Imperfect Fruit? Give Them a Bath?

We call it California cuisine, this laid-back cooking style in which food is prepared as simply as possible to avoid masking great natural ingredients with needless frills. A good part of the country calls it hoo-ha. This spring I'm tempted to agree.

There's nothing wrong with this way of cooking--in theory. It's the practice of it that's frustrating. Based as it is on an endless bounty of extraordinary fruits and vegetables, it's unforgiving of any imperfection.

But imperfection is about all we've seen this spring, at least with produce. Rainy, cold winter has given way to cloudy, cool spring and nothing--not apricots, not cherries, not even strawberries--has ripened the way it should.

That means Californians are having to work to get food to taste good. Simply slicing some fruit doesn't cut it this year. We're having to resort to all sorts of marinades, pastries, jellies and even sauces, for heaven's sake, to turn out something edible. We might as well be living in New York City.

Shopping at a farmers' market last weekend, I needed three canvassings to come up with enough fruit for dessert. The apricots were dry and too tart. The cherries flavorless. The strawberries flaccid and dull. It was almost as if they'd been trucked in from another state.

This was particularly disturbing for me because I long have relied on canny shopping to cover up my lack of dessert skills. Who needs to learn to bake a cake when you've got perfect strawberries that need only the grace of whipped cream to become heavenly? So what if I'm still in search of the perfect pie pastry, as long as the filling is fragrant fruit?

I did come up with enough to get by: some pretty nice Bing cherries; some Castlebrite apricots that, though tart, had a little more flavor than most; strawberries and a half pint of very ripe boysenberries.

I heated some rose wine and sugar until the wine started to steam (bringing it to a boil would have destroyed its fresh flavor). I steeped it with lavender (it was delicious, but substitute mint or even rosemary or orange peel if you prefer; just go easy to keep from overpowering the fruit).

Then I poured this nice warm bath over the firmer fruits. Before serving, I added the softer fruits and spooned on a dollop of lightly sweetened yogurt. Sugar cookies went alongside.

A word about roses: they're the beach books of the wine world. The overwhelming majority are simple, mawkish and, frankly, pretty embarrassing. The exceptions--and there is a growing number--have a peculiarly raffish kind of dignity. They're fresh and spicy and easy to drink. They're wines to be celebrated in backyards and on picnic tables, rather than in stuffy dining rooms, and they wear their lack of seriousness with pride. Although they will never be mistaken for serious literature, they don't really seem to care.

I made this soup with one of the last bottles of last year's Swanson "Rosato," which has been my summer pour for the last several years. It is still very good, but this year, just for a change, I think I'm switching to Eberle Winery's rose of Counoise, made from a little-known grape from the South of France that yields a superbly spicy little pink wine (actually, closer to orangish red).

The complex flavor and gentle sweetness of this soup are so good you could probably even make it with jug White Zinfandel. But considering the fruit we're getting this year, can you really afford to take the chance?


2 cups rose wine

2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

3 (3-inch) leafy sprigs lavender

1/2 pound cherries, pitted

1/2 pound apricots, pitted and thinly sliced

1 pint strawberries, hulled and halved

1/2 pint boysenberries

3/4 cup yogurt

Heat wine, 2/3 cup sugar and lavender in small saucepan over medium heat just until liquid begins to steam. Remove from heat, stir to dissolve sugar and steep 5 minutes.

Combine cherries and apricots in mixing bowl. Add strawberries, if firm (if soft, save for later step). Remove lavender from wine and pour wine over fruit. Set aside at least 1 hour to combine flavors.

Just before serving, add boysenberries (and strawberries, if soft) to fruit mixture. Beat together yogurt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Ladle fruit with wine into bowls and top with 2 tablespoons sweetened yogurt.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:

237 calories; 35 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.18 grams fiber.

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