By Russ Parsons
Times Staff Writer
July 7, 2004
Perfectly grown, utterly ripe peaches and nectarines are things we dream about, but most of us cook in the real world. Still, that doesn't mean good fruit is out of reach. If you know how to shop well, you can still eat well.
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.
Cinnamon nectarine cake
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Servings: 10 to 12
Note: Adapted from Erin Malleus, pastry chef at Bon Appétit at the Getty Center. Pastry flour is available at Surfas in Culver City.
3 nectarines, ripe but firm
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons pastry flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup olive oil
1/2cup canola oil
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9- by 2-inch round cake pan with pan coating and line it with parchment paper.Cut the nectarines in half and remove the pits. Cut the halves into 1/8-inch-thick slices.
2. Sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk, olive and canola oils. Whisk to blend. Slowly add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, whisking to make a smooth batter.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Starting on the outside of the cake pan, arrange nectarine slices in an overlapping circle on top of the batter, making smaller concentric circles of slices until the surface is covered. Gently press down the slices, just so they are coated with batter. The batter will fill the pan to the rim.
5. Bake for about 1 hour and 10 to 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the top is golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs. The cake will puff up while baking and deflate slightly as it cools.
Compote and assembly
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
6 tablespoons water, divided
2 nectarines, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Place the sugar in a small saucepan. Add the corn syrup and 5 tablespoons of water to give the mixture the consistency of wet sand.
2. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar syrup begins to caramelize, about 5 to 8 minutes. Once a dark honey color is reached, reduce the heat to low and add half the diced nectarines. Cook the fruit in the caramel for 3 to 4 minutes, until the juices are released and the sauce becomes more liquid.
3. Remove the nectarines from the caramel sauce with a slotted spoon and add them to the bowl with the remaining uncooked fruit. Combine the cornstarch and the remaining water in a small bowl and stir into the caramel sauce in the pan. Bring the sauce back to a boil and simmer until slightly thickened and the starch flavor is cooked out, about 2 minutes.
4. Add all the fruit to the sauce and stir over low heat about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to serve.
5. When the cake is done, place it on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert it onto a plate. Remove the parchment paper and turn the cake over again onto a serving platter.
6. Serve slices of warm cake with a spoonful of room-temperature compote and vanilla bean ice cream.
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