Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Best of Several Worlds: New Orleans Savory Crabmeat Cheesecake

This past New Year’s Eve, when I was invited to a Mardi Gras themed New Year’s Eve party, my first instinct was to bring my go-to party dish – Dede Wilson’s fabulous savory smoked salmon cheesecake. Yes, a savory cheesecake. Most people are skeptical at first, but once they taste it, they’re converts. For life.

Smoked salmon doesn’t exactly scream New Orleans, though, so I did some research online and came across a crab meat cheesecake appetizer served at the famous Palace Cafe in New Orleans that sounded delicious. There was one big problem with the recipe, though – it served 8 as a plated first course, and I needed something to feed 30 people as finger food. So I took a chance and combined the two recipes, substituting crabmeat for the smoked salmon, and omitting some of the herbs used in the smoked salmon version so that the crab meat’s more delicate flavor wouldn’t be overpowered. The Palace Cafe’s cheesecake is served with a spicy Meuniere sauce and a garnish of sautéed mushrooms, which obviously wouldn’t work for my purposes, so I combined the mushrooms with the Meuniere sauce and cooked everything down to a consistency that would be appropriate as a topping for the cheesecake (much in the way that fruit is sometimes cooked down and used as a topping for sweet cheesecakes). It worked beautifully, the spicy, intensely-flavored mushrooms cutting the unctuous richness of the cheesecake. This one's a show-stopper.

A note about lump crabmeat: the amount of crab meat used in this dish is rather extravagant, so it’s really only appropriate for special occasions, like a New Year’s Eve party. Depending on where you live and what season it is, lump crabmeat can be very expensive. Backfin crabmeat, if you can find it, is less expensive and would work just as well in this recipe. Although I’ve not tried it, substituting 1 pound of chopped cooked shrimp would probably also be delicious. (Cook the shrimp in their shells for maximum flavor.)

New Orleans Crabmeat Cheesecake
1/2 cup dried plain breadcrumbs
11 tbsp (1 stick plus 3 tbsp) unsalted butter, divided into 4 tbsp, 4 tbsp, and 3 tbsp
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups onion, small diced
1 pound lump crabmeat
2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup chives, chopped
1 cup sour cream
8 tbsp hot pepper sauce, divided in half (Crystal brand is recommended)
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots 
8 oz thinly-sliced mushrooms (a mix of wild and cremini, or all cremini)
2 tbsp lemon juice 
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce 
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 
Chopped chives, for garnish
Whole toasted pecans, for decoration (optional)
Water crackers, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 x 3-inch pan and place a parchment circle in the pan; butter the parchment. (Do not use a 2-inch-high pan; it will be too small.)

2. Microwave 4 tbsp butter in a small bowl until just melted. Let cool, then combine with the Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Press mixture into the prepared pan and set aside.

3. In a skillet, sauté onion in 4 tbsp butter until translucent. Add crabmeat and cook just until heated through, then remove from heat.

4. Beat the cream cheese in a mixer using the flat paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream and hot pepper sauce by hand then fold in the crab and onion mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.

5. Pour batter into pan and smooth top with small offset spatula. Place cake pan in a larger pan filled with 1-inch hot water. Bake for approximately 30 to 40 minutes. It should be set around the edges, but still creamy in the middle with a slight wobble. Remove cake from water bath and cool completely on a rack, then refrigerate at least overnight. (May be prepared 2 days ahead. Keep well covered with plastic wrap while storing in refrigerator.)

6. Sauté shallots in 3 tbsp butter until translucent. Add the mushrooms and sweat, then sauté a bit more to caramelize. Add the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, and reduce by 3/4. Add the heavy cream and reduce until quite thick. You want the mixture to still be moist but not run down the sides when you top the cheesecake. 

7. Run a knife around the inside of the pan, then dip the pan in about 1 inch of very hot water for 1 minute. Invert pan onto a plate until cheesecake slides out, then invert cheesecake onto a serving platter so that it’s right side up. Top with the mushroom mixture and sprinkle with chopped chives. Decorate sides of the cheesecake with pecans, if desired.

Serves 25-30 as an appetizer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Riff on Delicious: Tuna and Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Arugula

I'm almost embarrassed to admit how often I eat this salad for dinner. In my defense, though, it is absolutely delicious, and – with tuna, beans, lemon, shallot, olive oil, fresh herbs and leafy greens as its only ingredients – ridiculously healthful.

