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Give Prunes a Chance

March 19, 1997|FAYE LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Levy is the author of "Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook" (Warner Books, 1992)

It's hard to understand many Americans' prejudice against prunes. The pleasing sweet taste and moist, smooth texture of prunes are a winning combination. I suspect many people pass up prunes just because they have heard too many times about how good they are for the digestive system.

Other countries don't share this bias. As you walk along market streets in Paris, you'll notice bakeries showing off pound cakes with prunes and charcuteries displaying rolled pork roasts adorned with a row of prunes neatly tied to the top. If the prunes come from the area of Agen in southwest France, which is famed for its fine quality prunes, this fact will be proudly noted on the label.

One of the first dishes we learned in a course on regional French cooking at La Varenne Cooking School was lapin aux pruneaux, a savory entree of rabbit in red wine sauce with prunes. I like to prepare an easy variation using chicken. The prunes' sweetness helps balance the wine's acidity, so there's no need to boil the wine at length to tone down its sharpness.

Prunes are popular in Jewish cooking as well. Tzimmes, a stew of carrots and prunes and often meat, is a favorite dish in Eastern European Jewish homes. Prunes make a delicious filling for hamantaschen, the three-corner pastries prepared for the Jewish holiday Purim.

Nutritionally, prunes have a lot going for them. They are high in fiber, both soluble and insoluble, and are a good source of beta carotene, B vitamins, iron and potassium. A few prunes make a sweet, satisfying snack. For low-fat cakes, some chefs now substitute prune puree for part of the fat because it produces richer-tasting, smoother-textured baked goods.

CHICKEN WITH PRUNES AND RED WINE

2 tablespoons oil

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast halves, patted dry

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

1 cup dry red wine

1 cup chicken stock or broth

1 bay leaf

1 large thyme sprig or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 cup moist pitted prunes

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Serve this tasty entree with rice, couscous or steamed new potatoes and carrots, sugar snap peas or green beans.

Heat oil in large deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add enough chicken to fill skillet. Cook chicken in batches to avoid overcrowding pan. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper to taste and brown on all sides. Transfer pieces to plate as they are done.

Add onion to skillet and saute over medium-low heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Add flour and cook and stir over low heat 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Stir in wine, return to heat and bring to simmer, stirring constantly.

Add stock, bay leaf and thyme. Stir and bring to simmer. Add chicken and juices from plate. Cover and cook over low heat, turning once and stirring sauce occasionally, until chicken is tender when pierced with knife, about 20 minutes. (Note: If you prefer to use chicken legs or thigh pieces, simmer them in the sauce about 30 minutes.)

Transfer pieces to serving dish. Cover and keep warm.

Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig and skim excess fat from sauce. Add prunes. Cover and simmer over low heat until just tender, about 10 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Spoon sauce and prunes over chicken. Sprinkle with parsley.

4 servings. Each serving:

590 calories; 409 mg sodium; 136 mg cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 47 grams protein; 0.99 gram fiber.

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