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The semantics of stewing

In the English language, there are only a handful of phrases that come with their own built-in laugh track, and sadly, “stewed prunes” is one of them. Witness the following exchange, tearfully recorded by yours truly during a phone conversation earlier this week:

Molly: I’m thinking of making stewed prunes.*

Brandon: [Giggle].

Molly: Why are you laughing? Have you ever eaten a stewed prune?

Brandon: [Giggle]. No, but it just sounds funny. I mean, steewwwed pruuune! [Giggle giggle].

It is a dark, dark day, dear reader, when you learn that the man you love—and whose genetic material you would like to help perpetuate, even—is a prune skeptic.

In his defense, Brandon claims that he dislikes all dried fruits, the unfortunate result of being forced to eat too much “hippie trail mix” as a child. Now, it’s bad enough that the delicious prune—or, to use its new, marketing-friendly name, the dried plum—has to work an unglamorous side-job as a laxative, but for it to be discriminated against on the basis of childhood trauma is simply unfair. And anyway, if we really get down to semantics, stewed prunes aren’t dried fruits anymore. They’re soft, swollen, gushy pockets of heady, sweet-tart juice.

I like to think of prunes as plums that have been bettered by hardship, plums made wiser by old age and wizening, and I consider myself lucky to have been schooled in the simple art of stewing from an early age. My father, a fan of cook-while-you-sleep breakfasts, used to load up a late-night saucepan with prunes, water, and thin slices of orange and lemon, bring it to a boil, cover it, turn off the heat, and let it sit until morning. The Food Safety and Inspection Service would likely look askance at such a method, but it did make ours a relatively happy, mainly healthy, pro-prune household.

Today I prefer a method that’s a little more conventional but every bit as effortless: a short, gentle simmer over low heat, with no stirring, poking, or prodding required. You’ll know that your prunes are properly stewed when an almost liqueur-like aroma wafts out of the saucepan. The fruit should slump on the spoon, and its skin should yield to the tooth with a gentle, dainty pop. Its silky, juicy pulp should be both warming and wintery, a deep, round, heartening flavor that’s delicate but deathly serious.

If I have my way, even the most hard-boiled of prune skeptics will be stewed into submission.

*Thank you, David Lebovitz, for believing in prunes.

Stewed Prunes with Citrus and Cinnamon
Adapted from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings

When I wanted to recreate the flavor of my father’s overnight stewed prunes, I turned to a little feel-good cookbook-cum-self-help-book by Edward Espe Brown, Zen monk and author of several well-known vegetarian cookbooks. Brown treats his prunes as simply as possible, and rightly so. To my palate, prunes are the loveliest of dried fruits: they lack the shrill, high-pitched sweetness of raisins and the sticky, cloying sugar of dates, and their low, dark flavor has more depth than, say, a dried apricot. These stewed prunes get additional nuance, too, from thin slivers of citrus fruits, which go into the pot bitter peel and all. They’re delicious warm, with thick, Greek-style plain yogurt, or atop a bowl of oatmeal, dabbled over ice cream, or—as I’ve been known to do it—cold, straight off the fork, from the fridge.

1 orange, OR 2 small tangerines, OR 1 small orange and ½ a lemon
1 pound pitted prunes, preferably organic
1 cinnamon stick

Cut the citrus fruit in half vertically, and then slice it thinly, peel and all. Place the slices in a medium saucepan with the prunes and the cinnamon stick, and add water to cover. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, and cook over medium-low heat for about 30-45 minutes, until the prunes are quite tender, the citrus slices are soft and glassy, and the liquid in the pan is caramelly. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve, or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. I find that they're actually better after a little rest, so I try to make mine a day or so before I want to eat them.


Blogger Nic said...

Looks delicious, Molly. I trust you're feeling better, then?

11:02 PM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

I love your blog!
Please come and visit mine. It's all about Swiss and international food/cuisine...

11:15 PM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger ilva said...

You are so right! Prunes are so lovely and i often substitute raisins with prunes when I cook because the results are so much better! I have to try your stewed prunes, I have the prunes but not the orange (the season hasn't really started here yet) but I will get some today! Viva la prugna!

11:42 PM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Hi Molly, your prunes sound simply lovely and I think Berg's cook-while- you-sleep breakfast is very cool. I might even give it a try just to have that to wake up to.

