It’s an exciting time of year to visit your local farmer’s market. I’m a bit biased to the summer growing season and while I credit that partly to my confusion by rhubarb and chestnuts, general indifference to peas and cauliflower, and penchant for heirloom tomatoes, berries and zucchini (the warm weather doesn’t hurt, either), I have to say I think it stems mostly from my parents’ backyard. As a little girl and into my teens, my dad loved to plant summer veggies whenever he could, cultivating bumper crops of cucumbers and tomatoes and piles of bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini over the years. We always had an abundance of mint, some basil and chives, and a number of wild black raspberry bushes existed just within reach beyond our back fence. It was my own mini paradise.
There is something magical about watching something grow (sans chemicals and pesticides), seeing it sprout and flower and produce delicious unspoiled fruit for your table. When the method in getting your produce is so pure, my natural inclination is to avoid any muss or fuss in the preparation of the food, to refute any process that could mar the perfection of what was just picked from the plant. In the late summer months when ripe tomatoes are plentiful and perfectly sweet, I could eat the fruit (yes, tomatoes are a fruit, don’t forget) like an apple, dashed with a little sea salt and nothing else. I feel guilty at the thought of peeling away the shiny aubergine skin of an eggplant or roasting zucchini until it’s soft and browned and unrecognizable next to it’s plump, grass-green counterpart. I realize this line of thinking is a bit silly, but garden-grown loot is precious, after all; there exists a limited amount for a fleeting time before it’s back to the grocery store where tomatoes and peaches may have trecked a few thousand miles to meet me.
While I haven’t had space or soil for a garden of my own in quite some time, I find myself giddy like a little girl again for the next best thing, any chance I get to ditch the supermarket and buy local at a farmstand or market. And lucky for me, these days, I’m within walking distance to fantastic one. Last week, at the Union Square greenmarket (Have I not mentioned this place enough, yet?) that’s where I found it: the perfect piece of fruit. Red Jacket Orchards was selling APRICOTS! I read somewhere recently that 95% of the fiery-blushed fruit grown in the U.S is produced in California. Well THIS piece of fruit was grown right here in NY and was a beautiful thing as a result. It was already ripe with the colors of a sunset when I bought it, fragrant and both sweet and tart.
I know I didn’t grow and pluck these apricots myself (nor do I think I will ever have an apricot tree) but they looked so perfect, I still felt a little twinge of guilt when I decided to slice up the last remaining piece I hadn’t munched right off the pit to macerate in balsamic with a handful of strawberries. Perhaps it’s just that word, macerate. It certainly sounds ugly. Can’t you just picture me with a sledgehammer pounding the sweet apricot flesh to a pathetic mealy pulp? Or hacking away at the peachy pink skin with a butcher knife reminiscent of the movie Psycho? Well, for those of you who aren’t familiar and think I’ve gone bonkers, macerating is a technique more akin to soaking the fruit in a soothing bath–a sweet and syrupy one, that is.
Macerating infuses the fruit with the flavor of the soaking liquid (often a liquer or wine), softening the fruit and drawing out its natural juices. It’s a simple process that yields incredible, tasty results. When I waitressed at what was once Carmine’s Creole Cafe in a Philadelphia burb, the chef macerated strawberries in balsamic and sugar, adding a dollop of mascarpone cream to serve for dessert. The strawberry juices and sugar mellows that acidic bite from the vinegar and the mascarpone provides a creamy canvas for the melding flavors. For the recipe below, I used strawberries and my last lovely apricot, but take advantage of peak berry season and toss in some raspberries, too, if you like. I took one mouthful of this heavenly summer dessert, and any shred of guilty conscience I was carrying melted away like the sugar in this syrup.
Macerated Summer Fruit with Lemon Mascarpone
1 pint strawberries, sliced
2-5 apricots, sliced (I only had one when I made this, but 2 is better and 4 or 5 is best if they are the small variety).
1/4 balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
zest from one lemon
Combine sliced fruit with balsamic vinegar, sugar and lemon juice in a large non-reactive bowl (glass or plastic do fine) and stir to combine. Let sit in the refrigerator for a minimum of two hours up to overnight. In a separate bowl, stir lemon zest into mascarpone cheese and store in refrigerator. When serving, spoon both the fruit and syrup into bowls, topping each portion with a dollop of the lemon mascarpone.