It’s not quite time to begin the holiday baking, but it probably is time to order the high-quality dried and glacé fruits and fresh nuts you will need for it. Faced with a need to bring some accompaniments for an early (this week) Thanksgiving pot luck at my university, I was caught short of time for an online order to get to me without paying a small fortune for overnight delivery that far exceeded the somewhat smaller fortune for the fruit itself, and forced into the supermarket to see what I could find. The lesson for the day is: if you do not live near a reliable purveyor of beautiful fruit and nuts, order early from a prime supplier. And, if you must use commercially packaged fruit—which, by the way, you will pay nearly as much and sometimes more for while receiving smaller, lower quality fruit—use it in preparations where the quality differential in the fruit will not make a huge difference in the quality of the product.
Dried apricots offer our case in point. There are two kinds, the same but different: those generally called Turkish and those generally called California; I say “generally” because commercial producers like Sun-Maid® make Turkish-style apricots, but they are really from California, and they label them “Mediterranean.” The Turkish apricot is a sunny, plump, moist and sweet fruit with a true soft apricot color. The best are, yes, from Turkey. Turkish apricots are whole apricots, with the pit carefully slipped out. The California apricot is an apricot half. It is a deep orange color, drier, chewier, with a very tart edge to its subtle sweetness; DelMonte® used to pack very good ones, but alas, no more. Both Turkish and California apricots are excellent, but different, eaten out of hand—the California is intense, while the Turkish is mild—and aficionados tend to divide into camps. Both are high in fiber and concentrated nutrients, especially vitamin A, iron, and beta-carotene. Both have been treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve their color, some minimally, some more so (unsulfured fruit, largely brown in color, is available). Both are the perfect holiday-time fruit. They are a pretty color, luxurious, delicious, and decorative—they look great on a platter, and the glacéd varieties, sort of giant Turkish-style apricots that have been soaked in syrup and of which those from Australia set the standard, are downright beautiful.
But the two types of dried apricot have pros and cons when it comes to cooking and baking. This is, admittedly, a matter of preference or opinion. Here are mine: For preparations where you want a soft or plump texture, or sweet contrast, I like Turkish apricots. I would use Turkish, for example, to stuff with cheese or nuts; for sauces or chutneys to serve with meat and poultry; and in dishes like pilafs, risottos, and salads. When you want a true, concentrated apricot flavor—where taste is more important than texture—I like California apricots, usually pureed and sometimes slightly sweetened. California apricots make a great pie, and a wonderful cake filling or layer of bar cookies. At first glance it might seem that California apricots are the hands-down choice for baking, while Turkish tip the balance for cooking—and perhaps that’s a general rule of thumb. But I would use Turkish in a fruit bread or cake, for example. So you decide. And another rule of thumb: for more lightly cooked or uncooked preparations, it’s worth seeking out premium quality fruit; for preparations that undergo long cooking or baking, supermarket varieties are acceptable.
Favorite Apricot Chutney
I have made this sweet-savory-spicy chutney for the holidays every year for more than 25 years, and try to make it often enough to have it available year-round: it is that good, and that versatile. This can be made with fruit from the supermarket, with minimal difference in the final product; just make sure it is freshly purchased, and that your spices are fresh. Quantities are flexible, so don’t feel like you have to measure too precisely. Makes 4-5 cups.
1 lb dried Turkish apricots, cut into quarters with scissor
¾ cup dried currants
1 ½ cup chopped sweet onion (about 1 medium-large)
3 T peeled, minced fresh ginger root
3 large cloves peeled fresh garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
1 ½ cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 ½ tea salt
1 ½ tea ground cinnamon
1 ½ tea ground coriander
¾ tea crushed red pepper
1 ½-2 cups red wine vinegar
Combine the fruit and all other dry ingredients in a 3-4-qt saucepan or chef’s pan. Ideally, let them dry-marinate for a few hours if you have time; if not, just proceed. Pour the vinegar over the mixture and stir until everything is moistened; if you have only a 12-oz bottle of vinegar handy, that will do. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat to an active simmer. Cook, stirring, for about 45 minutes, or until your wooden spoon pulled through the chutney makes a path, and the chutney is golden brown and somewhat thick. Be careful not to overcook, especially if you have used the smaller amount of vinegar. Put into clean sterilized jars or, if serving soon, into a pretty glass bowl. Refrigerate when cool.
This is excellent with turkey, poultry, or ham at dinner, or on just about any kind of sandwich, including grilled cheese. It makes a great quick appetizer served over goat or cream cheese, or with sliced cheddar. It is a perfect accompaniment to Indian meals and peps up leftover rice.