Fruit simmered to a sweet finish

Compotes: Time's ripe for these flavorful dishes that are easy and made without fat.

February 23, 2000|By Wendy Lin | Wendy Lin,NEWSDAY

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

Serves 6

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 (

Dried Fig, Apricot and Cherry Compote

Serves 8

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)

Blackberry Compote

Serves 6

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

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