Nutrient-packed prunes have become a main ingredient - The Buffalo News
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Nutrient-packed prunes have become a main ingredient

Wrinkles can be cool – if you’re a prune.

Many of us have had a long love affair with our crinkly, locally grown prunes, even if they weren’t considered the coolest fruit in the bunch. But that’s changing. Interest in nutrition and healthier eating has made these funny-looking chewy nuggets into another form of California gold.

Prunes have even become chic. Chefs such as Sacramento’s Randall Selland incorporate them into both savory and sweet dishes, such as roasted sturgeon with prunes, capers and pine nuts, or a salted caramel chocolate tart with added richness from prunes. This fruit thickens sauces as well as adds a dark, subtle sweetness. In addition, puréed prunes make an excellent fat replacement in baked goods, adding fiber and nutrients without a lot of calories.

Boomers, inherently prune-resistant, are warming up to prunes’ benefits. New research points to prunes’ power in helping maintain bone health. Prunes’ high-fiber content makes them a potent natural laxative. Grandma was right again: Eat more prunes.

For years, prune growers and processors throughout California’s Central Valley suffered from an identity crisis. They produce a unique fruit – and instant giggles.

Industry leaders hoped to quell those guffaws by renaming their product. But “dried plums” didn’t catch on.

Dan Lance, president and CEO of Sunsweet Growers, likens the realization to a scene from Mel Brooks’ classic comedy “Young Frankenstein.” Gene Wilder keeps insisting his family name is pronounced “Fronken-STEEN,” until he finally admits he’s young Frankenstein.

“We had our ‘Young Frankenstein’ moment,” Lance said. “We decided to embrace our identity. We are prunes!”

The marketing positives outweigh the old jokes, he explained. “There are so many other dried fruits on the shelf; dried apples, dried apricots, dried mangoes. Dried plums became just another dried fruit. But mention prunes, you get a reaction.”

“Younger generations have no predisposition about prunes,” Schuler said. “People past 65 or 70 consume prunes at a high rate. But boomers? They’re a challenge. That’s why (prunes) were renamed dried plums as a response to that fact. But people are realizing what a heavy nation we are and the benefits of prunes.”

This year’s prune crop is now developing in orchards scattered across the Sacramento Valley. California accounts for 99 percent of the American prune crop and about 60 percent of all prunes worldwide.

“The Improved French is the best,” Schuler said. “While all prunes are plums, not every plum can be a prune.”

Early prune growers congregated around Santa Clara, Calif., where Pellier grew his prunes, but gradually moved inland. “Now, three-quarters of all prunes grow in the Sacramento Valley,” said grower Joe Turkovich, who farms 88 acres near Winters, Calif.

Prunes are an Old World fruit, noted Turkovich, who is of Croatian descent.

“We have a cultural history with prunes,” Turkovich said. “There are a lot of subtle tricks of the trade for growing this crop. And we live in a unique area where we can grow prunes.”

Prunes 101

• Nutrition: Prunes pack a lot into a small piece of dried fruit. One dried plum contains about 20 calories. That’s 67 calories per ounce of pitted prunes or 418 calories per cup. Prunes are a good source of dietary fiber while also rich in vitamin K, vitamin A, numerous antioxidants and potassium, which may help prevent hypertension and stroke. Their high fiber content helps make them a natural laxative. Recent studies show prunes may promote bone health, particularly in post-menopausal women.

• Selection: Look for dried but still slightly moist prunes, preferably in a see-through vacuum-packed bag or container. Prunes should be plump, shiny, relatively soft and free of mold. Pitted prunes are easier to work with for recipes as well as snacking; 1 pound pitted prunes yields 2 1/2 cups.

• Storage: Store in a cool dark place in a sealed container or bag; they’ll keep for months without losing quality. In the refrigerator, they stay good for six months. Prunes may also be frozen. According to Sunsweet, prunes have a 12- to 18-month shelf life once dried.

• Preparation: Prunes are ready to eat out of the bag. They also may be rehydrated in warm water, orange juice, apple juice, tea or wine. Use them chopped or pitted whole in recipes. Puréed prunes may be used to replace up to half the fat in such baked goods as muffins or quick breads.

• What’s in a name: In 2001, the USDA officially reidentified the prune as the “dried plum” after industry pressure. At that time, industry leaders in California thought the prune suffered from a negative image as a laxative for the elderly. But recently, several marketing efforts have shifted back to using “prune.” According to prune giant Sunsweet, marketers found prunes had much better name recognition while “dried plum” sounds like just another dried fruit.

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