Guest post and photos by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão
Raisins were an integral ingredient in my New England culinary upbringing. The California Sun Maid was a pantry icon, on a par with the original 1950’s versions of Vermont Maid, Betty Crocker, the Campbell's twins, Uncle Ben, and Aunt Jemima before their numerous plastic surgeries.
The brown bread that accompanied our favorite hot dogs and beans on Saturday night (i.e., bath night) had to have raisins. My father always threw a handful into the breakfast cream of wheat. Hermits weren’t hermits unless studded with those plump, sweet beauties. And nothing was better than snacking right from the box.
In my innocence, though, I knew nothing of the exotic pleasures of golden raisins.
I don’t remember when I tasted my first, but for me, the tangy, honeyed notes of the golden variety bring the raisin to new heights. Interestingly enough, it turns out that they are really just the same old grapes soaked in water, and then flame- or oven-dried instead of dried by the sun, sometimes with a dash of sulfur dioxide to help retain that gorgeous color.
Here's a bit of raisin trivia:
- It takes four tons of grapes to make one ton of raisins.
- Raisins are approximately 65 percent fructose, and a source of quick energy.
- Doctors in ancient Rome prescribed raisins as a cure for anything from old age to mushroom poisoning, and so inflated their worth. One could purchase a slave for a mere two jars of raisins.
- Raisins are rich in antioxidants, high in fiber, low in sodium, and fat- and cholesterol-free.
- Half of the world’s raisins are grown in California. Ninety-five percent of California raisins are dried Thompson Seedless grapes.
- Legend says that the California raisin industry was born in 1873, when a prolonged pre-harvest heat wave turned grapes to raisins right on the vine.
- Don’t feed raisins to your dogs! They can cause kidney failure and worse.
- A modern folk remedy swears that eating nine golden raisins soaked in gin daily relieves arthritis pain.
- Sultana raisins (dried white sultana grapes) reputedly were named for an Ottoman sultan who had to leave his grape-munching to flee an attacking tiger. The grapes were abandoned, dried in the hot sun and voilà.
- Zante currants are really raisins, dried from Black Corinth grapes.
- A Victorian parlor game, Snapdragon, played in the dark on Halloween and Christmas Eve, involved snatching raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy and popping them alight into one's mouth.
I prefer golden to dark raisins in savory recipes because of their more complex flavor and the balance of acid and sugar. Here in Brazil, raisins pair with eggplant in a type of caponata, and we always put them in our rich whore's rice (arroz de puta rica), which has just about everything but the kitchen sink in it. For sweet recipes, I'll use a mixture of both varieties, whether in New England classics or Brazilian treats like bolo ingles, a lighter version of fruitcake.
Spinach, golden raisin and parmesan tart
Your choice of cheese really depends upon your budget; use real Parmigiano-Reggiano if you can, but there are some domestic brands that are decent substitutes at half the price. I use frozen chopped spinach because it is so convenient, but purists can certainly opt for the real garden variety. If you use fresh spinach, blanch or steam, then drain, squeeze out as much water as possible, and chop. Squeezing out most of the liquid lets the spinach absorb the custard. Serves 6 as a first course.
2 10-oz packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove as much water as possible
2 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated
1/2 cup golden raisins
Combine thawed, squeezed spinach in a bowl with the cream, eggs, 1/2 cup grated cheese, raisins, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Mix well to break up the spinach. Adjust seasoning; the mixture should be slightly salty. Store in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight so the spinach and raisins can absorb the cream and the flavors can mellow.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Fill the pre-baked tart shell (or pie crust) with spinach filling, and smooth out to level. The filling should not be more than 1/3-inch thick. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake until set and golden. Let cool slightly or to room temperature, and cut into wedges.
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.