I adapted the recipe from one in Nigella Lawson's book Nigella Express. Delicious in its own right, Lawson's creation uses a higher ratio of tuna to beans, and no greens, so it's much more antipasti than salad. I tinkered with her version, substituting chickpeas for barlotti beans, cutting the amount of tuna a bit, and adding arugula, which is a natural with tuna and lemon. The resulting one-dish meal can be thrown together in less than 15 minutes.

This recipe is virtually effortless, but a few details are critical. You must  – must – use imported Italian or Spanish tuna packed in olive oil. Don't even think about using domestic tuna, even that which is packed in oil. It just doesn't have the same flavor. Also, don't omit the parsley unless you loathe it; its verdant note complements the tuna and lemon beautifully. And do chop the arugula. I know it smacks of those ubiquitous late 80s/early 90s chopped salads (which, I unapologetically admit, I still love, along with sundried tomatoes) but there's something about getting a taste of everything in each forkful that really works with this salad.

The rest you can play with. If you don't have shallot, use red onion, or even regular yellow onion. Vary the amount of lemon juice according to your taste, and, if you love parsley like I do, pile it on. Other beans, such as cannellini, can be substituted for chickpeas, but I think chickpeas are perfect here. Throw in chopped fresh herbs (thyme would be nice) and/or finely-chopped fennel, though I think this salad tastes best in its simplest, lemony, green, ocean-ey incarnation. You can also add quite a lot of arugula. (Sometimes I shock myself by how much I add, but I do so love it.)  Keep in mind, though, that added greens require added olive oil, unless you're part bovine.

 Tuna and Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Arugula
Adapted from Nigella Express, by Nigella Lawson
1/3 cup minced shallot (or onion)
1 can (7 oz) imported tuna packed in oil*
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil, plus more to finish
2 tbs lemon jiuce
zest from 1/2 lemon
1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tbs chopped parsely
Arugula, chopped, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Drain the tuna of its excess oil and toss it into a large bowl, preferably wooden. Add the shallot, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest and chickpeas. At this point, if you can leave things for an hour or so at room temperature so that the flavors can meld, all the better.

2. Add the arugula and additional olive oil, and adjust the lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Serves 2 very generously.

* I use Genova brand, which is available at some Costco locations.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Restaurants: Frances

Oh, Frances. Frances, Frances, Frances. You are so beautiful, yet so flawed.

You're an elegant looker, and you know it. Your white walls, gorgeous wood floors, sparkling glassware, and deftly-lit artwork are an understated feast for the eyes. You're a bit loud, but that's part of your charm. You're also extremely crowded and hard to get into -- two of your less-lovable traits.

Sometimes, your beauty dazzles, and you knock it off the hook. Your Applewood smoked bacon beignets with maple créme fraîche and chive are as good as they sound. Your pannisse frites with Meyer lemon aioli, though, defy description. One is hard pressed to find the right words for how they delight the palette: the startling juxtaposition of both crispy and velvety smooth textures, the delicate flavor of the chickpeas, and the tangy, luxurious aioli. Hats off to you, girl. It's sheer perfection.

Your dungeness crab salad with little gem lettuce, avocado vinaigrette and kumquats is chock full of tender crabmeat, but all that delicate seafood is perhaps a bit overpowered by the saltiness and tang of the vinaigrette? The tiny slices of kumquat do tame the saltiness a bit, but they don't help the crab -- or those little gems -- shine like they should. Your ricotta gnocchi are pillowy-soft and skillfully complemented in both texture and flavor by the garlicky breadcrumbs, but the English peas adorning the plate are a bit large and startchy. Better to leave them off than mar a dish with so much potential.

Your smoked steelhead trout is a showstopper and is among the best seafood dishes I've had anywhere. The fish is meltingly tender, and the flavor play of the smoky fish, earthy fingerling potatoes, rich créme fraîche and pungent house-made grain mustard is stunningly good. As I write this, my mouth is watering, and my eyeballs are fluttering just a little.

Your desserts don't disappoint either. Your bittersweet chocolate pot de créme with roasted bing cherries and Vino Visciole is so fabulous that after we tasted the first bite, we immediately ordered another one. Your almond and semolina crostata, too, is excellent, and the English thyme ice cream -- though not for everyone -- is an unusual, delicious touch.

