Niman

Stone Fruit

stonefruit_marble

by Pascale Beale-Groom

“Talking of pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine—how good how fine. It went down all pulpy, slushy, oozy, all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large, beatified Strawberry.”–John Keats

The great poet could well have been standing in my garden when he wrote those words. Two years ago I moved across town into a charming cottage of a house, complete with white picket fence and a smattering of fruit trees. I had been most reluctant to part with my previous garden, where 10 years worth of planting, seeding, pruning and care had produced an orchard filled with plums, apricots, citrus and myriad other delicious offerings. The new house—with a microclimate that all my potted plants had to adapt to—had exactly one plum and one nectarine tree.

We moved in May. The nectarine tree was already dripping buds of golf-ball-sized fruit. They looked amazing. I eagerly anticipated the day when they could be harvested, thereby unleashing a great treasure of nectarine filled delicacies. A few weeks passed, the fruit plumped, they tempted you: “eat me”—Alice (in Wonderland) would have readily complied. So did I. I spat out that first bite. It was quite frankly revolting. It was mealy, sour and dry. I decided that I had succumbed to temptation too early and waited another week. Now they looked luscious and moist. I took another bite. It is quite hard to express my utter disappointment. They were, if that is possible, worse than before. I looked up at the tree filled with beautiful fruit and thought of the waste. Everyday I would hear a few of them splat on the ground below and pondered what, if anything, I could do.

The answer, of course, was nothing. Nature, in its own marvelous rhythm, has a way of dealing with such things. Despite the fact that less than six miles separate the two houses, the cooler climate at the new one—being so much closer to the sea—greatly affected the manner in which the fruit matured.

A week of much warmer weather arrived. I was getting a little frustrated with the tree, raining down fruit onto the grass below. One morning I stepped into the garden. The sky was an incredible deep blue, the air was warm at 10 o’clock and I decided that I would try again. I reached up and plucked a large nectarine off the tree. It had a sweet juicy aroma. I took a bite and was instantly transported back to my childhood, eating freshly picked fruit with abandon, juice running down in between my fingers and onto my chin, the sweetness of the flesh melting in my mouth. I polished off the entire thing, standing under the tree with a contented smile. It was perfection. Keats was right.

At that point it dawned on me that I now had about 500 nectarines to deal with that were nearly all ripe at the same time. The anticipated flurry of dishes ensued. Crumbles, salsas, grilled, in tarts, in salads, with duck (succulent, by the way) and in great cauldrons of jam. The scent was intoxicating.

The plum tree duly followed suit, and the summer was filled with scrumptious treats directly from the garden. I was inspired and hunted down a variety of apricot that will hopefully deal with the temperate climes by the sea. It will be another year or two, I think, before it produces any fruit. But my stone fruit collection is growing.

When choosing the apricot tree I came across some pluots. I have to admit that until last year I had avoided all hybrid fruit. To my mind there was something very bizarre about a cross between a plum and an apricot. Different versions of what I viewed (incorrectly) as genetically modified fruit seemed to be spreading through the summer markets. Plumcots, pluots, apriums—what ever their names, I avoided them. A plum should be a plum. An apricot should be an apricot.

Then I tasted one. A local farmer from whom I often purchased peaches suggested I try one. I resisted, citing my pure fruit ideal, and he looked at me with bewilderment. “Just try it.” He coaxed a piece into my hand, and I have been a convert ever since. Each variety has a multitude of flavors. They are sweet and juicy, with the definitive traits of their parental rootstocks. They make sensational preserves.

The farmer’s peaches were equally excellent but this is one tree I have not planted here. When I lived in Los Angeles I had an old peach tree, tucked into a warm corner of the garden. It was gnarled and contorted as though the successive summers had weighed it down with the effort of producing grapefruit-sized peaches. They were sumptuous, down-covered orbs, the color of the setting sun. Little wonder that so much has been written about peaches over the centuries.

They came to America with Spanish explorers but their origins lie further east in China, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. They, as with their other stone fruit brethren—plums, apricots, cherries and nectarines—are all species of the genus Prunus and members of the large rose family. Its name Persicum malum, meaning Persian Apple, reflects its physical journey across Europe as Persians introduced peaches to the Romans.

Their blossoms feature in Chinese art history and are part of folklore in much of the Far East. A Chinese legend speaks of the divinity Yu Huang, also known as the Jade Emperor, who had a garden of “immortal peaches.” Everlasting life was said to be conferred on those who ate them. Xi Wangmu, the Emperor’s mother is said to have guaranteed the gods’ eternal presence in her palace by feeding them the peaches of immortality. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wait the legendary 3,000 years for the fruit to ripen, as was the case with the “immortal” variety.

Today’s peaches ripen during summer months and are generally available from early June to September, although there are some late summer varieties that make it through October. They ripen from the stem end and along the seam. If peaches are mealy, that is usually because they have been stored below 45°, as is sometimes the case in supermarkets—another reason to buy them from the farmers at local markets.

From their heady almond-laced scent and marvelous texture, peaches have inspired poets and philosophers who have dwelled on their sensuous characteristics. In ancient Chinese vernacular, the word peach—meaning delicious and soft—was used to represent a young bride; in the time of Louis XIV a variety was know as Teton de Venus, or Venus’s breast; in England today, an attractive woman is described as a peach.

