It is no wonder the ancient Persians called apricots "eggs of the sun" and the Greeks in their mythology called them "golden apples." At their peak, from June through August, fresh ripe and fragrant apricots, naturally sweet and luscious, look and taste like a drop of golden summer sun.
The very best apricots are plump, juicy, yellowish-orange globes, neither too firm nor too soft and mushy. If they are not fully ripe when purchased, apricots will ripen to perfection with a few days' rest in a warm room inside a closed brown paper bag.
Then into the refrigerator they go for eating out of hand or until they are cooked in favorite dishes. Between 12 and 16 apricots, depending on size, weigh about a pound and, when sliced, yield about 3 cups.
Since fresh apricots are highly perishable and delicate fruit, people have devised ways to preserve them since they were first cultivated in 2200 B.C. in China, where the wild trees grew on the mountain slopes around Peking. Luckily the rich, intense taste of dried apricots is fair compensation. Six pounds of perfectly ripe fruit produce one pound of dried.
But the dried fruit packs a hefty wallop of 195 calories per half cup, whereas a fresh apricot is a 20-calorie treat full of iron, vitamin A and vitamin C.
Canned apricots, made from top-quality fruit with peak-of-the-season flavor, come peeled and unpeeled, whole and halved and packed in light or heavy syrup or water. A half cup of apricots in heavy syrup has 110 calories. Frozen apricots, while available, are reserved primarily for commercial use. For homemade frozen apricots, wash, peel, pit and halve fresh fruit and sprinkle them with sugar, or blanch whole unpeeled apricots for a minute, chill in ice water and pack in sugar syrup.
Some apricots are preserved by brandying or pickling or by being turned into jams and jellies, squeezed into nectar, fermented into wine and made into sugared confections.
Experts consider Turkish apricots the world's best for eating dried, California apricots the best for eating fresh, which is nice for us since California orchards produce 97 percent of all apricots grown in the United States. Fifty percent of these are a flat, oval-shaped variety called Tilton. The other half is comprised of 25 percent Blenheims and 25 percent Royals, both of which are round, yellow-orange fruit with rich, sweet, deep-orange flesh.
When the apricot traveled to the part of the Persian Empire known as Armenia hundreds of years ago, it picked up the name Prunus armeniaca, Armenian apples
n the Mediterranean region it was called praecoquum, precocious, because it ripens early. Apricots were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Arabs called them alburqua, which also means precocious.
By the time the fruit reached England in the early 17th century, abricock was the name. From there a short step took the word to its modern form. Spanish settlers brought the apricot to the New World and Spanish missionaries planted them in California, where the first recorded crop was harvested in 1792 near the town of Santa Clara.
Now, though they are grown year round in California, the peak season harvest is celebrated in Patterson in the San Joaquin Valley with the annual apricot fiesta during the first week in June. A recipe competition during the fiesta has led to the development of such recipes as apricot waffle topping, apricot muffins, sticky buns, shortcake, seven-layer cake, fritters and Irish soda bread, apricot crepes, fudge, flan, bru le'e and soup to complement traditional recipes for tarts, pies, ice cream, compotes, jams and jellies, charlottes, rice puddings, sauces and souffle's. There are preserved candied, caramelized and crystallized apricots. In Middle-Eastern cuisines, apricots are cooked with meats as well as dried in sheets to make fruit "leathers."
Soaking the dried fruit in sugared vodka yields a creditable homemade apricot brandy. Apricot brandy alexanders and apricot yogurt drinks are other possibilities. Or apricots can be skewered with beef cubes or cocktail frankfurters for kebabs, stuffed into pork chops, stewed with beef or lamb, baked with beans, saute'ed with chicken or shrimp, mixed with rice and tossed with salad.
