Apricot and a summer song
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So here we are (vicariously, in my case, but I’m with you in spirit), sweating it out at the brutal end of an Indian summer. Bodies have been pounded and minds addled by the relentless searing sun; melting into lifeless heaps while prayers to the rain gods go unanswered. Appetites are beyond jaded and there is certainly no energy for cooking. A bowl of fruit, perhaps some yogurt, is pretty much the only palatable option for supper. But sometimes even that bowl of fruit disappoints—the fruit, far from bursting with spirit-restoring juice and flavour, is sometimes dry, tasteless or unripe.
I picked up a tub of apricots at the supermarket the other day. They looked beautiful—deceptive, perfect little pinky orange orbs—but one bite told me they were never going to be the ripe, sweet fruit I was looking for. This is partly the fault of fruit growers, certainly in the northern parts, trying to extend fruit seasons by growing produce in polytunnels (polythene tunnels that keep plants warm), and picking too early. But in India too, apricots, and stone fruit in general, can disappoint because, despite being widely grown in India’s mountain areas, they don’t transport well. The sad truth is that unless you have an apricot tree in your garden, you’re unlikely to taste them at their best. I learnt recently from the wonderful food writer Vikram Doctor that the Egyptians have a saying: “fil mishmish”, which means literally “when apricots bloom”, mishmish being the Arabic word for apricot. The real meaning, of course, is “almost never”, an elegant way of saying “when pigs fly”.
This is why, for those of us who can’t see an apricot tree from the kitchen window, it’s usually a better bet to cook apricots. They have traditionally lent their sweetness to lamb dishes like the North African tagine, the Parsi jardalloo salli boti and Kashmiri curries. The early Arab Abbasid dynasty created a dish of lamb, apricots, spices, almonds and rose water called mishmishiya.
My usual course of action when faced with below-par apricots is to throw sugar at them and turn them into jam, tarts, cakes. But this week I decided I didn’t want to cook them. So today’s recipes are a quick and easy solution to a pressing Indian summer problem—what to eat at this time of the year, when you can’t muster much enthusiasm for anything and even a fruit bowl disappoints. Well, if fruit refuses to behave like a fruit, treat it like a vegetable—and so this summer salad was born. The unyielding little fruits sprang to life instantly, with nothing more than a few seconds on the griddle pan, and their sharp taste married perfectly with the peppery spinach and soothing saffron yogurt.
It took about 5 minutes to make and I turned it into something a little more substantial by slicing up some halloumi cheese and popping it on the same griddle pan as the apricots. For maximum summer revivification, dig out your most beautiful platter to serve it on. And if you still have a glut of inferior apricots, try the lovely gingery baked apricots for dessert.
APRICOT SALAD WITH SAFFRON YOGURT
Other stone fruit like peaches or plums would also work well in this recipe, perhaps even a disappointingly unripe mango
300g (about 8) not-too-ripe apricots/jardalloo (if you spot the Afghan apricots in the market, they would be beautiful in this recipe)
2 tbsp olive oil
A pinch of saffron
Juice of half a lemon
2 big handfuls of baby spinach leaves (or other salad leaves)
Some fresh herbs—thyme, basil, parsley
Seeds of half a pomegranate
Salt, to taste
Slice the apricots in half lengthways and remove the stones. Put a little of the olive oil in a bowl, add the apricot halves and coat them with the oil. Heat a ridged griddle pan until very hot (if you don’t have a ridged pan, use a heavy frying pan). Put the apricot halves on the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side until they have lovely seared marks but are not collapsing. Remove to a plate and leave to cool.
Put the saffron in a little bowl and add a little boiling water. Put the yogurt in a bowl, add the remaining olive oil, lemon juice, saffron water and salt to taste. Whisk it all together to make a smooth sauce.
Arrange the spinach leaves on a large (beautiful) platter and arrange the grilled apricots on top. Sprinkle over the herbs and pomegranate seeds and drizzle with the saffron yogurt sauce. If serving with halloumi, sear slices on the griddle pan in the same way as the apricot halves.
BAKED GINGERY APRICOTS
2 fingers fresh ginger
150g demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Peel and finely julienne the ginger. Mix the ginger, sugar and water together in a shallow oven dish. Add the apricots and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Serve warm or cold with some yogurt and shortbread biscuits.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.