Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine has a real thing for foods so sweet you can feel your teeth crying, and raisins, by which I mean those little red boxes of Sun-Maid raisins, are exactly the right level of cloyingly sweet to tickle the sure-to-be-temporary teeth of American Jews. Noodle kugel often has raisins in it. Challah and rugalach do too, sometimes. After Shabbat services there’d always be a tray of painfully sweet and Negev-dry cakes and breads and cookies, many of which had raisins embedded within, for the kids. I loathed them.
I think a lot of Americans, Jewish or not, have a memory of digging fingernails into a congealed clump of sticky raisins deep within that red cardboard box, knowing that once you finally got the little fuckers out, you were only going to be disappointed, because they would still be raisins. When the choice was oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip cookie, we all know which one to grab. Why get a fruit cookie when there’s one with chocolate right next to it?
Raisins also suffer the curse of being healthy — crazily high in sugar, but sugar that can be broken down by the body into energy easily. Raisins are also high in fiber, vitamin K (good for blood clotting), vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin E, and many more, plus a pretty decent amount of protein for a fruit. Basically anything a parent insists is healthy is going to taste like poison to a kid, even something that has more sugar, by weight, than a Hershey bar.
But raisins have a long history of use in savory dishes, everywhere from Cuba to India, and if you treat them right, they can be pretty spectacular, adding a kick of fruitiness and sugar to balance out acidic or umami flavors.
There are a bunch of different types of raisins. Your typical Sun-Maid raisin is made from, surprisingly, the Thompson seedless grape, which is your standard supermarket green grape. The drying process — not done in the sun, to avoid introduction of bacteria and other gross things — turns the grapes a dark red. This presents a weird question: what the hell is a golden raisin then? Golden raisins are made from, um, also Thompson seedless grapes. During the drying process, some sulfur dioxide, a preservative, is added to the grapes, which kind of bleaches the skins back to yellowish and also changes the flavor to be a bit drier and more tart.
There are two more main types of raisins you might see, both of which are misleadingly named. The easiest to explain is the dried currant, which is not, as you might think, the dried version of the small round fruits called currants, but is actually just a raisin made from a specific type of small grape called the Black Corinth (the name of the raisin is a corrupted form of the name of the grape, not any reference to the real currant). You might see the Black Corinth grape sold at farmers markets and fancy supermarkets as “champagne grapes,” though they’re not used for making champagne. (The naming of foods is a real mess of etymology and history!) Dried currants are tiny and very sweet, and are especially common in baked goods in the UK, like scones.
The other, even more misleading, type of raisin is the sultana. So, there is a pale green seedless grape that originally came from the Ottoman Empire — a very popular variety whose proper name is “Sultanina,” but which is commonly known throughout the raisin industry as either “sultana” or “sultana of commerce.” This is very confusing, because there is another variety of grape made into raisins that is called “sultana,” a mediocre grape that had a brief run of popularity in California in the mid-nineteenth century. This shittier raisin is sometimes called “inferior sultana of commerce.” And you might recall that the most popular variety of grape for American raisins is the Thompson seedless. The Thompson seedless was introduced to America in 1872 by William Thompson, a UK-born grower, in Yuba City, California. Thompson renamed this grape after himself, because why not, but he grew this from a vine he brought back from Asia. That vine has another name in the rest of the world, and that name is…Sultanina. The Thompson seedless grape, basically the only raisin Americans can easily find, is also known as the sultana. Which is not to be confused with the sultana. Good lord.
Anyway this is all to say, don’t pay more for something that brands itself a “sultana raisin.” All the raisins are sultana raisins. Your garbage Sun-Maid stuck-together clump of black grainy raisins are sultanas.
But you SHOULD spend whatever mild price hike is attached to golden raisins. It might seem like a dumb bit of color-based marketing, but golden raisins are no Crystal Pepsi: There is a definite difference in flavor and texture to golden raisins, even though they come from the same grape as dark raisins. Also, if you can get yourself to a good Indian or Middle Eastern market, there’s a pretty fair chance there’ll be a few different varieties, sold by the pound rather than in packages. Get these. They’ll have various names which probably aren’t standardized and might not mean much of anything, but try one and see what you like. I tend to like the biggest ones, which are less sweet and more acidic than the super small dense ones. And I like them to be as plump as possible: this indicates a higher water content and probably a less intensive drying process, which usually correlates to a tastier raisin.
A basic and yet EXTREMELY FANCY-SEEMING technique for increasing the tastiness of a raisin is rehydration. Put a bunch of raisins in a glass tupperware. Heat up some kind of liquid — water, maybe, or vinegar, or wine, or whiskey — until near-boiling, then pour the liquid over the raisins, enough to cover them. Put a lid on the tupperware and wait a few minutes. The raisins, being all dried and thirsty for the water so cruelly leached from them, will drink up the liquid and become plump and tender and flavored. No matter what I’m doing with raisins, I rehydrate them first; if I don’t want to add any flavor, I just use water, because the texture of a rehydrated raisin is so superior.
Roasted Broccoli With Raisins, Pistachios, and Fried Rosemary
Shopping list: Broccoli, golden raisins, pistachios, shallots, garlic, white wine vinegar, bulgur wheat, lemon, olive oil, sugar, goat cheese, rosemary, canola oil
This treatment of the raisins is basically a quick pickle. Place a handful of raisins in a glass tupperware. In a saucepan, heat white wine vinegar, water, and sugar in a 1:1:1 ratio, give or take. (Feel free to throw in some star anise, cloves, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns, or a bay leaf, but you don’t have to.) Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, pour the liquid over the raisins, give a quick stir, and cover.
