El Nino is officially over. The farmers have stopped complaining.
The California summer fruit industry is finally back in full production after two years of late, spotty harvests caused by erratic spring weather brought by El Nino and its bookend La Nina.
Whether you’re talking about peaches, plums and nectarines or strawberries or grapes, a normal harvest is expected. That giant whooshing sound is the entire San Joaquin Valley breathing a sigh of relief.
“For the first time in what seems like years, our timing is just about normal,” says Dale Janzen, a field agent for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, a grower’s group. “The last two years we haven’t had enough fruit early in the season. This year we’re right in step with all the summer holidays.
“We are a full 12 to 15 days earlier than last year. We haven’t had normal timing since 1997. Both 1998 and 1999 were really late years. El Nino and La Nina were battering us around as far as timing goes.”
Though the tree fruit harvest will be only slightly bigger than the last two years’ (what the weather took away early, it gave back in long falls), grape growers are looking at a substantially larger haul.
“It looks like we will have good-sized crop all the way through into January,” says Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. “We had really good growing weather, just the right amount of heat and then cool nights.”
Though the size of the peach and nectarine harvest won’t be much changed, there will be an important difference. White-fleshed fruit, until very recently a curiosity, has become an important part of the harvest.
Farmers looking to the Asian market, where white-fleshed fruits are extremely popular, have increased their plantings of those trees dramatically.
In 1996, white-fleshed peach and nectarine varieties accounted for less than 3% of the total in each category. Four years later, that share has skyrocketed to 22% of nectarines and 19% of peaches.
So what are you going to do with all that fruit? Here are some ideas:
Peaches, Nectarines and Plums. The trick to buying peaches and nectarines is not to be fooled by the red color on the skin. That doesn’t tell you whether the fruit is ripe; it’s a varietal characteristic. Look for the background color, which should be golden. If there is a tinge of green, that’s probably OK too.
To tell when the fruit is really ready to eat, there is nothing like your sense of smell. Really good peaches, plums and nectarines possess a strong fruity fragrance that you can smell across the kitchen.
If the fruit you buy at the grocery isn’t as ripe as it could be, you can improve it by putting it in a paper bag and leaving it at room temperature. Check it every day; the aroma and the slightly soft flesh will tell you when it’s ready.
Once peaches, plums and nectarines are ripe, they’ll last a day or two at room temperature. Longer than that and they ought to be refrigerated, though that will diminish their flavor somewhat.
Do not wash the fruit before chilling it; the extra moisture will encourage spoilage. Rather, give it a rinse in cold water before serving it.
Don’t be put off by plums that look dusty--that’s called “bloom,” and it’s a natural yeast dust that actually helps prevent spoilage. Bloom is also a good indication that the plums have not been overly handled.
Nectarines and plums don’t need to be peeled, but peaches should be if you’re going to cook them. That’s not hard. Cut a shallow ‘X’ in the blossom end of the fruit and then dunk it in boiling water for five to 30 seconds--the time will depend on the ripeness of the fruit; the riper the peach, the shorter the time. Immediately plunge the fruit into ice water to stop the cooking. The peel should slip right off. If it doesn’t, blanch it again for another 10 seconds or so.
One of the simplest desserts you can make with peaches, plums and nectarines is a crisp. Toss the fruit with a little bit of sugar and a tablespoon or so of flour and layer it in a shallow baking dish. In a food processor, pulse 1/4 cup butter with 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup flour and a dash of salt until it forms rough crumbs. Sprinkle the pastry mixture over the fruit and bake at 400 degrees until the top is brown and the fruit has turned to jam, about 40 minutes.
Berries. Most of the strawberries you’ll find now will be coming from the Watsonville area--picking has pretty much wrapped up in Southern California and Santa Maria. With the varieties that dominate these days, the best strawberries will probably be the ones with the darkest color. The Camarosa--almost 100% of Southern California strawberries and a majority in the North--should be almost reddish black.
Water is the enemy of all berries, but especially of the so-called “bush berries"--raspberries, blackberries and olallieberries. Their skins are so thin and delicate that water not only encourages spoilage, it will actually suck out juice. In fact, many growers insist that you shouldn’t wash berries at all before using them. That may be a little extreme, but you should certainly limit their bath time to only the briefest of showers.
All berries should be treated as simply as possible. The very best way to serve them is with some sort of cream: either liquid, whipped or frozen. Add a little pastry for some texture--even crumbled cookies, such as ginger snaps, are fine--and you’ve got heaven.
Melons. There is no one set rule to buying melons. What applies to cantaloupes is probably not true for honeydews and certainly not for watermelons.
With cantaloupes, look for a good, raised netting on the shell and make sure there is no stem left--cantaloupes “slip” from their vines when they’re ripe.
Honeydews are completely smooth, of course, and they are cut from the vines, so there’s always a little knob. Look for a uniformly golden creamy color to the rind. If you see a honeydew with brown speckles, buy it--that’s sugar that’s bled through the rind. It’s usually washed off at supermarkets, but occasionally you’ll get lucky.
With both types--and with the various specialty melons you find in the market these days--the best clue to ripeness is a powerful floral aroma at the stem end. Once again, the nose knows.
With watermelons, you’ve got another set of indicators entirely. Look for a deep green color overall, with a golden spot on one side (that shows the watermelon lay in the patch long enough to get sugar). And, of course, there should be a solid, satisfying, hollow thump. Surprisingly, some melon pros recommend buying cut watermelons to be really sure. Though other indicators can be iffy, a really sweet watermelon will always have a deep red color.
Melons aren’t improved by cooking or even by ornamentation. A slice of cool, fragrant, honeyed melon is perfect in itself. Of course, if you want to wrap that melon in a slice of good prosciutto for an appetizer, we’re behind you 100%. And if your melons are something less than perfect, or if you just can’t resist gilding lilies, you can serve sliced melon in a cold sugar syrup (about half as much sugar as water, cooked until clear and then chilled; a sprig of mint gives a nice complexity).
Grapes. There are two ways of looking at most supermarket grapes: You can’t say much bad about them; or you can’t say much good about them. Actually, both are true. Grapes are almost always sweet and tart. And they almost always taste just the same. Buying green, red or what the trade calls “black” is really a decorating decision. Except for rare instances, gone are the great Muscat and Concord grapes that had strong identities. Most grapes are rather neutral. But they are crisp. And they are sweet. And so it goes.
The dominant grape in California is the Thompson Seedless, a green grape, and it actually can be quite good. If you ever find Thompsons that are almost amber in color--as opposed to pale green--you won’t believe the difference in taste. That simple sugar turns to honey. Of course, you’ll almost never see them. When grapes get that ripe, they have a discouraging tendency to fall off their stems; that’s called “shatter,” and supermarkets hate it.