The glorious days of fruit season are upon us again. It’s been a few years since we had a really good one, with all the trees bending low with the weight of heavy fruits. Across Santa Fe, grocery store shelves are sold out of jars and lids within hours, and the sound of ball jars pinging sealed can be heard ringing out.
It’s been a couple few years since we had apricots to speak of, some say a decade has gone by since the sight of fallen apricot covered streets and gardens graced our fair villa. So much happens in a decade! I can’t help but reflect on how we grow between each cycle of harvest and preservation, gleaning our fruit, learning new ways to preserve it, and ripening into our ability to put everything else on hold because the apricots must be put up today.
From the fledgling days where we nervously try to get every last air bubble out of our jars, to the experiments with fermented chutney or hard cider, we are always in some state of beginners mind when it comes to putting up the harvest. And we are also rewarded for our efforts, becoming more and more skilled with each go round. The fruit teaches us, and brings us gently into the fold of radical homemaking. How can we say no to this gift from the trees, the bees, and the magical year that it all bears fruit?
Because I know I’ll forget between now and the next apricot year, here’s a little log of what’s gone down in my kitchen so far.
First, the canning. Here’s a blurry, satisfied, late night shot of some of it. I wasn’t super creative with my jams this year–next time I’ll make spiced ginger or rosehip-clementine-apricot jam like my friends did. Me, I’d just cook down the fruit as it fell (I call it “splat-ripened”) or was picked, then either make a simple pomonas pectin jam (my attempts at homemade pectin have flopped–advice?) or apricot butter (fruit and sugar in the crockpot till cooked down and darkened) depending on how much time I needed to buy myself.
I stopped myself after 45 jars, because really there is too much of a good thing and how much can we truly eat when so much fruit is still ripening on the tree?
Next I got to work freezing the choicest fruit–Just ripe enough to be heavenly but not even close to mushy. I dumped the fruit into a big bowl filled with water and a few teaspoons of citric acid (ascorbic acid from Vitamin C capsules would also be great) to keep them from discoloring. Then split, pitted, and frozen on cookie sheets and then stored in bags or containers.
Not pictured is my apricot brandy–a gallon jar filled with ripe, whole fruit, covered in three cups of sugar and cheap vodka. Already the smell of this brew is positively ambrosial, but I think I’ll give it a few more weeks for kicks. Strain as well as humanly possible. This is another place to get more creative–anise stars? Cinnamon sticks? Since we don’t really drink much brandy, however homemade-ish, I’ll be giving pretty little bottles at Christmas time. Also, next time I’ll be sure to use an organic, quality vodka.
Totally new for me this year is drying fruit. We don’t have a dehydrator, so it always seemed sort of off limits. Funny how the simplest things that you know are as ancient as mankind can seem like the most impossible. In my ’80s edition of Putting Food By there was a little note about how Ferminia Chavez of Las Trampas, New Mexico sun-dried her apricots thusly: Add two table spoons of kosher salt to a gallon of water. Dip the ripe fruit in, then split with your fingers, take out the pit, and turn the fruit slightly inside out. Then put in the sun till dry. I thought to myself, if this worked for Ferminia Chavez just up the road in Las Trampas, why shouldn’t it work for me?
Well, it did.
It happens that Mr. Old Recipe has all sorts of magical things in his collection, including an old screen door and matching glass door. He raised the screen onto bricks over a concrete “collector,” I spread the fruit out like so, and we set the glass door on bricks over top. Even with cool days and plenty of clouds and occasional showers, the fruit dried within three days.
The pros will say it’s best to not have the fruit directly in the sun where they lose some vitamins. But I thought of Ferminia and didn’t fret too much about it. Perhaps a bit of cheesecloth over the top? Or a window/door with frosted panes? On a warm, dry day, I’d say this would have worked fine in the shade, too.
I thought at first that the salt bath was some old-timey way of keeping the color pure, but our friend Alberto who knows everything said it was to draw the moisture out for better drying. Those old timers weren’t born yesterday, I guess.
What are you doing for the first time this year in the food preservation department? What works for you every time? What should I know about storing my dried fruit? What’s your favorite way to make apricot jam?