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A sure sign that it is summer somewhere in our hemisphere is the appearance of the "stone fruits" in stores. Peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots are members of this family, so-called because they have a pit or "stone" in the middle of the fruit. Usually, apricots are the first to appear. For produce purveyors, their arrival signals the beginning of summer, and the impending explosion in varieties of fresh fruit available to enjoy.
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Apricots were originally grown in China, and purportedly brought to the West by Alexander the Great. The trees spread throughout Europe, flourishing in the Mediterranean region. The Spanish brought them to California, where they found conditions so congenial that today more apricots are grown there than anywhere.
My own opinion of apricots is that when they are good, they are very, very good. And when they aren't, they are just mediocre. A good apricot is smooth and buttery, with a sweet musky taste and just a hint of tartness. Unfortunately good apricots seem to be the exception these days. In commercial varieties, the quest for early maturation and sturdiness in shipping seems to have taken priority over flavor. Too often, fresh apricots will be bland and watery, or too tart.
When choosing apricots, give them a sniff and a squeeze. Good apricots will have a subtle apricot fragrance and will yield lightly to your touch. Apricots that are hard are best left in the produce case.
If you can't find any good fresh apricots, you can always enjoy dried ones. I am especially fond of dried Turkish apricots, which are moist and sweet. Try them with Spanish sheep's milk cheeses like Manchego or Idiazabol for an unforgettable taste treat.
Like most fruits, apricots are really good for you. They are extremely high in Vitamin A and fiber and they are also a good source of iron. The Chinese consider apricots to have a lubricating action on the lungs and colon and are use them for dry coughs, bronchitis and dry constipation.
Fresh apricots are good eaten out of hand and also can be used in fruit salads, crisps and compotes. Here is an interesting recipe for a rather rich dessert compote using fresh apricots.
Baked apricots with almond cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup blanched sliced almonds, finely ground
8 fresh apricots
¼ cup apricot preserves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
heavy (or whipping) cream (optional)
Cream the butter and sugar in a small bowl with a wooden spoon until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at time, beating well after each addition. Add the almond extract, vanilla extract, and ground almonds; mix until well combined.
Half and pit each apricot. Arrange halves, cut side down, in a 10-inch round Pyrex pan or pie plate. Spread the almond cream over the fruit, being sure to cover it completely.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees Farenheit.
Bake until the almond cream starts to set and edges are golden, about 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix apricot preserves and the lemon juice. Spoon the preserves over the baked apricots and bake until the topping is golden brown and bubbly, about 3 minutes longer. The almond cream should not be completely set. Transfer to a rack to cool. Serve warm in compote dishes, with a bit of cream, if desired.
Yields 4-6 servings.
Recipe from "Nicole Routhier's Fruit Cookbook" by Nicole Routhier (Workman Publishing)
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.