Your wine-based "Refreshers" are lovely as well. The Apples and Honey, in particular, is a pleasant surprise. The combination of cava, white wine, Bonny Doon Pommeau, and Martin Gold could easily be sweet and cloying, but instead, it's refreshingly dry and complex. And your Strawberry Fizz, though definitely on the sweeter side, really tastes like strawberries, which probably explains why there were glasses of it at every other table.

You're a woman with a lot going for you, Frances, which is why I feel the need to now be brutally honest: though you're beautiful, your demeanor leaves much to be desired.

Classy lady that you are, you really should know that it's not acceptable to seat guests almost a full half hour later than their specified reservation. You're quite a petite woman, which makes waiting so long among the crowd and din a bit unpleasant. Ettiquette also dictates that if you apologize for a seating delay and tell your guests that you will "take care of something on the bill", you follow through on your promise. Too, you need to pace yourself better. You disappeared for a good 45 minutes between our appetizers and entrees, and when you finally reappeared with our food, you didn't even apologize. I love a relaxed pace at dinner, but 3-1/2 hours for a three-course dinner? Really, you should know better, Frances. You're not cheap, and I expect more for my money.

Now that I've been up front with you, I feel much better. Despite your shabby treatment of me, though, I'm still very much enamored with you, and I think I'll give you a second chance. What can I say? I'm just a sucker for a pretty face. But remember: your beauty will only get you so far.

★ ★

3870 17th Street

San Francisco, CA 94114

(415) 621-3870

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vegetarian Refried Beans, Perfected

Over the past couple of years, I've found myself consuming less and less meat. Though I don't consider myself a vegetarian because I eat seafood, the flesh of land-based animals is really no longer part of my diet. Health reasons certainly do factor in to my move away from meat, but my reasons are mostly political – I simply want to support institutionalized farming as little as possible, which leaves me very few realistic meat-eating options. (Yes, even the animals raised at high-priced, hoity-toity, organic, free-range farms eventually wind up at the same horrifying slaughterhouses where everything else is processed.)

Fortunately, vegetarian cooking is no longer the stodgy, grimly-healthful fare that it used to be. T
hanks to food writers like Deborah Madison, Mark Bittman, and Madhur Jaffrey, there now seems to be an endless supply of fabulous vegetarian recipes to choose from, all written with taste in mind.

I have quite a few cookbooks, and though I do love my numerous vegetarian volumes, I've found that some of the best meat-free recipes can be found in non-vegetarian cookbooks. Case in point is The Best Light Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, a book I picked up around the beginning of the year after resolving to eat more healthfully. Typical of Cook's Illustrated, it's a fairly meat-heavy collection, but it also contains quite a few delicious, low-fat vegetarian recipes: a great mac & cheese (yes, a low-fat mac & cheese that actually tastes good!), excellent veggie burgers far superior to anything you can find commercially, and some really good lentil dishes. It's also full of great tips on how to cut calories without sacrificing flavor. Reducing oil by a significant amount, for instance, is a no-brainer for slimming down a recipe, but our friends at Cook's Illustrated take that reduced amount of oil and use a very small amount of it to sauté, then finish the dish at the end with the remaining oil. (Try it sometime; it makes a huge difference.)

I'm always looking for quick, easy, inexpensive protein sources that can freeze well, so naturally, one dish in The Best Light Recipe that caught my eye immediately was low-fat refried beans. With high hopes, I gave them a try, and although they tasted fine, I felt something was missing. Even though they contained a fair amount of onions, garlic and jalapeño, the results were.... bland. Salt helped a bit, but what they really needed was acidity. A liberal dousing of Tapatío balanced things out, but I wanted beans that tasted good right out of the pot, so I made a few modifications the next time around.

After playing with the recipe a bit, I found that adding a few tablespoons of tomato paste gave the recipe the zing I was looking for. I also threw in some smoked paprika, an ingredient I've found adds a depth of flavor to most recipes that's akin to bacon. The results were exactly what I was looking for in vegetarian refried beans – tangy, smoky, spicy and complex. In short, perfection.

Although this recipe can be made with canned beans for convenience, I highly recommend cooking dried beans from scratch. They require a bit of advanced planning since they need to be soaked overnight before cooking, but they are very easy, and their flavor and texture are far superior to those of canned beans. As an added bonus, ounce for ounce, they are much less expensive than their canned counterparts.

Served with tortillas, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and some sour cream or yogurt, these beans make a hell of a good, nutritious, inexpensive meal.

Delicious as Hell.

