The best apricots are worth waiting for
Ask The Forager
Dear Alan: I love apricots and I’m always tempted to buy them as soon as they show up in the market. But they are often disappointing. What’s the best time to buy apricots?
Alan: Apricots can be considered the first of the “soft” fruits of summer. They start coming to market toward the end of May and early June. But the earliest varieties are usually a little watery and rather tart. It’s enough to turn a shopper against apricots if the first taste doesn’t please.
A half century of “improvements,” the selection by plant breeders and growers to favor varieties that ripen early in the season, means that other qualities — such as color, aroma, sweetness and flavor — have become less important
Consumer dissatisfaction is one factor in a 30% decrease in apricot production in the last 25 years. And Santa Clara County used to produce a large quantity of apricots before high tech businesses turned orchards into parking lots.
It’s still worth waiting for what I think are the best varieties. My favorite, the Blenheim, ripens near the end of June and into July. The Blenheim first appeared in England in the gardens of Blenheim Palace in the 1830s. It reached California in the 1880s.
It has medium-sized fruit with orange-colored skin and deep yellow flesh. It is fragrant, juicy and richly flavored. Because of their density of texture, Blenheims are perfect for cooking, drying and preserving.
There is a very similar variety called Royal that ripens about the same time. They are both delicious. Tilton and Moorpark are two other good mid to late season varieties.
Whether eaten fresh, cooked or preserved, apricots must be ripened on the tree. They do not improve in flavor after being picked. At the market, choose fruit that is plump and fragrant, and that gives slightly if gently squeezed by your fingertips.
Look for fruit that is well-colored for the variety, with no green showing, although Moorpark usually has slightly green shoulders when fully ripe.
Avoid apricots that feel hard or look pale or greenish; they will never ripen properly. Don’t buy any that are soft and mushy, or have dark spots or mold.
Ripe apricots that are a little firm improve in texture if they are stored at room temperature, laid out in a single layer for a day or two. Once they start to soften store them loosely wrapped in the refrigerator, where they will keep for several days.
Apricots almost never need peeling. Wash them carefully just before using and remove any bits of stem still attached.
To prepare for cooking, use a small knife to cut the fruit in half along the “suture” that runs from the stem end to the tip of the fruit, and then up the opposite side back to the stem. Gently twist the halves apart.
Apricots to be used for canning can be left whole, as the flesh will absorb a little bitter almond flavor from the pit. My grandmother always halved apricots for canning, but put a few pits in the bottom of the jar.
Apricots can be lightly poached and puréed to make sherbet, or added to ice cream base. The purée can also be used in a soufflé or sauce.
They are wonderful baked into galettes, pies, cobblers or crisp. They can be cooked down for jam or preserved by drying.
To re-hydrate dried apricots, poach in a syrup of three parts water to one part sugar until tender. Then use in compotes or purée for sauce.
Add dried apricots to a lamb stew seasoned with ground ginger, coriander and cinnamon, as they do in Morocco. Soak the apricots in warm water while the stew is cooking and add when the meat is almost tender.
The legendary Provençale cook, Lulu Peyraud, showed me how to make this simple, but delicious apricot dish.
Lulu’s Apricot Compote
This compote uses no additional liquid, in order to concentrate the flavor of the apricots.
1 pound firm, ripe apricots, halved and pitted
1 3-inch length of vanilla bean, split in 2 lengthwise
¾ cup sugar
Put the apricots and the vanilla bean in a bowl and sprinkle on the sugar. Leave to macerate at room temperature for at least one hour, or until the sugar has melted and drawn juice from the fruit.
Empty into a heavy, non-reactive saucepan and place over low heat. Cover and cook for at least 15 minutes, until apricots are immersed in a simmering syrup.
Transfer to a serving bowl and cool to warm room temperature. Remove the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the compote. Serve at room temperature, by itself or spooned over vanilla ice cream. May be covered and refrigerated for several days.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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