Produce at Its Peak: Apricots and an Adios

It has not been truly hot so far this year, and for that I am grateful.

Where I grew up in central Kansas, you could count on the mercury hitting 100 by the first week of July and staying that way for two months. We adapted our cooking to fit the season -- that is, we ate a lot of salads, grilled things, and we used a toaster oven installed on the screened in porch for any baking projects. Even though it’s been so pleasant there are a couple of low-fuss, low-heat dishes that I’ve been eating night after night simply because they are delicious.

Salad Nicoise

Salad Nicoise is a composed salad - -that is, vegetables and proteins arranged prettily on a nice dish and dressed with a vinaigrette. Traditionally, the proteins are quartered hard-boiled eggs and tuna. In Nice, I have read, it is always canned tuna, not fresh (note coupon pictured on this page, available now! -- Editor, 7/15/14). The usual vegetables are all things that we carry from local farms at this moment. From Wisconsin Growers, new red potatoes with skins so thin they can almost be rubbed off. Tomato King cherry tomatoes, so full of flavor and sweetness. Wisconsin Growers green (or purple, or yellow) beans, Featherstone butter lettuce or HeartBeet salanova and pearly Keewaydin green top onions (sliced thin). And then a few capers and olives top off the whole arrangement.

What I have described is traditional. But we Americans are an independent and innovative lot, and there are lots of options. Substitute arugula or romaine for butter lettuce. Bela Sardines, available in cute little tins in the grocery aisle, are great in this salad. Vegetarians could use cubed cheese or marinated chickpeas instead of fish. And as far as vegetables-almost anything goes. Red pepper strips, sliced radishes, tender white turnips, cucumbers, small roasted beets -- you name it.

It has been my custom to prepare a salad dressing for the week on one of my days off, and, lately, it’s been a lemony vinaigrette with shallots and tarragon or basil, which goes great on Salad Nicoise. It’s also helpful to steam the green beans, boil potatoes and eggs for use throughout the week, and to wash whatever greens you choose ahead of time. It is a gift to your future self to do this rather pleasant task when time allows, so that later, when you’re hungry and busy, you can have something delicious without a lot of work.

Baked Apricots

The other dish I have been working on perfecting is baked apricots.

In the last week we have finally received the first shipment of Robada apricots, a large variety with a deep red blush and juicy flesh. Many customers and staff members have been eagerly awaiting their arrival. The other day I had three not-quite ripe apricots at home. I cut them in half, removed the pits and nestled them together in a small baking dish. The seed cavities I filled with honey and then the dish went into the toaster oven for 15 minutes at 320 degrees, which is one of five options my particular oven allows. They became soft and mellow, and the honey became one with the apricot. After they had cooled, I sprinkled a few drops of rose water on them, and served them with a little sweetened ricotta and chopped pistachio nuts. The same dish made a nice breakfast the next morning.

One thing that I like about apricots and plums is the slight bitterness that the peel contributes. The contrast with the sweetness of the juice enlivens the palette. In that vein, it is bittersweet to say that this will be my last Produce at Its Peak. I have so enjoyed writing this column over the last year, and serving the Seward Co-op community over the last six. I’m leaving to go to graduate school, but I will always be grateful for the opportunities to learn and to teach that this store and its owners have given me. Thank you!