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A prune by any other name

March 12, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Dried plums are good for you.

What's a dried plum?

It's a prune, of course.

Stop wrinkling your nose. Stop snickering.

Dried plums taste good, and they're nutritious. Really nutritious.

But for years, the prune name and its associations have gotten in the way of people eating them.

In June 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the California Dried Plum Board, formerly the California Prune Board, permission to call prunes dried plums.

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What's in a name?

Prior to the approval of the alternative, the prune industry experienced a seven-year decline in sales, says Peggy Castaldi, marketing director for the California Dried Plum Board.

Since the name change, sales have escalated, 2.3 percent in the first year, and shipments of dried plums rose 10 percent in 2002, Castaldi says.

It may seem silly, but what a food is called can make a difference.

Castaldi cites other name changes. What used to be called Patagonian toothfish, now is listed as Chilean sea bass on upscale restaurant menus. A fish once called dolphin, bellyfish, frogfish, goosefish and sea devil, now is the romantic-sounding Hawaiian mahi-mahi.

What's so funny about prunes?

Everybody thinks of them in terms of constipation and older people eating them to promote regularity, says Nelda Mercer, a registered dietitian in private practice in Ann Arbor, Mich., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

They look so disgusting, Mercer's daughter recently told her.

Mercer, who knows the health benefits of the dried fruit, admits they're not as attractive as some other fruits. Dried plums don't have a vibrant color, and they're a "little slimy and all mushed together," she says.

Whether you call them dried plums or prunes, the fruit is an excellent source of antioxidants and fiber. Yes, folks, dried plums do promote regularity, but they also do much more.

In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists at Tufts University ranked prunes (sorry, purveyors of dried plums) No. 1 on a list of fruits highest in antioxidants, Mercer says.

That's a good thing. Antioxidants help prevent cell breakdown and aging. Mercer compares the process to putting lemon juice on an apple slice to prevent it from turning brown or oxidizing.

Dried plums are much higher in all nutrients than the fresh plum version because the nutrients are concentrated, Mercer says. They contain calcium, vitamin A, iron and minerals, and, they are low in sodium. They are a good source of potassium and a regulator of mineral balance and blood pressure, she adds.

"I highly recommend them as a quick, convenient snack," she says.

So does Castaldi, and she speaks from a personal as well as public relations perspective. Packaging has vastly improved in the last 20 years, she says. With a shelf life of two years, dried plums no longer are dried-out pellets with pits. They are juicy and portable. Castaldi says she keeps stashes in her desk at work, in her gym bag and in her car.

Dried plums also come flavored with cherry, orange and lemon "essence," Castaldi says.

Dried plums are versatile. They can be used in quick breads and muffins, mixed with nuts into yogurt, or into rice or couscous, Mercer says. Pureed, they can be substituted for oil in heart-healthy baked goods.

Talking about dried plums also reminds Mercer of a prune cake and sauce she ate during her days as an undergraduate in Texas. "It's just delicious," she says.

Apple-Walnut Greens with Chicken Dried Plums and Spiced Pecans

Preparation time: 15 minutes

u Spiced Pecans:

1 cup pecan halves

1 tablespoon each vegetable oil and packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon each ground red pepper and ground cumin

Heat oven to 300 degrees.

In medium bowl, combine all ingredients; toss to coat. Bake, in even layer on baking sheet, 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally; set aside.

u Salad:

8 cups (about 8 ounces) mixed salad greens

1 package (6 ounces) fully cooked grilled chicken strips

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) green beans, blanched

1 cup (about 6 ounces) coarsely chopped dried plums

1/2 cup Apple Walnut Vinaigrette (recipe follows) or prepared red wine vinaigrette

1/2 cup (4 ounces) crumbled goat cheese

In large bowl, combine mixed greens, chicken, green beans, dried plums and Spiced Pecans. Drizzle with Apple Walnut Vinaigrette; toss to coat. Sprinkle with goat cheese; serve immediately.

u Apple Walnut Vinaigrette:

In blender, process 1/2 of a peeled, cored and cut-up Granny Smith apple, 1 peeled shallot, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon sugar until smooth.

With motor running, slowly add 2/3 cup vegetable oil and 1/3 cup walnut oil until creamy. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Store, covered, in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Tip: To blanch green beans, cook in salted boiling water just until crisp-tender. Drain; immediately drop into ice water to cool. Drain.

Serves 4.

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