In Season: Prunes get their mojo back

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 (Ella’s, The Kitchen) 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 “Franken-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.”

At its 1.2 million-square-foot plant in Yuba City, Sunsweet processes about 70,000 tons of prunes a year, representing a third of the world market. Shipping 650,000 cases a month, Sunsweet is the world’s largest dried-fruit handler.

About 300 farmers are part of Sunsweet’s grower-owned cooperative. Founded in 1917 as the California Prune and Apricot Growers Association, the cooperative made Sunsweet a familiar brand. According to marketing surveys, an estimated 85 percent of American households know that Sunsweet sells prunes. (So much for dried plums.)

Due to the fruit’s nutritional profile, consumers under age 30 seem to be warming up to prunes, too, said Sunsweet Vice President Brad Schuler. Seniors already love them.

“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 re-named 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.

Prune plums ripen later than most other plums. Harvest usually wraps up in August with the fruit first going to dryers before it heads to Sunsweet for processing. The fruit is sorted by 10 different sizes. Once processed, they’re stored and shipped year round.

California’s prune industry traces back to the Gold Rush and one French entrepreneur, Louis Pellier. In 1850, he started growing fruit for miners. Pellier brought prune plum cuttings from his native Agen in France and grafted them onto wild plum trees growing in the Valley.

For these hard-working miners, prunes were ideal: Very portable, dried plums keep for weeks, even months, without refrigeration. California prunes were an instant hit.

By 1900, an estimated 90,000 acres of prune plums grew in the Central Valley, supplying not only California but the nation.

Today’s California prune is little changed from Pellier’s early trees. The dominant variety is Improved French, a cultivar developed by famed horticulturist Luther Burbank using Pellier’s stock. Burbank spent 40 years perfecting his prune, introduced to growers in the early 1900s. That variety still dominates California orchards.

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

Early prune growers congregated around Santa Clara (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.

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 need our Mediterranean climate, which mirrors their ancestral homeland on the other side of the globe.

“In this climate, we have rain-free summers with full sun, cool winters but not super cold, and low humidity in summer – that’s important,” Turkovich noted. “There’s just a handful of places on Earth like that – France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Chile, Australia and the Central Valley. That’s where you can grow prunes.”

Prunes are loved and used liberally in cuisines of Mediterranean countries. While the French have no qualms about this native fruit, the Brits made prunes the butt of countless jokes. Americans tended to adopt that same prune humor.

“In France, it’s a big part of their cuisine,” said author Dawn Jackson Blatner (“The Flexitarian Diet”), a national nutrition expert. “In Italy, they love prunes. They’re recognized as a taste experience. But mention prunes in the U.K., and a bathroom joke follows.”

Maybe we’ve gotten more mature (and older), but prunes are now in vogue.

“Prunes are an amazing fruit,” Blatner said. “They’re sweet, deep, sticky, chewy. I’ve become a super fan. Prunes allow me to use less sugar in granola, smoothies, pancakes, oatmeal. I use prunes to de-bitter quinoa and greens. They’re awesome in chili, barbecue, enchilada sauce.”

As a Sunsweet consultant, Blatner has worked with chefs to revamp recipes using less sugar and fat by substituting prunes.

“Prunes may not be a starring player in a recipe,” she said, “but they make everything work together better.”

More informationPRUNES 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 21/2 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: Like the California tree fruit, prune’s name traces back to France. In French, “prune” means “plum,” fresh or dried. In the United States, “prune” almost always designates the dried fruit of the “Improved French” variety. European plum varieties have a higher sugar content (and thus dry better) than varieties that trace back to Japan (such as Santa Rosa and Satsuma).

In 2001, the USDA officially re-identified 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 among consumers while “dried plum” sounds like just another dried fruit.

– Debbie Arrington


Prunes poached in red wine

Time: About 25 minutes, plus 2 hours’ steeping

Serves 6 to 8

These poached prunes are great served cold, but you can also serve them warm. You can keep them in wine in the refrigerator for a week or two, dipping into them to spoon over ice cream or into yogurt, or just enjoying them on their own. Recipe from The New York Times.

Note: Use a light and fruity wine, like a gamay Beaujolais, or something a little richer and full-bodied, like a pinot noir.


1/2 pound pitted prunes

2 cups red wine, not too tannic

1/4 cup mild honey, such as clover

1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise

1 cinnamon stick

2 strips orange or lemon zest


Place prunes into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 5 minutes, then drain.

Meanwhile, combine wine and honey in a medium saucepan. Using the tip of a paring knife, scrape seeds from the vanilla bean halves into wine and add pods. Add cinnamon stick and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 5 minutes.

Add prunes to wine and bring back to a simmer. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add zest. Remove cinnamon stick.

Cover and let sit for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled. Prunes will keep for 1 to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.


Pork tenderloin with apricot and prune sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-25 minutes

Serves 4

For a quick weekday meal – or a terrific entree for dinner guests – a pork tenderloin delivers. Recipe from The Chicago Tribune.


