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Unappreciated apricots, oversweetened fruit

summer fruitsIt’s late May, and a food writer’s fancy turns to the first crops of summer fruit to hit the farmers’ markets. That’s strawberries and apricots in Los Angeles, and maybe some cherries too. We hunger all year for the fragile, flavorful stone fruits and berries to come back; even frozen bags of berries lack a great deal when compared with fresh blackberries at the height of their season.

As for apricots, the last two weeks have been nearly astonishing. My local Armenian greengrocers have been getting in beautiful ones with firm, juicy flesh and an astonishing tang, much better than the mushy bland ones I remember from a childhood summer spent up in British Columbia’s orchard country (their cherries were pretty good though…) And although these apricots are fairly reasonable for Los Angeles at under $2/lb., the price still makes them worth eating carefully, which for me means eating them out of hand and no other way. No recipes, no distractions, no competition–I’m hoarding mine.

Which is why I wonder at the food magazines and newspaper dining sections this week–several have baked apricots on the menu, and all seem to douse said apricots with cups (sometimes plural) of sugar and butter. And it’s true that baking or microwaving can rescue really bland stone fruit. But it doesn’t require tons of sugar or butter, just heat to intensify the flavor.

For really good summer fruits in season, do you really want to drown out their native freshness and tang with a ton of generic sweetening? Do you really want to cook them at all? Because heating will intensify the base flavors at the expense of the fragile, perfumed complexity that you’ve waited for all year. Otherwise, you’d be just as happy with canned peaches, even in the summertime.

I feel at least as strongly about blackberries and raspberries. When I was a student in Virginia I used to go down to the woods–or the train tracks–in the summer and pick salad bowls full of berries from the brambles. I wasn’t alone, either–dedicated bikers and even a few runners could be seen hauling lidded bowls around with them. I picked up my share of scratches, but it always seemed worth it.

Out here, the cultivated blackberries and raspberries are bigger, the flavors deeper and sweeter because California gets so much sun. When we can get them at a good price, which this week they were, there’s nothing like eating them fresh one by one. You can be happy eating just a few at a time and concentrating on the flavor. Sugar would throw the experience–it would be like adding sugar to your glass at a wine tasting.

And on the other hand, fruit pies not made from a can are their own kind of once-a-year experience. So can you combine the freshness of raw summer fruit with the pleasure of good baking? Well, there are the typical custard- or cream cheese-based tarts overlaid with circles of fruit. But the fruit seems more like a decoration than a main ingredient.

However, a fresh blueberry pie my mother-in-law made a few years back was a favorite from the San Jose Mercury News, and it was so good I made one for my neighbor–who wouldn’t give any of it back. And she’s usually generous to a fault.

The idea for a raw fruit pie is to take a small amount of the fruit and cook it to a tartly sweetened jam with a little cornstarch or potato starch, then mix in the majority of the raw fruit cut up if necessary but not sweetened or cooked any further, pour it into the freshly baked shell or graham cracker crust and chill it to set up. The result is the best of both worlds.

Fresh (Mostly) Uncooked Blueberry Pie (sub in your summer fruit of choice)

Graham cracker crust: 12 graham crackers, 3 T butter, 1/2 c sugar or to taste, sprinkling of cinnamon, blended in food processor, pressed into pie plate and baked 10 min at 350F.

OR

Your favorite pie crust, freshly prebaked–if you make or roll out your own, you can get fancy by rolling out a little extra and cutting out some leaves or hearts or other decorations to bake on foil alongside your pie crust, and then use them to top the filled pie.

Filling

  • 4 c. (~3 pints) fresh washed blueberries
  • 3/4 c water
  • 1/2-5/8 c. sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon or lime (lime is best with blueberries)
  • 4 T cornstarch or potato starch

1. Boil water, sugar and lime or lemon juice to make a syrup. Dissolve cornstarch or potato starch in a few spoonfuls of cold water, just enough to make a thick white slurry. Add 1 cup of blueberries or other fresh fruit to the syrup and stir in the cornstarch slurry.

2. Let the syrup come back to a boil and mash the berries a little bit as you stir. Stir constantly until the consistency of thick jam or preserves and remove from heat. You want it to be solid enough when cool that it doesn’t run when you cut it, but not so thick as to be rubbery…

3. Quickly stir in the other 3 cups of fruit as gently as possible so as not to break them down. Pour into the baked crust and let cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator until fully set.

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