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Winter market treasures
(article, Deborah Madison)
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Many of the more unusual dried fruits, nuts, and preserves used to be available only at farmers' markets. But such favorites as dried Blenheim apricots, dried prune-plums, dried cherries, and the big red flame raisins are now regularly stocked in grocery stores. Which is a good thing, for the dried versions certainly taste better than their fresh but long-traveled counterparts.
Don't abandon your local farmers' market, though. You may find even more rare dried specimens, such as Arctic Rose nectarines, golden butter pears, and Black Friar plums. And you’ll almost certainly find jams and fruit butters made by artisans who work to reduce the amount of sugar in their small batches, so that the carefully cultivated flavors of their berries, plums, apricots, and pears come to the fore.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Not-So-Sticky Pudding"]You’ll meet, on occasion, those who work with uncommon fruits, like ornamental quince and Bergamot orange, as well as herbs and spices. Use these preserves to whip up a jam tart when dessert is needed in a pinch.
There are also bound to be distinctive regional honeys and fresh nuts. In California, Arizona, and (yes!) Las Vegas, farmers' markets feature the new crop of dates from the Palm Desert area.
When it comes to nuts, I have tasted, bought, and learned about varieties of hazelnuts and hickory nuts, revisited the black walnuts of my childhood, and learned about different varieties of pecans and walnuts, as well as the difference between a dry-farmed almond from southern California and a plump sweet irrigated one.
Over Thanksgiving, I bought some crisp, new-crop almonds, whose flavor is so close to bitter almonds that I stuffed them into moist Medjool dates without even roasting them first. Roasting didn’t seem necessary, and the distinctive flavor of the nuts was preserved that way.
And now for the dates. I think a winter Medjool might be one of the best things around to eat, with or without an almond tucked inside or a lozenge of marzipan (or both). So big, soft, and sweet with a hint of caramel. What better confection could there be? Even an unadorned date will do it for dessert for me, maybe with a tangerine for contrast.
Sticky, gooey desserts aren’t generally my cup of tea, but I do like a date pudding, and if I want a major sweet, this will be the one, a dessert best served after a day of hiking or skiing or anything else that has encouraged you to burn a few thousand calories first.
But I might not use the luscious Medjools if the slightly firmer Deglet Noors are available. They’re often a little less expensive, and by the time the pudding is done, any date will have essentially dissolved.
p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.