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Peak Pick: Apricots

Early “Apache” variety apricots I have a real soft spot for apricots. Like a quiet kid in the corner of a noisy classroom, apricots can get lost in the loud and boisterous start of the cherry season. Apricot growers also enjoy underdog status in my mental ranking of underappreciated persons since apricots are a crop very susceptible to ugly winter and early spring weather and a long list of harvest-killing dangers. Apricots are very difficult to actually pick, pack, ship, and display — and getting them home without a bag or box of bruised, over- or under-ripe fruit is also a challenge. Despite this (or maybe because of it), the arrival of apricots is among my most anticipated events of the summer – all my recipes at home are lined up and ready to include them. Apricot bloom – California central valley Our apricot field team expert Adam has delivered a moderately better prognosis for the 2010 harvest season than the one we saw for 2009. This year we escaped the freeze that wiped out the first few varieties at the bloom stage last year, but this year’s El Niño spring came with some very high winds and even hail in some areas of the California central valley. This may sound bad (and it was devastating for a couple of growers), but heavy weather can also have a natural pruning effect on apricot crops – allowing the tree to focus more energy on the fruit that remains. Heavy fruit set - California central valley There are many commercial varieties under cultivation today. Among the earliest is the Apache, which has almost finished harvesting already. We will see this fruit in stores through the middle of the month followed by the appropriately named “Earlicot,” which should carry us to the end of May. Both varieties are quite good and were, for the most part, absent last year. So, if it feels like apricots are arriving in your local store or farmer’s market a little earlier this year, that’s because they are. These early apricots are followed by the peak production varieties of June. Among these are the Poppycot, the Patterson and (my personal favorite) the Blenheim. The fruit set on the trees, according to Adam, is very heavy. If Mother Nature cooperates we should have a very good season. Already, the early samples are coming off the trees beautifully, with vibrant internal color, great external blush, perfect texture and rich, complex flavor. Apricots and cane berries (black or rasp) with a soft cheese For my family a very good season means apricots get incorporated into breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of my uses at home are simple and I have many, many favorites: fruit salads, salsas over fish, skewed with shrimp and (Whole Trade) pineapple served over rice, or just simply eaten alone (with only a smile to accompany them). My new favorite dessert involves an oatmeal cookie, some halved apricots brushed with butter and grilled over indirect heat and topped with ice cream. If there is a better late spring dessert, I haven’t found it yet. Mostly I just enjoy the precious few weeks we get with fresh apricots every year. Dried fruit and preserves are all well and good and on a grey day in November I would certainly not refuse them in oatmeal or over toast. But there’s something special about fresh apricots — like finding out that shy kid in the corner turns out to be a really great artist or just a charming, thoughtful person you will end up knowing for the rest of your life. Connecting to our cycles of seasons is one of the ongoing pleasures of buying and selling (and eating) fresh produce and this beautifully golden, sweet/tart harbinger of summer is one of my most important seasonal markers. Good harvest or bad, they are always welcome and always worth the wait. Many thanks to Adam Morrison for contributing to this post.