5:53 AM, October 27, 2005  
Anonymous elizabeth said...

hi molly,

orangette has been hitting the spot as london turns darker and drearier. i have been buying very cheap lousy plums, quartering them, sprinkling with a few spoonfulls of sugar and rose water, and baking until all pretty and hot pink and nearly pruney. excellent with greek yohgurt for breaky.

glad to hear you are on the mend.

8:57 AM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Sounds just lovely for Fall! I've had the opposite affect from Brandon. I grew up eating dried fruits because of my Mediterranean background and love all dried fruits. Hope you are feeling better!

9:17 AM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger pomegranate said...

perpetuate.. Oh my!

10:43 AM, October 27, 2005  
Anonymous Brett said...

Molly, wasn't David's prune blogging event fun? Your stewed prunes sound simple and delicious. I think they'll even make Brandon a convert, because they're nothing like the chewy fruit in trail mix.

11:06 AM, October 27, 2005  
Anonymous kayenne said...

stewed pruned sounds good. i've always loved prunes cold, right out of the box. knowing the laxative properties, i've always had restrained myself, until recently when i ate almost half the box... guess where i was half an hour later? hehehe

i can't seem to stand prune juice though.

11:14 AM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Nic, and yes, I am indeed feeling better. My previous symptoms seem to have morphed and settled into something subtler and less crippling, although I now have malfunctioning tastebuds (in the evenings only) and occasional hives (in the mornings only). As I said to a friend yesterday, it's Halloween for me every day! But I've been able to resume my normal life, for the most part, so yes yes, much better. Thank you.

And Rosa, thank you. I will certainly hop over and see what you're up to...

Ilva, you are a wise woman. Viva la prugna, or vive le pruneau, indeed!

Michele, thank you. I may be biased, but I think you just might like stewed prunes, even if you were on the fence about prunes with your couscous. Plus, you can get those delicious pruneaux d'Agen! Get to it, ma cherie. They ain't nobody's fleur de sel truffles, but stewed prunes have their own special--if homely and messy--place.

Liz, I've known it all along, but you have quite a way in the kitchen. I would have never thought of rosewater-roasted plums, my dear royal and arty one. It's genius. Hope you're managing to save a few for Christoph. xx

Foodiechickie, three cheers for dried fruits! I have a feeling that Brandon's "hippie trail mix" excuse is a cop-out; deep down, I think he has plain and simple prune phobia. Since the conversation above, however, he has lovingly inquired about my prunes several times and promises to give them an openminded try. Now, that is love, no?

Yes, pomegranate, in time, in time. You heard it here first.

Brett, it was fun, wasn't it? Your poached prunes sound wonderful--an exotic cousin of the stewed prune, perhaps? Delicious!

Kayenne, if you like a prune straight-up, you had better get a saucepan ready for stewing. You're in for a treat.

1:53 PM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Whew! Leave it to you, Molly, to make a prune sound so sexy. Yum!

2:14 PM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger Shauna said...

Dearest Molly, yet another similarity between us. I adore prunes. Brandon will come around. These stewed prunes of yours look delectable. But in a pinch, a jar of the St. Dalfour prunes from France will do nicely. They're plump and juicy right away.

And I own that Radish Blessings book too. How lovely.

4:22 PM, October 27, 2005  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Love indeed;)

8:53 AM, October 28, 2005  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Something tells me that if you offered them to him, Brandon wouldn't even think of declining your stewed prunes... you have a way of elevating even the most humble ingredients to something special. To prunes!

4:59 PM, October 28, 2005  
Anonymous nicole marie said...

You are so right, Molly. One of the best things I've ever eaten in my entire life was a boudin blanc maison aux pruneaux at Bouchon. Gooshy prunes and lightweight, fluffy, velvety sausage? YES PLEASE.

2:58 PM, October 29, 2005  
Blogger kickpleat said...

i remember as a child loving prunes and then became turned off because everytime my grandma would visit, my mom would buy a bottle of prune juice and it would just become a sick joke between me and my brother. i think i might just have to try this recipe, though. it looks fantastic.