Low-Fat Vegetarian Refried Beans

Adapted from The Best Light Recipe, by The Editors of Cook's Illustrated


5-1/4 cup cooked beans (recipe below) with their liquid, or three 15.5 oz cans, drained and rinsed
1 cup water (if using canned beans)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large jalapeño chile, seeds and ribs removed (or not, if you dare), then minced

4 teaspoons olive oil
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3 tbs tomato paste
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 cup minced cilantro
Hot pepper sauce

1. Process beans (plus water, if using canned beans) is a food processor for about 2 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. You should have a thick, silky puree. If f not, add water a little at a time until the desired texture is reached.

2. Combine the onion, jalapeño, 1 teaspoon of oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low flame. Cover and cook until the vegetables are softened, 8-10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cumin and cook another 30 seconds, the stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute, stirring constantly.

3. Add the pureed beans and stir until thoroughly combined. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until beans have thickened, about 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the cilantro and remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Season with salt and hot sauce to taste.

Yield: 6 servings

Per serving: 230 calories; 3 g fat, 38 g carb, 14 g protein, 11 g fiber

Cooked Beans


2 cups dried beans (pinto, black, kidney -- your choice)
6 cups water

1. Soak dried beans in enough water to cover by several inches. Drain.

2. Combine beans and water in a large saucepan. Simmer 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hour, or until the beans are tender.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

New trick

If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness must certainly be its kooky old aunt. Many times I will improvise with or substitute ingredients simply because I don't have the proper ones on hand and am too lazy to go out and get them. (The fact that I live in San Francisco, surrounded by shops within walking distance that probably carry almost anything I could need, speaks volumes about my degree of laziness.) Sometimes my improvisation goes terribly awry, and my dastardly experiment goes directly into the mulch can. Other times, though, I come up with something worth repeating.

This morning I wanted to make coffee cake. I thought for sure I had all the necessary ingredients — butter, sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon — but I was
missing one that is key: sour cream. Every recipe seemed to call for it, and I had nothing in the house with a similar texture. I pored through a few recipe books, but no luck. Then, as a last resort, I pulled out The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, copyright 1980. It was my grandmother's and the first cookbook I used when I got interested in cooking back in high school. I hadn't opened it in about 15 years, but there — on page 430 — was a recipe for cherry coffee cake, sans sour cream. I didn't have the cherry pie filling it called for, but I did have an unopened jar of organic blueberry preserves. I substituted orange zest for lemon, added some ground cardamom, and voila! I was rewarded with a pretty damned good coffee cake.

Not bad for a lazy Saturday morning.

Blueberry Cardamom Coffee Cake
Adapted from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook.


1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

10 tbs unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup milk

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp ground cardamom

1 10-oz jar blueberry preserves

1 tsp orange zest

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch square baking pan.

2. In a large bowl, mix 1-1/4 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt with a fork.

3. Add 1/2 cup melted butter, milk, egg and vanilla to flour mixture. Beat just until well mixed and pour into prepared pan, smoothing top.

4. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup sugar and 2 tbs butter with the ground cardamom until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

5. Sprinkle half of crumb mixture evenly on batter in pan.

6. Stir orange zest into blueberry preserves and pour over crumb mixture in pan. (Preserves will not completely cover crumbs. Sprinkle rest of crumb mixture on preserves.

7. Bake 1 hour, or until top is golden.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Restaurants: Aqua

Frank Flannagan: Everything about you is perfect.

Ariane Chavasse: I’m too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked and my neck’s much too long.

Frank Flannagan: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.

– Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Love in the Afternoon

Sometimes the way it all hangs together is what matters. Take Audrey Hepburn, for example. Few would argue that she was beautiful. (The ones who would are idiots.) If you examine each of her features on its own – long neck, crooked teeth, willowy body – nothing is outstanding; but put them all together, and you have one of the most unconventionally gorgeous women ever captured on film.

Under the best circumstances, food is much the same way. Though quality ingredients are key, it’s different flavor combinations and methods of preparation that transform ingredients into a whole that transcends the individual parts. This sums up my problem with Aqua – it just didn’t all hang together that well.

On paper, Aqua sounds wonderful: the freshest, highest-quality ingredients; flourished presentation; a dramatic space; and an efficient, knowledgeable staff. In reality, though, my experience at Aqua left me feeling like something was, well, missing.

Things started off auspiciously with a No. 209 martini, up with olives. It was magnificent and one of the best I’ve had in a very long time; it knocked Kokkari’s martini – my former favorite – into second place on my list of all-time best cocktails. Bravo to Aqua’s bartender. (Though it didn’t hurt that he/she started out with an exquisite gin.)

