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TODAY

Monday, May 20

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Until this weekend it was actually starting to feel like summer out. Warm days, cool nights, bright sunlight and farmers markets. One of the best parts about living in such a large city is that there are a variety of places and ways to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in this city. As many GB readers said last week, there are plenty of places to buy produce in the city. There is the standard trip to Dominick's or Jewel (not the most highly recommended, of course), there are the smaller markets which often focus on the food preferences and heritage of the owners, and there are farmers markets where you can get pretty-close-to-locally grown produce.

When I first started hitting the farmers market in Evanston I mostly was looking for herbs and vegetables, but I began to think twice about the fruit when I ate one blueberry that I was convinced was going to make me blow-up and float away to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It was so full of flavor that I wondered if it were truly fresh and not a synthetic concoction. But the second one was just as good so I bought a pint. Only about half of them made it home.

And I've mentioned repeatedly here that I'm not much of a baker. I am trying to make inroads into baking. I'm trying to pay close attention to recipes and measure things exactly and do the boring stuff like sift flour, but it's taking a while and I've yet to really accomplish anything that I'm proud enough of to share. Hopefully soon.

But the promise of fresh fruit does have me thinking about summertime desserts. A fresh fruit puree poured over wonderful vanilla ice cream or spooned over a purchased pound cake or angel food cake seems perfect. Mixing fruit into salsa last week and cooking things down reminded me that I used to make fruit syrups pretty frequently with dried and frozen fruits and then keep them on hand for serving over pancakes as well as the occasional pork chop. Since local strawberries aren't quite in season, I thought I'd share some of my mother's recipes for fruit syrups, purees, and glazes. And before you roll your eyes and say you'd rather just pick up a jar of jam, read through them. They are simple, they last up to a year if you freeze them, and they're so much better than anything that comes from the big box store on your way home.

Apricot Puree
12 ounces (about two cups) of dried apricots
1 1/2 cups of apple juice (Preferably not from concentrate)
1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice (freshly squeezed of course)
1/4 cup of sugar (depending on the sweetness of your apple juice you may need more)

Place the apricots and apple juice in a stainless steel or non-reactive saucepan. Cover it and let it sit for about two hours. Turn the heat to low and let it simmer for about 25-30 minutes. The apricots should be nice and soft. Empty the saucepan into your food processor or let it cool slightly before pouring it into your blender. Puree until it is as smooth as you can get it. Line a hand-held strainer with either a few layers of plain paper towels or a few layers of cheese cloth. Pour the liquid into the strainer and let it drain into a saucepan. If you're using paper towels, be patient and eventually you'll just have thick sediment. Press it with the back of a heavy spoon until as much of the liquid is in the saucepan as possible. If you're using cheese cloth, be careful not to burn yourself and gather the edges together before twisting and squeezing as much of the liquid out as possible. Stir in the lemon juice and sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, taste it and add more sugar as necessary. Pour into a covered bowl and refrigerate for up to one week. Or you can carefully pour this into an ice-cube tray and freeze. Once the cubes have frozen, dump them into a zipper bag and freeze for up to one year. (If you want a thicker sauce, you can boil the puree over medium-high heat until it has the consistency you desire.)

Strawberry Puree
20 ounces of either frozen strawberries, or fresh strawberries at the peak of freshness (that's 1 1/4 pounds)
2 teaspoons of lemon juice
1/4 cup of sugar

Place a colander over a deep bowl. Line it with one layer of cheesecloth or paper towels. If you're using frozen strawberries, place them in the colander and let them thaw to room temperature, which should take 2-3 hours. If you're using fresh strawberries, wash them lightly with cold water, cut out the stems and slice them in halves or quarters. Place them into a large glass bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice and sugar on top. Cover it and let it sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours. (Or you can simply rinse the strawberries, remove the stems, cut in half, and freeze them. This will cause the cell membranes to break down.) Now pour the contents of the bowl into the colander and let it sit and drain for at least 15 minutes. Begin pressing on the fruit to release as much of the juice as possible. Pour the liquid into a small saucepan (add the sugar and lemon juice now if you used frozen strawberries) and boil it on high until the juice reduces to about 1/4 cup. Pour it into a heatproof measuring cup. In a food processor or blender puree the contents of the colander. Stir this into the syrup and refrigerate for up to two weeks or freeze for up to one year. You can thaw and refreeze the puree several times without noticing any flavor degradation so freezing in one bowl is fine. Of course you can freeze it in ice cube trays as well.

Blueberry Puree
2 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries (thawed in the bag)
1/4 cup of orange juice
1/4 cup of sugar

Place a colander over a saucepan or bowl. Put the blueberries, orange juice and sugar in a blender or food processor and puree for 3-4 minutes. Pour the contents into the colander and use the back of a heavy spoon to press on the pulp and force as much of the liquid into the bowl or saucepan as possible. Once you've released as much of the juice as possible, place the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Stir every minute or two to keep the sauce from burning. Once it reduces by half, remove it from the heat, let it cool, and then pour it into either a large bowl or ice cube trays. This will keep for about a week in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer.

Peach Puree
9 ripe peaches that have been peeled and pitted (or 18 ounces of frozen peach slices)
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of almond extract
1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or 1 1/4 if you don't have almond)

If using frozen peaches, thaw them first. Place the peaches into a food processor or blender and puree them until fairly smooth. Pour them into a colander lined with a layer of cheesecloth and placed over a saucepan. Press on the puree with the back of a heavy spoon to release as much of the liquid as possible. There shouldn't be too much pulp left in the strainer as long as you took the the time to peel the peaches. Add the lemon juice to the saucepan and simmer on high until the contents are reduced by half. Stir occasionally to keep the puree from sticking. Pour into a covered bowl or an ice cube tray for freezing. This puree will keep about 3 days in the refrigerator or about 7-8 months in the freezer.

Pressing puree through a cheesecloth is a pain. It takes a while, your fingers get sticky, you have to be careful you don't burn yourself. So if you followed along and created your own tomato sauce last fall, it's possible that you picked up the $30 plastic food mill that I recommended. If so, you can skip the colander and cheese cloth method and use that instead. Or you could get one of the cheaper stainless steel food mills that are making their way to the market.

No matter how you get your puree smooth, you'll find yourself creating new ways to use it. A tablespoon or two of your fruit puree mixed with equal parts olive oil and vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper, and you have a quick homemade salad dressing. Dress up a piece of frozen cheesecake by thawing a cube or two of puree and pouring it on top. Pop a couple strawberry ice cubes in with some margarita mix and some tequila for your own strawberry/lime margarita. Combine some of the peach puree with some store-bought barbecue sauce and use it on the grill. The uses are endless, and since the results are tasty, I'm sure you'll come up with all kinds of creative uses for your fruit puree. It's a great way to start summer. Even if our summer seems to be off to a rocky start.

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