1 pound pork tenderloin

1/2 teaspoon each: salt, cracked pepper

1/4 cup apricot preserves

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice

1 small clove garlic, pressed

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup chopped dried apricots

1/4 cup chopped prunes


Pat tenderloin dry; rub with salt and pepper. Combine preserves, vinegar, garlic and mustard in a small bowl. Brush some of the mixture over tenderloin; reserve extra mixture.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown tenderloin on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add water, chopped fruit and any remaining apricot mixture to skillet. Cover; reduce heat to medium. Cook until thickest part of meat is pink, 10-15 minutes. Remove cover; raise heat slightly. Cook until pan juices reduce slightly, about 5 minutes. Thinly slice pork; top with fruit mixture.

Per serving: 307 calories, 34 percent of calories from fat; 12 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 75 mg cholesterol; 26 g carbohydrates; 25 g protein; 377 mg sodium; 1 g fiber.


Rioja-style chicken

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 7 hours, 10 minutes (slow cooker)

Serves 4

This Spanish-style braise is bright with citrus zest and juice. The combination of sweet fruit and savory hints at Moorish influences. This recipe is ideal for the slow cooker, but can be made just as easily on the stove top. Serve with rice or the traditional fried potatoes to drink up all the luscious juices.

Note: If five cloves of garlic for four servings seems like a lot, take a chance. The long, long cooking mellows the garlic and renders it sweet. It’ll have no bite. In fact, if you’re a garlic lover, you could increase it with no ill effects.

Recipe from The Chicago Tribune.


1 tablespoon olive oil

5 cloves garlic, sliced

2 red bell peppers, trimmed, thinly sliced

1 yellow onion, chopped

4 ounces thinly sliced Spanish chorizo sausage, cut into quarters

8 chicken thighs, skinned

1 cup each: dry white wine, orange juice or 2 cups orange juice

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup pitted prunes

1/4 cup whole pimiento-stuffed green olives

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced, or 2 teaspoons dried

1 tablespoon grated fresh orange zest

2 cups frozen peas


If using a slow cooker, heat the olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic, bell peppers and onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 3 minutes. Transfer to slow cooker.

If using a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add garlic, bell peppers and onions; cooking, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 3 minutes.

Add sausage to Dutch oven; add chicken, wine, orange juice, bay leaf, prunes, olives, thyme and orange zest; cover. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat, cover with aluminum foil and lid. Reduce heat to low; cook 7 hours.

(If using a slow cooker, cook on high 1 hour. Reduce heat to low; cook 7 hours.)

Just before serving, add the frozen peas; cook until peas are tender, about 5 minutes.

Note: If you can’t find Spanish chorizo, substitute smoked andouille or another smoked sausage. Mexican-style chorizo is a fresh sausage and is not a suitable substitute.

Per serving: 567 calories; 43 percent of calories from fat; 27 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 124 mg cholesterol; 40 g carbohydrates; 40 g protein; 682 mg sodium; 8 g fiber


Cocoa prune muffins

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 14 minutes

Makes 12

These muffins are just slightly sweet. Want more of a dessert muffin? Add up to 1 cup of chocolate chips. From The Bee’s Kathy Morrison.


1 cup chopped prunes

1/3 cup orange juice

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup oat flour or ground oatmeal

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (preferably dark)

1/3 cup canola oil

1 large egg

2/3 cup plain yogurt

1/3 cup agave sweetener or honey

Powdered sugar, optional, for top


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray or grease a 12-cup muffin pan. Soak the chopped prunes in the orange juice in a small bowl while preparing the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, soda, salt, espresso powder and cocoa. (Pour the cocoa through a sieve to remove lumps.)

In a medium bowl, stir together the canola oil and the egg. Fold in the yogurt and the agave or honey. Add to the dry ingredients along with the prunes and orange juice. Fold together just until moistened.

Divide batter between the muffin cups. Bake 14 minutes or until they test done. Top with powdered sugar if desired.

Vegan option: Replace the egg with 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal soaked for 2 minutes in 3 tablespoons water; replace the yogurt with 2/3 cup almond milk. Use agave sweetener.


Prune compote in black tea

Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling

Makes 3 cups compote

This recipe comes from Russ Parsons, food editor of the Los Angeles Times. He writes: “I always have a jar of prune compote in the refrigerator during the winter. Make a strong brew by cooking black tea in a simple syrup with spices and orange zest, and poach the prunes just long enough to soften them slightly. The slight bitterness of the tea and the perfume of orange balances the sweetness and warm spice. Serve the prunes and their syrup with a spoonful of yogurt and you’ve got a terrific dessert that’s always on hand. And if you love dried fruit as much as I do, you might even have them for breakfast.”


11/2 cups water

3/4 cup sugar

2 cloves

3 allspice berries

1 (3-inch) stick cinnamon

2 bags black tea

1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 pound prunes


Bring the water, sugar, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and black tea bags to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the orange zest and prunes, then remove from the heat and let stand until cool. Discard tea bags and refrigerate until ready to use.

Per 1/2 cup: calories: 279; protein: 2 grams; carbohydrates: 74 grams; fiber: 5 grams; fat: 0 grams; cholesterol: 0; sugar: 54 grams; sodium: 2 mg