Of dried plums, and locomotives

When you think of slippery, slimy foods, what comes to mind?


Octopus sashimi?

Prunes, perhaps?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about prunes; I’ve had quite a bit of time on my hands lately, and daytime television programming is less than satisfying.

Prior to undergoing a recent surgery, I wondered what effect the procedure and recovery period would have on my diet.

I know now.

It’s a disaster. I was aware that having a major surgery in the abdominal area would alter many of my food habits and choices. Little did I know how many.

Nearly three weeks out from Ground Zero, I am sore and in a realm whose borders cannot be crossed by pastas, cheeses, wines, all the braised and roasted and pan-fried goodies I cherish.

What is allowed in this eerie new culinary world?

Fiber and prunes.

Yep, that’s pretty much it: fiber and prunes.

Rule No. 1 for the abdominal surgery patient: Mind what goes in — it is going to come out.

Therefore, I am taking in fiber and prunes.

Make no mistake: I am not wolfing down huge amounts of dry grasses and seeds. No, that could provoke a disaster: picture a plug of fiber moving like a 50-foot wide locomotive through a ten-foot wide tunnel. Not a bright prospect.

By fiber, I mean veggies, salads, multi-grain muddles, oatmeal, etc.

And, then, there are prunes.

Ah, yes, the prune. The dried plum.

Want the train to run on time? And on the right track?

Try prunes.

I have evidence that prunes are a valuable digestive tool. My mother in-law is 92 years old. She takes in prunes on a daily basis. She even puts one in her morning cup of coffee. Her mother lived into her 90s, as well. Prunes.

The last couple weeks, Kathy has worked overtime, stewing prunes at all hours of the night and day. “Here’s a bowl of steel cut oatmeal with raisins, nuts and apple. And, oh, don’t forget your stewed prunes.”

Yum. Prunes. Breakfast, lunch, dinner.

The lesson was clear, the way to minimize difficulties clear-cut. But, did I learn this lesson any better and quicker than I have any of life’s valuable lessons?

For two weeks after the surgery, I held to the dietary regimen. Then, feeling much better, believing I had turned a corner on the road to recovery, I decided the fiber/prune tactic was no longer necessary.

Hmmm. Turns out the idea was a lot like that time when, six years old, I believed I could jump from the roof of the garage and fly.

Note to anyone facing an abdominal surgery: Do not — I repeat, do not — assume that, because you feel a bit improved, that you can ignore your dietary restrictions.

Two things did me in: a manly portion of fusilli (with steamed broccoli, carrots, tomatoes and green peas) and, the next day, a hefty cheese toast eaten in the company of a bowl of minestrone. Oh, and a sprinkle, or three, of Parmesan on the pasta.

I won’t go into detail about what followed a day or so later, trainwise. But, if you live within a quarter-mile radius of my house and you heard someone screaming and invoking a higher power well, sorry for the racket.

So, back to the prunes.

Actually, the taste of the dried plum is somewhat appealing and, over the years, I have eaten prunes in desserts — most notably prune cakes of a variety of kinds, and prune/apple combos, crisps, crumbles, prune Danish and whatnot. Pretty good stuff. The prune introduces a likeable sweetness to the show.

But, thinking ahead to a day when I can return to a food universe of my choosing, I begin to wonder how the simple dried plum can escape the dessert category, to be used in a more extensive lineup of dishes. Never hurts to mix the basic qualities: savory, sweet, sour, etc. Why not make the prune the sweet?

So, I did some research, and discovered a number of recipes I intend to wrangle once I am back in the saddle.

Specifically: a couscous that includes chopped prunes, raisins and pine nuts. And several pan-roasted and braised meat mixes.

I found numerous recipes that pair the prune in savory combos with beef, lamb, pork and chicken.

I am particularly intrigued by a take on a North African chicken dish.

Though I don’t own traditional tagine cookware, I can simulate the effect of the tagine with a heavy, enameled cast-iron pot.

I’ll use boneless, skinless chicken thighs for the meat. I’ll season the chicken with salt and pepper and sauté  the meat in the pot in olive oil, over medium-high heat, until brown on both sides. I’ll take the chicken from the pot and splash in a bit more oil if needed, throw in some sliced onion and sliced carrots and cook the veggies until they’re tender. In will go a couple cloves of garlic, minced, and a bunch of spices — things like grated ginger, cinnamon, cumin, a smidge of red chile— and some lemon zest, lemon juice and a touch of honey. Back in goes the chicken and some chicken broth.

I’ll pop the covered pot into a 350 oven and let it braise for an hour and a half, or so.

I’ll take the pot from the oven, remove the chicken to a heated plate. The pot will go over the burner, medium-high heat, the sauce tested for seasoning then reduced to a semi-syrupy state, then in goes about a cup of chopped prunes. When the sauce reaches the desired consistency, I reintroduce the chicken, the heat is turned off and the pot covered.

The couscous — as couscous is in any application — is simple, and fast. Liquid (chicken broth is fine) in the pan, heated to a boil with the addition of some chopped prunes, maybe some chopped dried apricots, a handful of raisins. In goes the couscous. Pan covered, flame off. Five minutes later, add a wad of butter, stir the couscous and add a batch of toasted pine nuts.

Now that I’ve planned the dinner, I wonder — what with all the prunes and fiber-like substances in the mix — if I can make this soon. Surely I can chow down on a batch of chicken and couscous.

Maybe tonight.

Anyone hear a train in the distance?