While I look forward to a fresh crop of apples from our local orchards every fall, by February we are over our desire to savor them. Ditto for the pears. The same hold true for oranges. How many apple pies, apple-pear crumbles and pear clafoutis can we enjoy in a season? As summer begins the initial approach, these fruits get pushed aside by an overwhelming desire for variety. The fruits of summer are bountiful, colorful, juicy, sweet and refreshing. Like the apples and pear of the season past, many of the summer fruits are perfect for cooking; but chilled in their natural state promises a burst of cooling freshness that never disappoints either.
Stone fruits are the most abundant summer fruits. These are so-called because they contain stones, or pits, in their centers. Sorry Felix Unger, there are pits, pits, pits in our fruit, fruit, fruit! Luckily, these are single, hard stones that are usually easy to nibble around or to remove when halving the fruit with a knife. Peaches, plums, apricots, cherries and nectarines all qualify under the heading of stone fruits.
Peaches and nectarines are at their peak throughout July and August. They look similar at a glance, but nectarines have firmer flesh and a smooth yellow skin with red blushes. Peaches, also known as Persian apples after their place of origin, sport a light fuzz on their skins and the color can range from off-white to golden yellow with blush marks that range from pink to deep scarlet. To hasten the ripening of a batch of unripened peaches, place them in a paper bag with an apple, prick holes in the bag and then store the bag at room temperature for two days. Apples release ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process. This trick works splendidly with avocados too.
Apricots are an ancient fruit of China, now cultivated in the United States. Enjoy apricots when you see them in the market because their peak season is fleeting, usually throughout the month of June. Apricots are relatives of peaches. They also bear a velvety skin, but they are smaller than peaches and their smoother stones fall right out when the fruits are halved. Apricots range in color from, well, what we perceive as ‘peach’ on a color chart to an amber tone of orange. Apricots are highly perishable; they ripen extremely quickly. Use them or you’ll lose them.
Plums are also smaller than a peach. They have very smooth skins that span a rainbow of hues. The most commonly found plums in our markets are either a blackish-purple or a deep crimson red variety. However, plums also some in green, blue and yellow. Some varieties of plum are purposely grown to be dried and then marketed in their new incarnation that we know as prunes. Fresh plums can be enjoyed from June through October.
If apple pie is a cold season American dessert icon, then cherry pie takes over the honor during the warmer months. Cherries are popular fruits that are enjoyed most out of hand. Cherry blossom tree displays, such as that found in Washington D.C., draw thousands of tourists every spring to view the stunning show that mimics huge clouds of pink cotton candy. Backyard cherry trees are invaded by kids at the start of summer vacation who climb up, take a seat on a branch and feast on the freshest possible cherries until they are too full to join the family dinner table. I know firsthand, I did it too. Through most of the summer, the market bins are bursting with Bing cherries and Rainier cherries to be enjoyed in pies and cakes, transformed into jams and jellies or simply packed into Tupperware containers to tote along on a beach day or picnic excursion.
Mangoes also contain stones, but they are not easy to remove neatly by any means and mangoes must be peeled. After peeling a mango with a vegetable peeler, the flesh must be carved off of the stone. The stone sits roughly in the center, but because it is oval and flat, it's hard to guess when the blade of the knife if going to stop in mid-cut. The best plan of attack is to lob a quarter inch to a half-inch off of each end of the mango after peeling it. These two cuts will serve two purposes: it should reveal the very tip of the stone, giving you an idea of where to make the next cuts. They will also now provide a flat end on which to stabilize the slippery, rounded fruit on the cutting board. Next, look for the revealed end of the pit. Line the blade of the knife next to the length of the pit and cut all the way down. Repeat this step on the other side of the pit. The final step will be to carve the remaining sides off of the pit. There is always some waste with a mango since the stone can never be stripped bare, so plan on one whole mango per person. Once you dispose of the pit, the fruit that is left behind isn't always attractive since some of it has been somewhat mutilated. For that reason, cut the flesh into chunks and either consume them as is for breakfast, add them to the blender for a smoothie or heap them into a fruit salad.
Peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines can all be eaten with their skins. Halve the fruits and the pits can usually be pried out without too much fuss. From there, cut the halves into wedges to toss in salads or stir-fries. Halved apricots make a perfect final addition to Moroccan chicken tagines. Any of these fruits can be halved and then threaded onto skewers with shellfish or poultry. For a change of pace from rich and heavy desserts, brush some halved peaches and plums with melted butter and grill them. Once they exhibit their grill marks and the flesh has begun to caramelize, drizzle the cut sides with more melted butter and sprinkle with brown sugar before serving. An accompaniment of vanilla ice cream never hurt either. Pineapple also grills well in this manner.
Since we all enjoy our rich and heavy desserts at least on occasion, cherries are by far the best ingredients of all fruits for conjuring a clafoutis. It's so simple to make that it serves as my summertime go-to when I need a quick dessert whipped up for a last-minute social gathering. I serve my very appreciative husband at least one cherry-almond clafoutis every summer. Peach pie is perpetual summer dessert favorite across the nation, especially when a second summer fruit such as cherries, blackberries or raspberries are included in the pastry shell.
If you reside near a farm stand or farmer's market, support your local growers by turning to them to load up on these fruits. The flavors are at their peak of freshness. Some farms offer shoppers the option of picking your own peaches. On a hot day, nothing beats the simple refreshment of biting into farm fresh peach that grew as large as a softball, its sweet juices dripping. This highlights one of summer's healthy pleasures, so go ahead; take a bite, but watch for pits.
Here are two summer desserts that use stone fruit. They are both easy to make and can be prepared ahead, allowing more time to spend on the beach and less time in the kitchen.
2 cups halved and pitted fresh cherries
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter, melted
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
Confectioners sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 325-degrees. Grease a glass pie dish. Lay the cherries on the entire bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the cherries with ½ cup of the sugar. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 cup of sugar, the melted butter, vegetable oil, eggs and the vanilla and almond extracts until the ingredients are well combined. Pour the batter into the pie dish, covering the cherries. Bake the clafoutis for about 45 minutes, or until the top is golden. Allow to cool completely at room temperature. Before serving, sprinkle the top with the confectioners sugar.
Peach and Almond Bars with Mascarpone Cream
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, melted
2-3 peaches, ripe but still slightly firm
½ cup sliced almonds
2 8-ounce containers mascarpone cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup cream
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
First, prepare the peaches. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Using a sharp knife, score an ‘X’ into the skin on the pointed end of each peach. Place the peaches in the boiling water and leave them to boil for one minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peaches into a large bowl filled with ice water and allow them to sit for one minute. Starting from the scored ‘X,’ the skins should peel off of the peaches relatively easily. Once the peaches have been peeled, halve each one and remove the pit. Then slice each peach half into ½-inch slices. This can be done the day before, if desired; store the prepped peaches in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Grease a square baking pan. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, flour and butter until well combined.
Spread one-third of the batter over the bottom of the baking pan. Top that layer with one-half of the sliced peaches. Sprinkle with one-half of the sliced almonds. Repeat these steps, ending with the final third portion of the batter on top. Bake for 45 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool at room temperature, then cut into 9 bars.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mascarpone, cream, vanilla extract and 1 ½ tablespoons of sugar until well combined and smooth. When the whisk is lifted from the bowl, the mixture should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon form. Keep the mixture chilled until serving time.
Place a bar on each dessert plate, pour some of the mascarpone cream over each bar and serve.