Like our friend the plum from last week, the apricot is from the family Prunus. Originally thought to originate in China from as far back as 3000 BC, the apricot came to the Western world via Armenia. Apricots are now cultivated in all parts of the world, but are still an extremely important crop in the Middle East, particularly Iran where dried apricots have been an important commodity for centuries. Check the packaging on dried apricots you purchase in the supermarket – they likely come from Iran or Turkey.
Apricots are high in beta-carotene as well as Vitamin A. They are high in fibre and the dried version of the fruit is considered a good treatment for constipation. High in the anti-oxidant caretenoid, apricots may help lower bad cholesterol and protect against cancer. The kernal or pit of the apricot also has many uses; dried and ground, it becomes the basis for the Italian amaretti cookie, and apricot kernal oil is the main ingredient in the liqueur Disaronno Amaretto. Apricot kernal was also once incorrectly thought to cure certain types of cancer, but because it contains toxic levels of cyanide, it was not considered an effective treatment for that disease.
When purchasing apricots, look for fruits that are a rich orange colour and that are slightly soft to the touch. If eating apricots for their health benefits, note that the riper the fruit the higher the level of anti-oxidants.
We’re still in the family Prunus as we move from last week’s cherries to this week’s plums. Plums are eaten from Asia to Europe and are well known for their variety and flavour – from the first tart yellow plums to red, black and the purple varieties most popular in Italian cooking. Worldwide there are over 2000 varieties of the fruit with about 100 available in North America.
Plums are a versatile fruit; they can be made into jam or used in desserts, but can also be made into wine, pickled, dried and salted, or dried into prunes (although the black prunes available in stores are from a specific type of plum). They even work well on pizza with cheese and prosciutto in place of the traditional figs.
Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, plums are high in anti-oxidants, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2, fibre (prunes are a recommended treatment for constipation) and potassium.
I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life,
It does taste kind of funny,
But it keeps them on my knife. – Anonymous
Most commonly found in mixed frozen vegetables, the humble pea is one of the most versatile vegetables out there. Eaten fresh, dried, frozen or canned, peas can be used in soups, stews, pies, risotto or curries, or fried and served as a snack.
The pea is actually a fruit, but is considered a vegetable for cooking purposes. There are many varieties of peas from sweet peas to snow peas or sugar snap peas, with some growing as vines and others low-growing plants suited to field cultivation. In Ontario, peas are at their peak in June and July.
The use of peas dates back to the Middle Ages when they were part of the typical diet along with broad beans and lentils. Peas are eaten throughout the world from Asia and India to Europe and North America.
Peas are an excellent source of folacin (Vitamin B9). They are also a source of Vitamins A and C, fibre and potassium. A half cup of cooked peas is only 70 calories.
The time is upon us. If you’re like me, you’ve walked past time huge, hard, tasteless red supermarket strawberries all winter in anticipation of June and Ontario strawberry season. Nothing beats the smell or flavour of an Ontario strawberry, ripe, just picked, and warm from the sun.
Strawberries are a member of the rose family, and while the old bit of trivia claims that strawberries are the only fruit to have their seeds on the outside (which they’re not – cashew fruit and pineapple both have their seeds on the outside) those little yellow things that most people think are the seeds are actually the fruit; the red flesh bit we love to eat is the receptacle.
Dating back to ancient Rome, the strawberry as we know it originated in Europe, and was cultivated in 13th century France for medicinal purposes. The first American species of strawberry was cultivated in 1835 and strawberries grow in every province and every state in Canada and the US. While we normally think of June and July as strawberry season, many farmers now grow a number of “everbearing” varieties that will bear fruit from June until the first frost. Vendors at many Toronto farmers markets (including Nathan Phillips Square and Metro Hall) usually have berries right up until October. There’s been many a year when I’ve had fresh Ontario berries for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. And if you’re wondering why it’s better to buy local berries, consider what happens to berries from California before they get here.
The first root vegetable of spring is also the most under-used. Besides putting them in a salad, what do you DO with radishes anyway?
Related to the mustard plant, radishes come in several varieties, ranging from sweet to spicy and peppery in flavour and from white to vibrant red, and even grey and black in colour. They are a favourite of the home gardener because they’re easy to sow, grow quickly, and offer an early sense of accomplishment. Cultivation of radishes dates back to Roman times and records suggest that the plants were domesticated somewhere in Europe.
Which begs the continued question – why do we mostly eat them raw in salads? A perusal of the Internet led to me recipes for pickled radishes, roasted radishes and one in which the roots are boiled until tender and then tossed with butter and brown sugar, much as you’d do with carrots or parsnips. Having tried this, I think I know why we prefer to eat the things raw – boiling saps out all of the lovely crisp peppery flavour.
If you’re wondering why you’d never heard of ramps prior to a few years ago, you’d be in good company. While the allium tricoccum is native to Ontario, it’s only in the past few years that this member of the onion family has become popular. So popular in fact that the foodies are flocking to buy them and the anti-foodies are casting them aside. Which, while the things are darn tasty, may not be a bad idea, given that they’re considered to be a “threatened species” in Quebec and parts of the US.
To many people ramps signal spring – the first bits of edible greenery after a long hard winter. Ramps are considered a special delicacy in the southern US states, particularly in Appalachia where ramp festivals attracting thousands of people take place every spring in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The popularity in local, seasonal and foraged foods means that many high-end restaurants are now serving them as well.
With this many people freaking out over ramps, it’s no wonder they’re considered exploited or threatened in various places. Quebec bans restaurants from serving them, and individuals in that province may harvest no more than 50 bulbs for personal use. Harvesting a ramp means pulling the whole plant, including its roots, out of the ground. Unethical harvesters can clear a whole patch of ramps, leaving nothing behind to propagate for the following year. The recommended harvest per season is no more than 5% to 10% of a wild patch.