Food & Drink: Sweet taste of summer
Time to load up on this season's honey-sweet, versatile stone fruit
A stroll through the farmers' market can be a wicked test of self-control, especially during months when the summer sun coaxes dizzying scents from just-picked herbs and fruit.
During this season, it's not only the scents that seduce the market shopper but also the visual pleasure of row after row of stone fruit in farmers' stalls. Peaches and nectarines, plums and apricots, and all those more recently introduced sweeties like pluots, apriums and plumcots seem to sing out from the stalls, begging to be taken home.
But the impulse to load up on stone fruit while they're still in season can lead to waste unless you have the time and know-how to prepare quantities of them for the table or pantry — after, that is, you've had your fill of eating them fresh off the stone.
When I find myself trying to resist the temptation of stone fruit in high season, I think of poet William Carlos Williams, who found the allure of chilled plums too much to resist. Legend has it that one morning he risked the vexation of his wife when he said "yes" to temptation, leaving her a note with his now-famous poem, "This is Just to Say":
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
And I smile, and fill up my bags.
Farmers' market heaven
For those of us who don't have fruit trees, outdoor farmers' markets are the next best thing, bringing to shoppers produce picked just days before — if not the day before. There are usually samples, and often the people staffing the stalls — the farmers themselves or others knowledgeable about the produce — are willing and eager to give you tips about storage and usage.
My experience with stone fruit was disappointing last year. Even at the king of Bay Area farmers' markets, the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, sweet nectarines, plums and peaches were hard to find.
I'm making up for last year's disappointment this season, which has been generous with beautiful, honeyed fruit.
I've also been resurrecting old recipes, and experimenting with new ones, so that the fruit that I come home with on Saturday mornings — gleaming with smooth, vibrant skin — don't end up as dull, withered has-beens, worthy only of the compost pile, by week's end.
For those who like to entertain in the summer with simple, refreshing food, it's hard to beat chilled fruit. There are endless variations of fruit salads, but even the most simple can be delicious and elegant if made with the freshest of fruits and served with an eye toward presentation.
A favorite dessert for a gathering of adults is simplicity itself: Chilled and peeled peaches sliced into balloon wine glasses or stemmed glass bowls, sprinkled with a touch of sugar and splashed with two or three tablespoons of champagne or white wine.
I recently made a compote based on a recipe from Mireille Johnston's "Cuisine of the Sun" (recipes from Nice and Provence) for which I used firm nectarines, pluots and apricots. Equal portions of orange juice and vanilla sugar, and the zest and juice of a small lemon, are mixed together, brought to a boil, then poured over a bowlful of the sliced fruit. After the mixture cools, the juice is returned to the saucepan to boil into a thicker syrup, which is then poured back over the fruit. That's when I add chopped fresh mint, mix it all together, and put it into the fridge for a couple of hours to chill and let flavors meld. (Vanilla sugar — sugar stored for at least several weeks with vanilla beans that have been vertically slit — adds a lovely subtle touch to the dish.)
One weekend in mid-July, after coming home from the farmers' market laden with apricots and nectarines, I made a meal of an arugula salad with grilled nectarines, and a pork loin glazed with a mustard-honey-rosemary mixture and roasted with fresh apricots. It was sweet harmony — and put a major dent in the fruit supply that week.
Straight off the branches
Those fortunate enough to have their own stone-fruit trees usually learn plenty of tricks to use the fruit before it goes to waste — and usually have very lucky friends.
Pat Allen of Portola Valley says she's been "making jam forever" with the apricots from her tree. She also uses them to slice into salads and to make crisps and other tasty dishes and snacks.
When it comes to chutney, she really gets serious, cooking it up by the vat to store for future use. (See recipe, this section.)
Danna Breen of Portola Valley also benefits from an abundance of apricots during the summer, thanks to her friend Karen Mobley. She uses the fruit from Ms. Mobley's tree for an apricot crumble — a recipe she shared with the Almanac. (See recipe, this section.)
Ms. Breen notes that the wild plums on Alpine Road and elsewhere in the area are harvested by people stopping by in cars and on bikes, and she has made many jars of jam from them.
Charlotte Muse of Menlo Park finds interesting ways to use the fruit from her peach, nectarine, apricot, pear, persimmon, lemon and mandarin trees. A poet, Ms. Muse lives in the Willows neighborhood with husband Patrick Daly, also a poet. The property is not "a grand estate," she says. "We just have a lot of fruit trees in a relatively small space at the back of the yard."
The trees are generous, as is Ms. Muse. At a recent salon hosted by Woodside painter Annamaria Kusber, Ms. Muse presented a scrumptious-looking peach and blackberry pie, and said that it was one of two she had made for sharing. The other pie was delivered to a group of grateful men she has come to know over the last few years.
In an e-mail, she explains that she's been walking down to the creek near her home to write poetry for a number of years, and "I have gotten to know the men who gather down there, many of them homeless.
"The first year, my granddaughter and I went down and picked some blackberries and got the idea to make the men there a pie. Every year since, they've picked the blackberries. I make the pie and bring it down to them, along with a can of whipped cream. They also pick some extra for me."
Ms. Muse says the men "start buttering me up about last year's pie at least two months before the blackberries are ripe." She takes the hint, although she doesn't really need one.
"They have always been very kind to me," she says. "They feed the ducks and a chicken that someone turned loose down there, make sculptures out of rock, play horseshoes and the guitar, watch what animals come down there."
She sometimes makes the pie with the blackberries only, but this year "we have quite a few peaches, and I thought they'd be good in the pie," she says. "One year I think I threw in a few ripe nectarines."
The picking crew for this year's blackberries, Ms. Muse reports, "are Alan, Madog (despite his name, Madog is a very gentle and kind man), Scott and Mack." (See recipe for Poetic Peach-Blackberry Pie, this section.)