Now that the holidays are long gone, it's time for food that pleases no one but ourselves. It's also a time to cut back on butter-rich baking in favor of sweet stove-top simmering. It's time for compotes.
In the summer, compotes are made from peaches and berries. But winter compotes take advantage of citrus, pears, cranberries and dried fruit.
"Compotes are a way of giving fruit a warm bath," says cookbook author Melanie Barnard. "And just like people, fruit perks up after a bath. It takes on a warm glow."
Compote is a dish of fresh or dried fruit cooked in a sugar syrup, often flavored with cinnamon or lemon and offered in its poaching liquid. According to Alan Davidson in the new "The Oxford Companion to Food" (Oxford, $60), the words compote and compost are derived from the same root of the verb componere, to bring together. What we know as compote was once called composte. But in the 16th century, as compost (decaying leaves) was established in gardening, the fruit dish became known as compote.
It has been a mainstay of Jewish cooking for centuries, says cookbook author Joan Nathan, for at least two reasons: A compote contains no dairy products, which makes it a suitable dessert after meat dishes, according to kosher dietary restrictions, and it is made ahead of time so that it can be eaten on the Sabbath when cooking is prohibited.
"What I call a Jewish compote is really an Eastern European compote," says Nathan, who has written several cookbooks on Jewish cooking. "Dried fruit is just a way of extending the harvest. It's also sort of soothing, especially in the winter."
Her favorite compote recipe comes from a Jewish restaurant owner who operated an upscale restaurant in Washington in the 1970s. It contained figs and port. "It was the darling of nouvelle cuisine," says Nathan, "and all it was was a dolled-up compote."
Indeed, part of the allure of a compote is its ability to appear sophisticated with minimal preparation. "There are no difficult recipes for compote," says Barnard, whose compote recipes in "Short & Sweet" (Houghton Mifflin, $25) call for as few as four ingredients. "They're great for beginners because they're very easy and they're very pretty."
Her winter compotes are made from citrus, including clementines, a cross between mandarin and Seville oranges. "They have all the advantages of tangerines without the seeds." She also adds a generous splash of liqueur into the cooking liquid at the end.
Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue! Bible," (Workman, 1998, $30) uses compotes to serve with grilled meat or fish. "I like the idea of cooking simply to preserve flavors," he says. "A grilled veal chop or a quickly seared salmon is very well served by a fruit compote of apples, pears and dried cherries."
He also likes the way he can eat compotes all day, starting with compote on French toast, then cranberry compote with sliced turkey and finally, wild game with a red currant compote.
"It's a good thing this time of year, when you want pots bubbling away on your stove," he says.
Spiced Citrus Compote
1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup grapefruit-rind strips
1/4 cup orange-rind strips
2 tablespoons dried sweet cherries
1/4 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 cups pink grapefruit sections (about 2 large grapefruit)
1 1/2 cups orange sections (about 4 oranges)
3/4 cup tangerine sections (about 2 tangerines)
orange-rind strips (optional)
Combine water, sugar, grapefruit-rind strips, orange-rind strips, dried cherries, cloves, allspice and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Strain mixture through a sieve into a bowl; discard solids.
Combine sugar mixture and citrus sections in a large bowl. Cover and chill 3 hours or more. Garnish with additional orange-rind strips, if desired.
-- From the Web site of Cooking Light magazine (www.cookinglight.com)
Dried Fig, Apricot and Cherry Compote
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
1 (8-ounce) package dried Calimyrna figs, stemmed, figs halved lengthwise
1 (6-ounce) package dried apricots
1 cup dried tart cherries (about 4 1/2 ounces)
3/4 cup brandy
3 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
Combine water, sugar and cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add figs and simmer uncovered for 3 minutes. Mix in apricots, cherries and then brandy. Simmer uncovered until all the fruits are tender but still retain shape, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in crystallized ginger. Cool. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Note: Compote can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.
-- From Bon Appetit magazine (November 1998)
3 shallots, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch-thick rounds
1/2 teaspoon mustard
3 cups cooking port (Ruby preferred)
1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 cup red currant jelly
3 pints blackberries (keep 2 pints in reserve)
salt and pepper to taste
In a stainless-steel pot, combine all ingredients except salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Fold in the remaining 2 cups of berries. Let cool. Season with salt and pepper.
-- From Chef William Valentine of the Maidstone Arms Inn & Restaurant in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup golden raisins
8 dried apricot halves
1 (16-ounce) can sliced peaches, drained, (see note)
In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, orange peel, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil.
Stir in cranberries, raisins and apricots. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes or until the cranberries pop and the sauce begins to thicken.
Place the peaches in a medium-sized glass bowl. Pour the hot cranberry mixture over the peaches and gently stir until just combined.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving, or overnight.
Note: Pears can be substituted for peaches.
-- Adapted from an Internet recipe
3 (16-ounce) cans sliced pears in syrup
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup lemon or orange juice
Drain syrup from pears and reserve 1 cup syrup. Mix syrup with brown sugar, spices and fruit juice. Add pears and mix gently, covering pears with syrup. Let stand overnight in refrigerator, preferably 2 days.
-- From the Maplewood Inn in Fair Haven, Vt.
Clementines in Mulled-Wine Syrup
4 large clementines or small seedless oranges
1 cup port wine
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon "mulling" spices, or a mixture of 6 whole cloves, 6 whole allspice berries and 1 cinnamon stick, broken
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Use a small, sharp knife to score the peel of one of the clementines or oranges into quarters. Remove the colored part of the peel and cut it into thin strips less than 1/4 inch wide, or dice coarsely into 1/4-inch pieces. Peel the other 3 fruits completely, discarding the peel.
Place the strips of orange peel, the wine, sugar, mulling spices and lemon juice into a small nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil the mixture gently for about 4 minutes, until it is slightly reduced.
Lightly pull apart the fruit so that the sections form a sort of petal shape. Place the fruit in individual shallow dessert dishes. Pour the hot syrup and spice over the fruit. Let stand about 15 minutes at room temperature before serving, or refrigerate for up to 2 hours, removing from the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving.
-- From Melanie Barnard's "Short & Sweet" (Houghton Mifflin, $25)
Figs Alice B. Toklas
2 pounds dried figs
1/4 cup dried cherries
2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, cut into four coin-sized pieces
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/4 teaspoon grated orange rind
4 cups ruby port
1 cup dry red wine
In a saucepan, place the figs, cherries, cinnamon sticks, ginger, dark and light brown sugars, lemon and orange rinds, port and the red wine and simmer the mixture, covered for 1 hour or until the figs are tender.
Let the mixture stand in a cool place for 24 hours and chill it for 2 hours.
-- Adapted from Joan Nathan's "Jewish Cooking in America" (Random House, $25)