Emile Zola, often given to writing lyrical passages, described them thus in The Belly of Paris: “In front was an array of choice fruits, carefully arranged in baskets, and showing like smooth round cheeks seeking to hide themselves, or glimpses of sweet childish faces, half veiled by leaves. Especially was this the case with the peaches, the blushing peaches of Montreuil, with skin as delicate and clear as that of northern maidens, and the yellow, sun burnt peaches from the south, brown like the damsels of Provence.”

Whichever variety you choose, savor them over the course of the summer. Try them grilled with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a dollop of fresh vanilla ice cream or just pure and simple, complete with juices running down your fingers.

 


Pascale Beale-Groom grew up in England and France surrounded by a family that has always been passionate about food, wine and the arts. She was taught to cook by her French mother and grandmother. In 1999 she opened Montecito Country Kitchen, a Mediterranean cooking school in Santa Barbara. Her first cookbook, A Menu for All Seasons—Spring, was published in 2004; her second cookbook, Summer, was released in 2008 and her third cookbook, Autumn, came out in 2009. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and lives in Santa Barbara with her family.

 

Recipes

Mache and Pluot Salad with Lemon and Mint Vinaigrette

Makes 8 servings

For the salad

  • 8 ounces mache (lamb’s lettuce)
  • 8–10 pluots (you can use different varieties), sliced
  • 2 ounces Marcona almonds
  • 1 small bunch chives, finely chopped
  • 4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • For the vinaigrette
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
  • Juice of 2 large lemons (or 3 small ones)
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1⁄2 tablespoon honey
  • 1⁄3 cup olive oil
  • 4–5 stems fresh mint, leaves removed and finely chopped
  • 1⁄2 tablespoon fennel seeds, dry roasted for 1 minute
  • Freshly ground pepper

Combine the garlic, lemon juice, a large pinch sea salt, honey and olive oil in a large salad bowl and whisk together vigorously. Add the chopped mint, fennel seeds and 4 or 5 twists of pepper and whisk together again.

Place salad servers over the vinaigrette. Place the mache greens, pluots, Marcona almonds and chopped chives on top of the servers, ensuring that the greens stay out of the vinaigrette until you are ready to serve the salad.

Toss the salad well just before serving. Distribute evenly among eight salad plates. Put a little of the crumbled goat cheese on top
of each. This is delicious served with warm olive bread.

Peach Salsa

This pairs well with grilled or roasted fish and most barbecued or roasted meats and grilled vegetables.

Makes 8 side-dish servings

  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
  • 6 peaches, unpeeled and cut into slices (try mixing varieties)
  • 2 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 small bunch chives, finely chopped
  • 1⁄2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
  • 10 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • 1⁄2 English cucumber, peeled and diced

Pour 1⁄4 cup olive oil into a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, a little coarse sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. Whisk vigorously. Place salad servers over the olive oil mixture.

Add all the remaining ingredients on top of the salad servers. Just before serving, toss everything together to coat well.

Roasted Cornish Hens with Plums and a Plum Glaze

Makes 8 servings

  • 16 firm ripe plums, pitted and cut in half
  • 1⁄2 cup cognac or brandy
  • 1⁄2 cup shallots, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 ounces pistachios, chopped (1 cup)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 Cornish hens
  • 2 cups plum jam

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Place the plums and cognac in a bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Drain the plums, reserving the liquid.

In a sauté pan, sauté the shallots in the butter until translucent. Stir in the salt, pepper, pistachios and plums and combine well. Cook for a further 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place the Cornish hens in a roasting pan and spoon the plum/shallot mixture around them and then coat each hen with the plum jam. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Remove the game hens from the oven and place them on a carving board. Let them rest for 10 minutes before carving. Warm 8 dinner plates in the oven.

Spoon some of the plum pieces onto each of the warmed dinner plates.

Stir the reserved plum liquid into the roasting pan and reduce the pan juices over a medium-hot stove, until lightly thickened. Cut the game hens in half, place one half on each plate alongside the plums and pour a little of the pan juices over the top. Serve with the peach salsa.

Nectarine Crumble with Lemon Double Devon Cream

crumble
Makes 8 servings

For the nectarines

  • 10–12 medium-sized nectarines (if they are huge, 8–10 fruit should do)
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • For the crumble
  • 10 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (approximately 2 1⁄4 cups)
  • 21⁄2 sticks butter, cut into little pieces
  • 1⁄3 cup sugar
  • Cinnamon

For the Devon cream

  • 6 ounces Devon cream
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Pinch allspice

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Combine the nectarines, lemon zest, sugar and lemon juice in a large bowl and toss lightly to combine the ingredients. Place all the fruit in an ovenproof dish, at least 12-inch round or a 10- by 14-inch rectangular dish.

To make the crumble, place all the flour in a large bowl. Add three-quarters of the butter and mix it with the flour, using the tips of your fingers, until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Don’t worry if you have little lumps of butter left—it should look like that! Add the sugar and mix to combine. Cover the nectarines with the crumble mixture. Sprinkle a little extra cinnamon and sugar over the crumble. Dot the surface with the remaining butter. Bake in the center of the oven for 30–35 minutes or until golden brown.

Combine all the ingredients for the Devon cream until smooth and well incorporated. Serve the lemon double Devon cream with the hot crumble.

 

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Categories Summer 2010