Summer is the season for stone fruits, but this year’s unusually mild winter and warm spring has gifted us with these sweet treats a few weeks early, and the first of the season’s peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums and cherries are on the stands right now.
Stone fruit are divided into two basic categories, freestone and clingstone. Their names tell the story: freestone varieties have a loose pit that comes out easily when the fruit is cut. The flesh of the clingstone fruits is stuck to the pit.
Stone fruit are sweetest when left to ripen on the tree. However, that leaves them most vulnerable to bruising so most stone fruit is picked while a little underripe. The fruit is still sweet but has not reached that stage of juicy succulence we love. Consumers should choose stone fruit that are free of blemishes and bruises and of relatively even color. All stone fruit can sit out at room temperature for a couple of days to soften up.
Stone fruit’s luscious flavors, juiciness and healthfulness make them one of the most desirable and anticipated warm weather snacks around. In addition to being a delicious, out-of-hand nibble, stone fruits are a great grilled accompaniment to barbecued meats and seafood, sensational fresh additions to summer salads and classics candidates for pies, jams and compotes.
Locally and regionally-grown fruits will start turning up midsummer, but pristine peaches and more from California and the Carolinas are here now. Here’s some of what to expect for the rest of the season:
New Jersey has been cultivating peaches since the early 1600’s, and the Garden State’s season starts a little later than western growers, running from early July into October. NY State peaches will arrive in early August and will be available into September.
Fresh, raw peaches are among the most nutritious foods you can eat. They are a good source of energy, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, iron, potassium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B and Vitamin C.
Some offbeat varieties of peaches that you can find with us are White Peaches, which are generally less acidic and sweeter, and Donut or Saturn Peaches, which are smaller and bagel-shaped, with a much smaller stone.
Note: Depth of color is not a factor in determining ripeness with peaches. A strong aroma is a better sign, along with a slight yield to a gentle squeeze.
Let’s make it official: a nectarine is a type of peach, not a crossbreed of peaches and plums or any other smooth-skinned tree fruit. The lack of fuzz on a nectarine is the result of a recessive gene. Its origins are unclear, but it presumed to have come from central and eastern Asia and wasn’t introduced to the US until the turn of the 20th century.
Nectarines tend to run a smaller and a bit sweeter than their furry first cousins, and their thin skins make them a little more susceptible to bruising.
California and Pacific Northwest nectarines are available through the first week of September. But watch for luscious, pristine New Jersey nectarines as early as mid-July, and a brief blast of New York State fruit in mid-August.
Plums set themselves apart from other stone fruit in a number of ways. They are the juiciest, with a thick, shiny skin that forms its own natural wax coating during tree ripening. The fruit grows in clusters of two to five, rather than individually, like peaches and apricots. There are 2,000 known varieties of plums and over 100 of them available in the US.
Plums enjoy one of the longest growing seasons, May through October for western varieties. Locally, we will start seeing NY State plums from the Finger Lakes region in mid-July, with Italian prune and empress plums following in August, again right into October.
Plums are rich in Vitamin C, so much so that they can aid the body in absorbing iron, and are packed with antioxidants. Choose plums that yield to gentle pressure and are slightly soft at the tip end. Underripe plums can be left at room temperature for a couple of days, but they do ripen quickly, so keep an eye on them. Ripe plums can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days more.
Apricots are an ancient fruit, closely related to peaches and plums, that found their way to Europe via Armenia (hence its Latin name, prunus armenaica.) They have fuzzy, velvety skin and soft, smooth flesh that is less juicy than all other stone fruit, but just as sweet. They’re very aromatic and often have a slightly tart edge to the flavor.
Come mid-July our friends at Red Jacket Orchards will start sending their tree-ripened beauties, which should last well into August. Red Jacket is the largest grower of apricots east of the Rockies, and because they are shipping locally Red Jacket is able to let the fruit fully ripen on the tree.
Apricots are little nutritional powerhouses, particularly high in antioxidants and Vitamin A, with a very good measure of Vitamin C, potassium and dietary fiber as well. And, the softer they are the higher the nutrients so don’t be afraid to choose apricots that almost feel too soft. They will have the best flavor, too!