Market Watch: Apricots
With their luscious, velvety texture and sweet-tart flavor, fresh apricots are one of the highlights of summer. But unless you’re lucky enough to live near a local grower, you may never have tasted one that’s truly worth biting into. That’s because, like peaches and plums, these tender little fruits are best when allowed to ripen on the tree. One of the first of the stone fruits to arrive at markets, apricots are only available for two short months, beginning in late May and extending through mid-July. There are about a dozen common varieties, produced primarily in California, but they are also grown on a small scale in many other regions of the country. Any fruit you see during the winter months have been imported from either South America or New Zealand.
Apricots are rich in carotenoids and xanthophylls, nutrients that researchers believe may help protect eyesight from aging-related damage. They are also a good source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium. When dried, they lose some of their vitamin C, but become a concentrated source of iron--a particular boon to those who follow a vegetarian diet.
In the market, look for fruits with a deep orange color and avoid those that are pale and yellow. If they are hard or have streaks of green, they have not been tree-ripened, and will never develop much flavor. If just slightly firm, place them in a paper bag and leave them to ripen at room temperature for a day or too. When ripe, apricots will be soft enough to yield to gentle pressure. Eat them as soon as possible, as they will not keep!
Perhaps because apricots are in season around the same time as more popular relatives like peaches and nectarines, they are often overlooked. That’s a shame, because their rich, tart flavor is a match for both sweet and savory treatments. For a healthy breakfast, mixed sliced apricots with honey and a few tablespoons water and cook until slightly softened. Then, spoon over yogurt and a top with a handful of granola. Or, for a weekend treat, sauté sliced apricots in brown butter and serve over French toast.
Raw, sliced apricots make a sweet counterpoint to bitter greens in a salad, topped with chopped, salty nuts and a sprinkling of crumbled goat or feta cheese. For an appetizer or light lunch, spread toast with ricotta cheese and quartered apricots, then broil until slightly caramelized and garnish with slivered fresh basil. They also stand up well to grilling: Thread chunks of the fruit with red onions and pork tenderloin onto skewers, brush with a mixture of apricot jam and mustard, and grill until browned. Of course, apricots are best known in desserts where they are often featured in fancy French tarts or American cobblers and pies. For a simpler and healthy dessert, serve apricots as part of a fruit fondue along with chocolate sauce. Or poach the peeled fruit in Lillet or white wine and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Since apricots are hard to ship and take well to drying, many of the world’s cuisines make liberal use of the dried fruit. They are particularly common in Middle Eastern cooking, where they are often found in a rice pilaf or paired with lamb in a tagine. In many recipes that call for dried apricots, fresh ones may easily be substituted. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Abigail Chipley is a freelance recipe developer, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.