11:14 AM, October 30, 2005  
Blogger violet said...

sadly, sometimes i must TRICK people into eating something i make.

tripe, spinach, avocados, lamb hearts, and prunes have all been on that list. at times, you cant tell people what they're eating. you just can't.

oh molly, i do love reading your blog. i hope if youre ever in san francisco when im there that you will come see me. i'll make you some prune cookies...

or something.

4:08 PM, October 30, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Dawna! I think all food items could use some stilettos every now and then, you know?

Shauna, you're a wise woman, but we both already knew that. So, do you think you can help me get my hands on some of those St. Dalfour prunes?

And thank you, Jennifer! We'll see about Brandon soon enough, but in the meantime, I think I see a prune fan club in the making...

Nicole Marie, would the Bouchon you mention happen to be in Yountville, CA? If so, it's been on my must-try list for years! And this boudin blanc business? Sausage + prunes? Yes, YES PLEASE!

Kickpleat, forget about the prune juice, honey. Get yourself some prunes and start stewing.

And violet, you're a brave woman. Tripe? Lamb hearts? I haven't cooked or eaten either, but bravo! And as for San Francisco, I will definitely take you up on prune something one of these days. Thank you.

10:30 PM, October 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor prunes--they just need some love. My dad and I have been trying for years to revive their image, trying out various new names for them (including Prides, which has become a bizarre family joke). Keep hope alive!

7:12 PM, October 31, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

You and your father deserve a medal, Anonymous. Long live prunes! And prides!

10:21 PM, October 31, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My grandmother made me stewed prunes and cheese grits when I visited her in rural Maryland -- I think I was about 7-years old -- I loved them. When I moved to Europe I had prunes for the first time in years -- they were awesome. Today, I have the flu and just wanted something comforting so I bought a bag of prunes in the drug store where I got my prescriptions. I found your blog and right now there is a sauce pan on my stove with your recipe. Thank you so much!!!! Jo-ellen

2:25 PM, December 06, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Jo-ellen, you must have been a very sophisticated--and wise--7-year-old! I hope that my stewed prunes lived up to your grandmother's recipe, and that they work miracles on your flu.

8:14 PM, December 06, 2005  
Anonymous Ruthful One said...

Finally, finally I meet someone who can appreciate the lovely stewed prune! My mum made them like your dad and she had to hold the reins when I came to the table! She always would say five was my limit but somehow more made it in the bowl when she wasn't looking. Funny, I never figured out why I was in the loo so much after that treat! Thanks for raising the "dried plum" to its proper status.

3:48 PM, November 07, 2009  
Blogger Corbet said...

I tried these tonight, and was astonished at how lovely they were! I threw in a handful of dried cranberries, and used cranberry juice in place of half the water, and wow, yumminess. Thanks for introducing a new fruit to my life!

9:10 PM, January 24, 2010  
Blogger karen said...

Made these over the weekend - anxious to try with some greek yogurt this week. Two quick questions. Do you eat the prunes and the orange slices or just the prunes? Do you warm this up when eating it with yogurt or just straight from the refrigerator. Some of my prunes kind of exploded and deflated, but I think I may have had the rolling boil going for a bit too long. Thanks! I'm reading your book right now and loving it : )

9:29 PM, May 15, 2011  
Blogger Molly said...

Karen, I eat the prunes and the oranges, so be sure try them both! I don't tend to warm it when I'm eating it with yogurt, but you certainly could. If I were going to serve it with some ice cream for dessert, say, a little warmth would be very nice. You can do it however you like!

11:27 AM, May 17, 2011  
Blogger Julie said...

Hi Molly, I am currently reading your book and thoroughly enjoying it. I just had to make the stewed prunes, my husband too is a sceptic. I made them this afternoon with the idea of having them for breakfast tomorrow but I am already half way through eating them!! They are just so delicious I can't leave them alone. Thanks for the recipe! Julie

11:41 PM, June 13, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG - I am never again eating a prune that hasn't been prepared using this recipe. They are amazing!

12:57 PM, November 13, 2011  
Anonymous Dawn (Nana) said...

Hi Molly. I see that I am about 9 years late in leaving a comment (lol). Actually, I am referencing your blog in one of mine, and just wanted to let you know. Thanks for the reference to your Dad's overnight method. I found that works really well too. Thanks for adding your voice to the many of us who like prunes and had just forgotten how to cook them!

12:48 PM, August 16, 2014  

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