Peaches and nectarines are two of the most glorious prizes of summer, but this year you'd better grab them while you can. Blink and you might miss your favorites.
Because of the warm winter we experienced -- the winter that wasn't -- harvests are much smaller than usual and are coming much earlier. Some farmers I've talked to say they'll be winding up their picking within the next two weeks -- that's mid-July for a season that for some varieties normally can last until October.
As if that wasn't bad enough, this year's peach and nectarine crop is running much smaller than normal. As compensation, the fruit is exceptionally sweet.
What's the difference between peaches and nectarines? Not a lot. They're so closely related that if you plant 100 peach pits, a few will grow into nectarine trees, and vice versa. It's a fun fact, but mainly for botanical geeks.
In fact, I find more of a difference between white and yellow peaches and nectarines than I do between peaches and nectarines themselves. Most white varieties these days tend to be a little more simply sweet, without the balancing acidity and rich flavor that comes with most yellow varieties.
Practically speaking, that means you can use peaches and nectarines interchangeably — you can't go wrong if you just choose the best you can find of whichever fruit. The results will be slightly different, but not in a bad way. To me, nectarines (the hairless ones) have a little bit lighter, slightly brighter, more lemony flavor. Peaches (which are fuzzy, or "pubescent" as the plant breeders say) seem richer and muskier.
Used in recipes, the difference is mainly one of tone. That and, for terminally lazy cooks like myself, nectarines don't need to be peeled. If you're not clear on how to peel a peach, watch Noelle Carter do it.
How to choose: Select peaches and nectarines the same way. The first tip-off is color — not the red blush, but the background color, which should be golden. Really great fruit, which has hung on the tree long enough for full maturity, will even have an orange-ish cast to it. Great peaches and nectarines have an almost overwhelming perfume too. Finally, ripe fruit will have a slight give when squeezed gently in the palm (gently!).
How to store: It's crucial to remember that peaches and nectarines will continue to ripen after they've been picked. If you choose fruit that is slightly firm (and, considering the way ripe fruit gets manhandled, maybe you should), just leave it on the counter at room temperature for a day or two and it will soften and ripen. Do not refrigerate peaches or nectarines until they are fully ripe — if you've ever bitten into a great-looking peach that turned out to be mealy and tasteless (and who hasn't?), it was almost certainly one that had been refrigerated before it was ready.