When the amuse-bouche arrived at the table, it also looked promising: a diminutive morsel of fresh sardine, a demitasse cup of kabocha* squash soup with truffled creme fraiche, and a miniature tuna croquette on a bed of piquillo pepper sauce. I am not a fan of sardines, but I tried mine anyway; it didn’t sway me, though it was of fine quality. The soup tasted as lovely as it sounds. The item about which I was most excited, though – the tuna croquette – was lackluster. The texture was a bit grainy, and the flavor fell flat. The piquillo pepper sauce helped, but not enough.

Bread and butter were offered with the aforementioned flourish; our server formally presented both a regular cow’s milk butter and a sheep’s milk butter topped with crystals of sea salt, the latter of which was delicious. But as a sipped my glass of Grüner Veltliner, I wondered if such presentation of something as tertiary as butter wasn’t a bit much.

My appetizer of dungeness crab salad with meyer lemon cucumber caviar and curry poppy seed vinaigrette arrived beautifully presented – little cylinders of crab meat wrapped in thin cucumber skins and topped with cucumber “caviar”. The crab itself was excellent and (not surprisingly) paired beautifully with the cucumber. The cucumber “caviar” was marvelous and was so much like real caviar in appearance and texture that until I actually bit down and experienced its cool sweetness, I wasn’t sure if it was the genuine article. (I’m terribly curious as to how they made the tiny, delicate orbs.) I was slightly disappointed by the poppyseed curry vinaigrette; it was nice enough and didn’t detract from the dish, but it didn’t add much in the way of flavor. I wanted the curry to be a bit more pronounced. It just didn’t sing.

One of my dining companions ordered the lobster and curry kabocha squash soup with apple and mint yogurt. It was decadent, wonderfully complex, and flavorful. Heaven.

Our entrees arrived with much fanfare. Right before my eyes, mint & Marcona almond pistou was scattered across my plate by our server with artistic flair, a striking contrast to the parsley crusted monkfish rôti with baby carrot fettuccine. It was a gorgeous visual composition, and as I raised a morsel of fish to my mouth, I hoped it would taste even half as beautiful as it looked. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The fish, while delicate and perfectly cooked, didn’t have a parsley crust at all; rather, it was coated with an overcooked layer of dull green that tasted quite bland. Ever the optimist, I tried dipping another piece of fish into the pistou and the intriguing-looking orange foam that also shared the plate, hoping for redemption; no such luck. It just didn’t work. With every bite, I thought “Hmmmm.... interesting”; that’s never a good first reaction when tasting food. What did work, however, was the baby carrot fettuccine. It was wonderful, the delicate strands of carrot straddling that oh-so-thin line between luxuriously supple and disappointingly overcooked. It was by far the best part of the dish, but it shouldn’t have been.

I’m usually not one to turn down dessert, but nothing on the menu really called out to me. Many of the selections sounded overly fussy and/or featured “foam,” a dessert element of which I’m not terribly fond. Instead, I opted for the cheese plate, which I shared with one of my dining companions. We were presented with a dozen or so selections, ranging from young and mild to ripe and runny. All were very good, but the standout was a cheese that tasted much like stilton, to which I’m admittedly partial. Served with the cheese was a hazelnut and dried fruit (apricot?) bread that was especially good.

I feel the same way about Aqua’s service and decor as I do about their food – all the elements were there, but they didn’t quite gel. Our stunning, 6 ft tall, 110 lb blonde hostess, for example, was courteous and accommodating but didn’t radiate the confidence expected from the hostess of a reputable, well-established restaurant. Similarly, our server, though very knowledgeable and attentive, seemed nervous and sounded like he was about to stumble over his words at any moment. (He also failed to instruct us to taste our cheeses in order from mildest to most pungent – a glaring oversight.) And the space, with its soaring ceiling, ochre-sponged walls and immense framed mirrors, seems to lack a focal point. The dining room is also unnervingly loud, especially considering the visually-sedate surroundings. For most of the evening, I had to concentrate in order to hear our server and the three other people at the table.

All in all, my experience at Aqua was pleasant, but I expected much more from a Michelin-rated restaurant, especially one that charges $72 for a 3-course menu. If you’re lucky enough to have an unlimited entertaining budget or expense account, then by all means try Aqua. But if you’re like the rest of us who have to be choosy about expensive meals, skip it.

