When picking stone fruit, the first thing to remember is that there is a difference between maturity and ripeness. The first is the development of sugar and all the components that lead to flavor. The latter is the process by which all those things come together. Think of it as a puzzle: Maturity is gathering the pieces together, and ripeness is assembling them into a pretty picture.
This is important because although maturity can be achieved only on the tree, ripening is something you can finish at home. A mature peach that is still very firm can be turned into a very good piece of fruit.
To ripen fruit, just leave it at room temperature. How long it will take to soften depends on many factors. It could be a day; it could be several. You'll know it's ready when you start to feel a little give at the shoulders — the rim around the stem. First, though, you'll probably smell it — ripening is what makes fruit aromatic.
The absolute worst thing to do with unripe fruit is stick it in the refrigerator. Chilling is what causes peaches and nectarines to develop that awful dry, mealy, cottony interior texture and the insipid flavor that goes along with it. Once the fruit is ripe, it can be refrigerated without worry.
So how do you choose a mature piece of fruit? That's not as easy. The best advice is to trust the farmer, or failing that, the produce manager. If you find a place that sells great fruit, give them all your business. Stocking great fruit takes a commitment, and such a reward might encourage them to continue being choosy about what they sell.
If you can find fruit that is at least slightly ripe, the task becomes much easier. One of the first things that happens when peaches and nectarines begin to ripen is that their background color changes from green to gold (disregard the red blush completely — that is a varietal characteristic and it can show up even in fruit that is completely unripe). Look particularly closely at the area around the stem. That should be a creamy gold.
With really great peaches and nectarines — those that have the high sugar content that goes with full maturity — that gold will have an orange cast. Because sugar seems heavier than water, well-matured fruit will have a certain heft. If you pick up two peaches of the same size, choose the one that is heavier.
With nectarines, there are a couple of other clues. Nectarines with high sugar content tend to have a certain dull quality to the skin color — it will appear matte rather than shiny. And some varieties develop freckles — always a sign of sweetness.
What do you do with good peaches and nectarines once you've found them? As always, the better the fruit is, the less you need to intervene. Serve a really sweet, perfectly ripe peach with some kind of crisp, fairly neutral cookie and you've got a dessert people will rave about.
Keep it simple
It's even better if you have some wine left from dinner — dip the fruit in the wine (reds and rosés are best), take a bite, nibble a cookie. Or just cut the fruit directly into your glass of wine. If you want to get fancy, peel the peaches beforehand and arrange them on a bowl of ice. Maybe scatter some mint or herb leaves over the top. Don't slice the fruit, though; having each person carve it at the table is part of the ceremony.
Nectarines don't need peeling, but to peel a peach, cut a shallow "X" in the bottom and dip the fruit in rapidly boiling water. Pull it out after 20 seconds and shock it in ice water to stop the cooking. The peel should pull right off. If it doesn't, repeat the process until it does. The riper the peach, the easier it will peel. Well-matured fruit with high sugar also peels more easily.
Instead of bathing it in wine, make a simple syrup to use as a light sauce for the fruit. Use about one-half cup of sugar for every cup of water. Boil it until the sugar is completely dissolved, then steep some kind of flavoring, as if you were making tea. With peaches and nectarines, try a couple tablespoons of chopped rose geranium leaves. Herbs with a citrusy edge work too: Try lemon verbena, lemongrass or lemon balm.
You can take that simple dish a step further by poaching the fruit in red wine — add a couple tablespoons of sugar for every cup of wine — or syrup. Keep the cooking brief. This is especially good for fruit that is still a little firm. Serve it with whipped cream or lightly sweetened crème fraîche or yogurt.
There are several types of pastries that are easy for non-bakers to make. Toss sliced fruit with a little sugar and a tablespoon or so of flour and mound it inside a tart shell (you can even use purchased puff pastry). Bake at 350 degrees until the peaches are soft and the tart has browned.
That same fruit can be turned into a quick crisp. Arrange it in a buttered baking dish. Make the topping by pulsing together one-half cup of flour, one-fourth cup of butter and one-fourth cup of sugar. Sprinkle this over the top of the fruit and bake at 350 degrees until it browns. If you want, you can add a couple tablespoons of rolled oats or ground nuts to the topping.
You can also make a peach or nectarine gelato — even if you don't have an ice cream maker. Arrange three pounds of peeled, sliced fruit on a cookie sheet and freeze it solid. Purée the frozen fruit in batches in a food processor with one-fourth cup of sugar and one-half cup of crème fraîche, yogurt or mascarpone. Freeze it again briefly and serve. It will be dense and creamy and full of fruit flavor.