Fresh From the Farm – Katie Malich

Apricots and cherries are in season, and the Culver City Farmers Market is the place to go for fresh, juicy, tree-ripened fruit.

Don’t wait too long. The California cherry season is only six weeks long, from mid-May through June – depending, of course, upon the weather. Fresh cherries from the Pacific Northwest are available a bit later in the season, but the end of the California apricot season is the end of fresh, non-imported apricots until 2012.

California produces 95% of nation’s apricot crop, so when the eight week long season is over in mid-July, apricot aficionados will have to turn to dried and canned apricots to tide themselves over until next year.

As much as I love fresh apricots, I will not buy them from the supermarket. Having grown up with an apricot tree in my back yard, I’d rather eat dried apricots than a disappointing fresh one. If apricots are picked green, they do not ripen. Ripe apricots are fragile, and can bruise easily, so apricots picked for supermarket sales are not picked at their prime.

Look for uniform orange-yellow to orange color to avoid disappointment. The fully ripe fruit is juicy and soft to the touch. Ripe apricots should be eaten as soon as possible. To ensure that I’ll have fresh apricots for several days, I’ll buy some fairly firm fruit with a delicious aroma as well as some juicy, soft ripe ones. Firm fruit with a fragrant aroma will be sweet, and will last a few days longer than the really soft ‘cots. If I am not eating them immediately, I’ll put the ripest ones in the refrigerator so they won’t spoil. In theory, they will stay fresh for up to a week in the refrigerator, but mine are usually all eaten before the week is up. Apricots taste best at room temperature, so I’ll take them out of the fridge around half an hour before I plan to serve them. The firmer ones will keep outside of the refrigerator at room temperature for a few days. Some people will put them in a paper bag to help them ripen, but I prefer to keep them visible so I can gauge their readiness without so much touching (and possible bruising).

Apricots have a wonderfully complex sweet and tangy flavor. Some varieties are naturally sweeter than others. My Southern California favorite is the Blenheim, which will be available shortly. If tang is not your thing, roasting or cooking fresh apricots enhances their sweetness. Adding fresh apricots to baked goods or main dishes brings sweetness and good nutrition.

My friend Carlyn, a nurse from Pasadena, preferred an apricot a day, instead of the storied apple-a-day, to keep the doctor away . Like apples, apricots are a good source of fiber. They are also a good source of potassium and a very good source of vitamins C and A. One cup of fresh apricot contains 60 percent of the recommended daily value for vitamin A. Try some fresh apricot scones or lentils with apricots to add some variety to your apricot-a-day routine.

Apricot Scones
(8 scones)
c. flour, sifted, plus extra to flour board
3 T. sugar, divided
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/3 c. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 c. diced fresh apricots
1/4 cup whole milk
2 eggs or equivalent egg substitute

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt into large bowl. Add sugar and mix. Add butter, cut into flour mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add apricots, toss until pieces are coated with flour mixture. Preserve one tablespoon milk. Mix the remaining milk and eggs or egg supplement in medium-sized bowl. Add milk mixture to flour mixture and stir until moistened.
Lightly flour a clean cutting board and knead the dough gently about 10 times. Pat the dough into a circle about _ inch thick. Cut dough into 8 wedge-shaped pieces. Place wedges on lightly oiled baking sheet. Brush wedges with reserved milk and remaining sugar. Bake at 450 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Lentil Salad with Apricots
(4 servings)
1/2 c. lentils, rinsed and picked over
3 c. water
3 T. lemon juice
2 T. olive oil
1 T. honey
1 t. curry powder
1 t. lemon zest
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. ground black pepper
4 fresh apricots, pitted
1 c. chopped red bell pepper
3 scallions, chopped
optional 3 T. chopped cilantro
4 cups mixed salad greens

In a medium saucepan, add lentils to 3 cups water. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and then reduce heat to medium. Simmer, partially covered, for about 20 minutes until lentils are soft but still hold their shape. Drain, transfer to a bowl and reserve.
In a small bowl, combine lemon juice, oil, honey, curry powder, lemon zest, salt and ground black pepper. Slice 3 apricots and put into another bowl. Add 2 tablespoon lemon juice mixture and toss.

Dice the remaining apricot. Add diced apricot, chopped red bell pepper, scallions, cilantro (if desired), and 3 T lemon juice mixture to lentils. Toss well. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice mixture over the mixed greens, toss, and arrange on serving platter or individual serving plates. Top with lentil mixture and garnish with the sliced apricots. Drizzle remaining dressing over sliced apricots if desired. Serve immediately. (Adopted from Rodale Press recipe.)

The downtown Culver City farmers market is held on Tuesdays from 2 to 7 pm on Main Street, between Venice and Culver Blvds. The Culver South Farmers Market is held on Saturday mornings from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the northeast corner of the Westfield Culver City parking lot at the corner of Slauson and Hannum Boulevards.

Katie Malich has enjoyed fresh apricots with cottage cheese for breakfast this week.

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