Thanks to a relatively cold and wet winter, California’s spring gold rush is back.
Fresh-picked apricots are now arriving in stores and farmers markets and should be in ample supply throughout May.
“This crop looks like a good one,” said Bill Ferriera, president of the Turlock-based Apricot Producers of California. “We’ve rebounded from the very short year we had last year. This season looks more normal. The very earliest varieties started harvesting (the last week of April).”
As any apricot fan knows, 2015 was a bust for this popular fruit.
“It was the shortest crop we ever had on record in California,” Ferriera said. “We harvested 35,000 tons. In a normal year like 2014, we harvest 55,500 tons.”
Grown mostly in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, California’s crop accounts for about 98 percent of all apricots produced in the United States, he said. “We are the apricot state.”
This year’s crop should top the 50,000-ton mark, with plenty of fruit to supply canners, juicers and baby-food makers as well as groceries.
That was not the case last spring when trees showed signs of stress. California’s prolonged drought caused some of that grief, but the real issue was warm nights, Ferriera said.
“The trees didn’t get enough chill hours (below 45 degrees),” he explained. “Apricots need 800 to 1,000 chill hours, and they didn’t get even half of that. The trees didn’t rest like they should (during winter dormancy), so when spring came, they didn’t push out the blooms. With the drought, the trees were already stressed. But the lack of chill hours just made it worse.”
No flowers mean no fruit, which was what a lot of farmers saw last spring in their orchards, he said. “Even this winter was fairly warm, but we had just enough chill (to prompt good bloom and fruit set). We just don’t get as cold as we used to.”
That may lead to more changes in orchards. The Patterson apricot variety, which needs the most chill hours, accounts for 80 percent of the total market.
Meanwhile, fruit fans should enjoy this flavorful crop – while it lasts. Even in good years, apricot harvest comes and goes quickly, with these golden gems all but gone by the Fourth of July.
Apricots aren’t just sweet; their tartness combines well with other flavors. That makes them an excellent choice for savory dishes.
As an ancient fruit dating back thousands of years in both Asia and the Mediterranean, apricots are at home in many cuisines. Their sweet-tart flavor complements lamb, pork, ham and poultry. Typical spices used with apricots include ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and curry.
But why stop there? Food service professionals working with the Apricot Producers of California came up with a more extensive list of what works with apricots. In addition to more familiar savory combinations, these food and fruit pros suggested apricots with chicken, duck, curry, cumin, nutmeg, basil, tarragon, onion, garlic, salad greens, nuts, rice, couscous, wheat, yogurt and raisins.
And don’t forget the grill; fire caramelizes apricots’ natural sugars and brings out the fruit’s rich complexity. After that necessary winter chill, apricots appreciate a little summer warmth, too.
Tartines with apricot and endive
Serves 2-3 as a main course or 4 as an appetizer
These easy-to-put-together toasts feature a wonderful combination of flavors – sweet, tart, salty, bitter – plus crunchy and creamy textures. They are perfect for a breezy lunch with salad or soup and a glass of wine, or as a casual party appetizer.
Note: Toast the pecans in a small, dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes until they are fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan as needed to keep them from burning.
Adapted from “Near and Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel,” by Heidi Swanson (Ten Speed Press, $29.99, 336 pages).
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Four 1/2-inch thick slices levain bread (5 ounces total)
3 Belgian endives, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices (about 2 cups total)
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 fresh, pitted apricots, thinly sliced (or substitute 8 dried apricot halves)
1 1/2 ounces (1/4 cup) pecans, toasted and cut lengthwise
2 ounces (1/3 cup) crumbled or shaved hard sheep’s milk cheese, such as manchego, pecorino-Romano or Pyrenees
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram leaves
Lightly oil each slice of bread and toast or broil until golden and crisp.
A few minutes before serving, toss together the endives with the salt and lemon juice in a bowl. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, until the endives wilt a bit.
Add the apricots, pecans and cheese; toss to incorporate. To assemble, evenly distribute the endive mixture across the bread, then finish with fresh marjoram and a drizzle of oil.
Adapted from a recipe by Mark Bittman. We’ve made the raisins and nuts optional because not everyone likes them. Try this with any grilled meat.
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 pounds pitted, chopped apricots (or other stone fruit)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 pinch ground cloves
1/4 cup raisins (or currants), optional
1/4 cup toasted nuts, such as macadamias or blanched almonds, optional
Orange juice to taste
Combine brown sugar, fruit and water in a skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until just tender, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add orange juice and ginger, curry powder and a pinch of ground cloves. Simmer, reducing mixture to desired thickness.
Partly cool, then stir in raisins and nuts (if using) and serve.
Apricot-glazed grilled chicken cutlets
You can find plenty of prepared marinades and barbecue sauces in stores, but why buy them? It's easy to mix up quick marinades and glazes from what you already have in the pantry. This apricot barbecue glaze is a good example. Prep time is about 15 minutes.
Grilled apricots and scallions finish the dish and make it look as great as it tastes. If you can find them, choose so-called red apricots, which actually have a deep orange color. Different varieties are showing up in markets, and they yield a lovely, rosy juice after grilling. If you can't find apricots at all, plums or peaches may be substituted.
