175 C. Toast nuts until lightly browned, about five minutes. Cool nuts and coarsely chop. Reduce oven temperature to 135 C. Using serrated knife, cut bread in one-cm. cubes; you will need eight cups. Put bread cubes on a large baking sheet. Bake until crisp and dry, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes. Cool and transfer to a large bowl. Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, celery, apple and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add cloves, thyme and sage and stir until blended. Remove from heat. Add onion mixture, nuts, and apricot mixture with its liquid to bread and toss lightly until blended. Gradually add two tablespoons broth, tossing lightly. Add more broth if stuffing is very dry; if you're baking it in a chicken, it will become much moister from juices in the bird. Taste and adjust seasoning. To stuff chickens, spoon stuffing lightly into body cavity; for turkey, spoon stuffing lightly into neck and body cavities. Do not pack stuffing in tightly. Fold skin over stuffing; truss or skewer closed. Roast as desired. To bake stuffing separately, preheat oven to 165 C. Grease a 21⁄2-liter casserole and spoon stuffing into it. Drizzle stuffing with oil and cover casserole. Bake 20 minutes. Baste stuffing by pouring 1⁄4 cup broth evenly over top. Bake 20 more minutes and repeat with another 1⁄4 cup broth. Bake 20 minutes more; uncover for last 10 minutes for crisper top. Serve hot. Makes 8 to 9 cups, about 6 to 8 servings, enough for two 1.8-kg. chickens. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.