★ ★ 1/2


252 California St.

San Francisco, CA 94111

(415) 956-9662

* I have tried to be as detailed as possible in this review, but since the items offered in the amuse-bouche were not on the menu, I’ve had to rely on my memory. (I was dining with a client; as such, taking notes would have been rude.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shriveled Minds?

Am I the only person who’s annoyed by the recent “dried plums” PR campaign? Are we Americans really so stupid that the mere name of a particular food could prevent us from enjoying it?

I’ve loved prunes since I was a kid. What’s not to love? They’re like giant raisins but with a much more sophisticated flavor. I even love the taste of prune juice – a secret I kept well-guarded from my childhood friends, who teased me relentlessly just for being so bizarre as to like (gasp!) spinach. And before virtually eliminating commercial soft drinks from my life for culinary-political reasons, I loved Dr. Pepper, which I’ve heard uses prune flavor as its base. (“Virtually” means I only drink soft drinks when combined with alcohol. The thought of never again being able to enjoy Captain Morgan’s and Dr. Pepper is more than I can bear, and ever so slightly outweighs my antipathy for Big Food. I am, after all, an admitted food whore.)

And then there are prune desserts. The French are light years ahead of us on this point. Prunes are seemingly ubiquitous in French desserts, and for good reason. Their gorgeous, complex tang is a natural foil to more decadent ingredients like butter and cream. Think prunes in bread pudding, armagnac-soaked prunes with vanilla ice cream, and port-stewed prunes with creme fraiche.

Prunes are also wonderful in savory dishes, and can hold their own against very strong flavors and spices. The first time I used prunes in a savory dish was about 10 years ago. It was a recipe called Chicken Marbella that I acquired from my then roommate and years later found was originally published in 1979’s The Silver Palate Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. My young, underdeveloped palate was not quite accustomed to the combination of sweet and savory flavors, so when I saw 2 cups of pitted prunes among the other ingredients – garlic, oregano, olives, capers, white wine – I was reluctant. My roommate, though, raved about the dish, so I decided to give it a try. It knocked me out, and after making it about 5 additional times that month, my fear of sweet/savory flavor combinations melted away. Best of all, though, I learned that the use of my beloved prune need not be limited to desserts.

Mention the word “prune” to the average American, though, and you’ll invariably get a wrinkled-nosed, sour look and a muttered reply involving grandmothers and constipation. Yes, my older family members drank prune juice to keep them regular, but I never understood why that bothered people so much. The bottom line for me has always been that they taste so damned good. I never cared that they could also be used to relieve irregularity, a benefit that now, as I get older, I very much appreciate.

In her wonderful cookbook The New American Cooking, Joan Nathan includes a revealing little tidbit about the prunes vs. dried plums phenomenon. Apparently, when a Houston television station performed a taste test, 90% of people preferred dried plums to prunes. Sadly, I think that says it all.

If I can look past the fact that companies like Sunsweet are now further polluting the planet by individually packaging (!) prunes, I guess I can see silver lining in all this stupidity. The increased PR for “dried plums” (grrrrrr) could mean that they will appear more frequently in American cooking, and I’m all for that. But the phrase “dried plums” will never roll off my tongue. No matter how out of fashion it may sound, they will always be prunes to me.

Chicken Marbella
Reprinted from The New American Cooking, by Joan Nathan. Originally published in The Silver Palate Cookbook, by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso.

This is a great recipe for a dinner party, since you can assemble it beforehand and just pop it into the oven 40 minutes before dinner. Joan Nathan writes that she likes to double the amount of prunes when she makes it.


6 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved
1 full bulb garlic, finely pureed
1/4 cup dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups pitted prunes
1 cup of pitted green olives, or a mix of olives, such as Greek, Moroccan or French
1/2 cup capers with about a tablespoon of their juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup of brown sugar
1 cup of white wine
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

1. Place the chicken in a large bowl. Cover it with the garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, and bay leaves. Rub the chicken well with the marinade, and refrigerate, covered, ideally overnight, but at least for 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

3. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in 1 or 2 large, shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over evenly. Sprinkle with brown sugar, and pour white wine around, but not on, the chicken.

4. Bake for about 40 minutes, basting every 10 minutes with the pan juices.

5. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, ollives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices, and sprinkle with the parsley. Pass the remaining pan juices in a separate bowl.

Yield: 10-12 servings