Make ahead: The chicken needs to marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.
For the chicken and marinade:
1/2 cup fresh orange juice (from 2 to 3 juice oranges)
2 tablespoons apricot jam or preserves
1 tablespoon mild olive or vegetable oil
Pinch ground cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
6 thinly sliced skinless chicken breast cutlets (about 1 1/2 pounds total)
For the glaze and garnishes:
2 teaspoons mild olive or vegetable oil
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste (may substitute 2 tablespoons regular tomato paste)
Pinch ground cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 to 2 juice oranges)
1/4 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
3 tablespoons apricot jam or preserves
Freshly ground black pepper
6 apricots, preferably a red variety, cut in half and pitted (see note above)
6 large scallions, trimmed
For the chicken and marinade: Whisk together the orange juice, jam or preserves, oil and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, then pour into a resealable gallon-size food storage bag. Add the chicken cutlets and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage to coat the chicken evenly. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.
For the glaze and garnishes: Heat the oil in a small nonstick saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, until the onion has softened. Add the tomato paste and cayenne pepper; cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the orange juice, broth and jam or preserves. Season with black pepper to taste. Cook, stirring, until the jam dissolves. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the mixture is barely bubbling at the edges; cook for about 8 minutes. Taste again and adjust the seasoning as needed. Remove from the heat.
Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal; when the coals are ready, distribute them evenly over the cooking area. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Use cooking oil spray to grease the grill grate; place the grate on the grill. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Transfer the cutlets to the grill, discarding the marinade. Add the apricot halves, cut sides down, and the scallions. Close the lid and cook for 4 minutes or until the chicken has good grill marks. Turn the cutlets over. Turn the apricots and scallions over and move them to the outer edges of the grill grate.
Baste the apricots, scallions and the grilled side of the chicken with the glaze. Close the lid and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the cutlets are cooked through. Turn them over and baste the second side with the glaze. Transfer the apricot halves and scallions to a plate. Close the lid and cook the chicken for 2 minutes to set the glaze. Serve the cutlets warm or at room temperature, with the apricot halves and scallion as garnishes.
Really useful apricot-chili glaze
Makes 3 1/2 cups
This “really useful” savory apricot glaze gives ham, chicken and spare ribs a wonderful golden gloss. It also makes a terrific dip for fresh vegetables, or spring rolls or pot stickers.
From Annabel Langbein’s “The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures” (Annabel Langbein Media, out of print, 320 pages).
1 pound apricots
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 long red chilies, or more to taste, chopped
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Finely grated zest of 1 lime or lemon
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper
Remove pits from apricots and place in a large, heavy-based pot with all other ingredients. Bring to a simmer, stirring now and then, cover and cook over medium heat until fruit is very soft and pulpy (about 10 minutes). Transfer to a food processor and whiz until smooth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Store in a jar in the fridge for up to 2 weeks
Fragrant Sunday chicken with olives and apricots
Serves 6, with leftovers
1 head garlic, peeled and finely pureed
3/4 cup chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup green, Kalamata, and prune olives
4 ounces capers with some of the juice
3 bone-in split chicken breasts, cut in thirds
12-15 chicken wing drumettes
1/2 cup finely packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup white wine
Combine the garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, apricots, olives and capers in a large bowl. Pour the marinade into a large plastic lidded container. Add the chicken pieces and marinate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole arrange the chicken in a single layer and pour in the marinade. Sprinkle the chicken with the brown sugar and pour the wine around the sides of the casserole.
Bake for 50-55 minutes, basting periodically with pan juices, until largest chicken pieces register 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Serve hot or warm with rice.
Grilled and glazed pork with apricots
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (divided use)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound pork tenderloin, all visible fat and silver skin removed
1/4 cup apricot all-fruit spread
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
3 to 5 drops hot pepper sauce
4 to 6 ripe but firm apricots, halved and pitted
Preheat the grill to medium-high direct heat or allow the coals to burn down to white ash.
Combine the pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg and salt. Sprinkle the seasoning mixture evenly over the pork; set aside.
Combine the all-fruit spread, orange juice, olive oil, honey, ginger, hot pepper sauce and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg; stir to blend well. Measure 3 tablespoons of the juice mixture into a microwave-safe liquid measuring cup; set aside.
Place the apricot halves in a resealable bag. Drizzle the halves with a few tablespoons of the remaining juice mixture. Seal the bag and toss gently to cover the apricots evenly; set aside.
Grill the pork until a meat thermometer registers 155 degrees, turning to brown evenly, about 18 to 21 minutes. During the last 5 to 10 minutes of grilling, brush generously and frequently with some of the remaining juice mixture, covering all sides of the pork evenly.
Just before the pork is done, drain the apricots. Place the apricot halves on the outside edge of the grill, cut sides down. Grill 2 to 4 minutes or until grill marks are evident and the fruit is hot, but not overcooked.
Allow the pork to stand, covered, 5 minutes until a meat thermometer climbs to 160 degrees. Heat the reserved juice mixture in a microwave oven about 30 seconds or until hot. Cut the pork crosswise into slices about 3/4-inch thick. Cut the apricots into wedges. Arrange the apricot wedges over and around the pork. Drizzle with the reserved, heated juice mixture.