When apricots arrive in the store, I know that summer has finally arrived and all the other hot-weather fruits are not far behind. A good apricot is small, round, delicate, and glows with golden color. About the size of a plum and similar in appearance to a very small peach, a ripe apricot is sweet, fragrant, richly colored, and extremely fragile. It is one of the richest sources of beta carotene (vitamin A). Apricots are delicious and low in calories eaten out of hand; they're also great poached with a little sugar, turned into jam or fillings for layer cakes, made into tarts, dried, or glacéed.
Although apricots from China were introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great, they apparently disappeared at some point during the Roman Empire. Some say that the Moors reintroduced them when they conquered Spain, but apricots definitely reappeared during the Crusades. And it's certain that Franciscan friars brought them to California, which still grows the bulk of the crop in the United States. Although we get a few out of Idaho, I think those from California are the best. They're surpassed in flavor only by apricots from Morocco, where weather and soil conditions produce wonderful apricots. The trouble is, they're so fragile they must be picked hard and shipped under refrigeration and often don't ripen properly. Too many times in and out of the refrigerator, and a apricot becomes dry and woody. If you see great-looking apricots from Morocco, try them, but your safest bet is the California apricot, mainly because it travels a shorter distance.
California apricots are at their peak from May through August. Later in the fall, apricots from Idaho appear. Winter fruit from Chile, Australia,, and New Zealand are not worth buying because they've been picked too green (which means they will be very hard, very woody). Australian apricots are fine in Australia, but not here.
Since apricots will ripen off the tree, in many instances your best bet is to buy firm fruit and take it home to ripen. Firm apricots should be gold, with no traces of green. A good ripe one will be a rich, allover gold, often with a red blush, and the flesh will be soft. Avoid wrinkled apricots, which are old.
Because they are so tender, ripe apricots will often show small bruises or soft spots. Don't let that worry you, as it is usually a sign that the fruit is ripe and sweet (but don't select fruit that is bruised all over - something that can happen in a self-service market where dozens of people may have squeezed the life out of the fruit). Although Napolitano's is self- service, we try and keep the apricots near the check-out counter so that we can help our customers with them. Do yourself and your neighbors a favor, and handle the apricots and other fragile fruit very carefully.
Leave hard apricots on the counter in a warm place for as long as five or six days to ripen, until very gold in color and soft to the touch. A ripe apricot may be refrigerated, but not for more than a day or two. Like peaches, apricots dry out fairly quickly in the refrigerator.
A fresh ripe apricot is a sublime treat. But this fragrant fruit is also delicious gently poached, or try the Apricot Mousse featured here.
Other recipes from Produce Pete.