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice onion in half through the root, then place cut-side-down on the cutting board and slice width-wise into thin half-moons. Peel and cut about five garlic cloves into a few pieces each, and add to a big bowl. Chop about a head’s worth of broccoli florets, making sure each piece is at least an inch by an inch and has a sizeable flat side, where you cut it. (RESERVE THE BROCCOLI STALKS FOR LATER.) Throw them in the bowl too, along with maybe an eighth of a cup of olive oil. Toss thoroughly and spread on a baking sheet, making sure the cut side of the broccoli is down. Throw in oven.
Measure out a half cup of bulgur wheat, put in another glass tupperware. Boil a cup of water (I use an electric kettle for this). Pour the hot water over the bulgur, along with a pinch or two of salt. Quickly stir to mix and cover until the water is absorbed.
Put a small saucepan on the stove and fill it up maybe an inch high with canola oil. Pick a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, getting the leaves off the stems. When the oil is hot — test by throwing in a rosemary leaf, and if it sizzles a lot and makes frying sounds and smells it’s ready — throw in the rosemary. Fry for a minute or so until crispy, then strain out with a spider and put on a paper towel to drain.
When the broccoli is tender and the cut side is all nice and caramelized, take it out of the oven. In a bowl, put in some bulgur, then raisins, then some pistachios, then some crumbled goat cheese, then the broccoli/garlic/onion, and top with the fried rosemary. Squeeze a lemon over the top, along with some more olive oil if you want.
Sort Of Israeli Fried Rice Thing With Parsley Oil
Shopping list: Rice (or quinoa), golden raisins, almonds, walnuts, canola or vegetable oil, parsley, olive oil, cheesecloth, lemon, green beans, garlic, chili flakes, feta cheese
The night before you want to make this (I know, sorry), place like an entire bunch of parsley, stems and all, into a mason jar (I know, sorry). In a saucepan, heat up about a cup and a half of the olive oil until it’s very hot but not smoking. Pour the olive oil into the jar, covering the parsley, screw on the top of the jar, and let it sit out overnight. Also, cook about a cup’s worth of rice or quinoa in the regular way: two to one ratio of water to grain, bring to boil, cover and turn heat to low until done. Put the rice in the fridge.
The next day, unscrew the top of the herb oil jar, pop off the lid, place some cheesecloth over the top, and screw the ring back onto the jar. Invert to pour the oil through the cheesecloth into some other container, throw out the parsley, and keep the oil, which should be nice and green and fragrant.
Rehydrate golden raisins the usual way, but just in hot water. Chop some almonds.
Slice three or four cloves of garlic thinly. In a wok on low heat, pour in a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil, and when it’s hot, throw in the garlic and a pinch of chili flakes. When the garlic has turned golden-brown, turn the heat to high and throw in a handful of green beans (I usually chop them into inch-long pieces). Using a rubber spatula, toss the beans for about a minute, then throw in the rice you made last night. (Old rice is better for fried rice. I’m not sure why but it is.) Stir and toss rapidly to fry it.
When the rice looks like fried rice, turn the heat off. Toss in the drained raisins, the almonds, and a bunch of crumbled feta, and stir around. Squeeze in like half a lemon’s worth of lemon juice, at least, and add salt. Taste to make sure the seasoning is good, then serve. Drizzle some of the parsley oil on top and around.
Secret Fun Morning Oatmeal With Bourbon-Rehydrated Raisins
Shopping list: Rolled oats (sometimes called “traditional”), golden raisins, milk, brown sugar, bourbon, vanilla extract, pecans, cinnamon, allspice
Place golden raisins in a small glass tupperware. In a saucepan on the stove, heat maybe a half cup of bourbon and five drops or so of vanilla extract (more or less depending on how good your extract is). Just before boiling, pour the bourbon/vanilla mixture over the raisins, stir, and cover.
In the same saucepan (why do any more dishes than you have to?), heat up about a half cup of milk and a third cup of water, along with a pinch of salt. Just before it boils, throw in a third of a cup of rolled oats. (I prefer rolled oats to Irish/steel-cut, but if you like the latter better that’s fine, just cook according to package instructions.) Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring the whole time to avoid a horrible mess on the bottom of your saucepan, for maybe five minutes until the oatmeal is cooked and thickening. Stir in brown sugar to your liking. Turn off the heat and let sit for a minute.
Heat a dry cast iron pan to medium heat and toss in a handful of pecans. Watch them carefully while they toast, tossing every once in awhile. When fragrant, maybe two minutes, remove. Drain the raisins of their bourbon. I think you can probably still drink it although it might be gross, I’m not sure.
Plop the oatmeal in a bowl. Top with the raisins, the pecans, and a pinch of cinnamon and allspice. You can also add a little yogurt here, if you want.
Raisins, it turns out, are a formidable force, especially, I think, when paired with salty things (try them with anchovies!). And when rehydrated, they turn from a one-note gooey sweet ingredient to a plump and appealing hit of fruit and sugar. I haven’t tried tackling a raisin-filled noodle kugel since I learned to love raisins again, but I feel like it could totally be good, as long as the raisin is treated with the respect it deserves.