Here are some recipes for this season's crop of fresh apricots. APRICOT OMELET (4 servings)
2 cups apricots
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Sugar to taste
Yogurt for garnish
Peel, pit and cut apricots into small pieces. Saute' in 2 tablespoons butter for 2 minutes. Combine eggs, vanilla and cinnamon and add apricots. Heat remaining butter in a large skillet, pour in egg mixture and fry until golden on both sides. Serve with a dusting of sugar and a dollop of yogurt.Adapted from "My Grandmother's Kitchen" by Viviane Miner (Triad, 1984, $8.95.) BARBECUED APRICOT AND BEEF KEBABS (6 servings)
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
20-ounce can pineapple chunks
6-ounce can unsweetened pineapple juice
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 1/2 pounds sirloin tip or other lean, tender beef, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
1 pound fresh apricots
2 green peppers, cut into 3/4-inch strips and parboiled
To make marinade: Combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, syrup from pineapple chunks, pineapple juice, sherry and vinegar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 minute. Cool and pour over beef. Marinate in the refrigerator 2 hours. Just before cooking, halve and pit apricots. Alternate pineapple chunks, apricot halves and green pepper strips on 6 skewers. Thread beef cubes on 6 additional skewers. Brush both fruit and meat with marinade. Grill beef kebabs 4 inches from medium hot coals for 3 to 5 minutes per side or until they reach desired doneness. Grill fruit 2 to 3 minutes per side or until fruit begins to brown. Brush occasionally with marinade while grilling. SPICED APRICOTS (8 servings)
2 pounds ripe apricots
Sugar to taste (about 1/4 to 2/3 cup depending on sweetness of fruit)
1 cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick, halved, or 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Peel, pit and halve apricots. Place in a 2-quart casserole. Combine sugar, water, lemon juice and cinnamon and pour over fruit. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until apricots are soft. Cool and refrigerate. APRICOT FRUIT LEATHER
2 pounds ripe apricots
Sugar to taste
Orange food coloring (optional)
Peel, pit and slice apricots. There should be 4 cups. Pure'e in a food processor. Add sugar only if needed and food coloring if desired. Line a 9-by-13-inch jelly roll pan with plastic wrap, folding ends under. Tape the ends of the wrap securely to the bottom of the pan. Pour pure'e onto pan, spreading into an even layer about 1/4 inch thick. Set oven at lowest possible temperature. Place baking sheet in oven and leave oven door ajar. Allow to dry overnight. When leather is completely dry, peel plastic. Lay leather on a fresh sheet of plastic and roll up with the plastic. Keeps about 1 month at room temperature, several months in the refrigerator and up to a year in the feezer. FRESH APRICOT BRULEE (4 servings)
1 pound fresh apricots, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
Arrange apricot slices in a 1-quart souffle' dish. Sprinkle with sugar. Pour on kirsch and toss to coat evenly. Spread sour cream on top. Sift brown sugar evenly over top of sour cream. Broil 3 to 4 minutes or until sugar melts. Serve immediately. FRESH APRICOT SOUFFLE (10 servings)
1 pound fresh apricots, peeled and pitted
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1 ( 1/4-ounce) envelope plus 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
5 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons apricot brandy
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
Pure'e apricots in a food processor or blender. There should be 1 1/2 cups pure'e. Add 1/2 cup sugar. Combine water and 1/2 cup of the pure'e. Sprinkle gelatin over pure'e to soften. Set aside. Beat egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar in the top of a double boiler. Cook over boiling water, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until thickened. Add brandy and gelatin mixture and stir until gelatin dissolves. Cook 1 minute. Place remaining pure'e in a large bowl and add egg yolk mixture. Chill until mixture mounds slightly.
Beat egg whites with salt until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until stiff and shiny. Fold egg whites into apricot mixture. Fold in whipped cream. Cut a strip of waxed paper 4 inches wide and long enough to extend around the outside of a 1-quart souffle' dish. Fasten with string or tape. Pour mixture into dish and chill several hours. Remove collar and serve. %APRICOTS AND MIXED FRESH FRUIT COMPOTE (8 servings)
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons honey
8 fresh apricots (about 12 ounces), sliced
2 cups watermelon balls
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
1 banana, sliced
Combine orange juice and honey. Place fruits in a large bowl, add juice mixture and toss lightly. Cover and chill.