Food & Drink

Dan Kennedy: Buying Stone Fruit: A Hard Choice

By From page A6 | June 26, 2013

Surely you’ve bought peaches, apricots or nectarines that were supposed to ripen after sitting for a few days on your kitchen counter, but they never did.
It can make a person disgruntled. You feel like you’re out $3 a pound or more.
Admittedly, this is what is called a First World problem. We actually have abundant stone fruit in Davis, and the problem is finding fruit that is truly ripe. Recently I saw a documentary about the Jordanian refugee camps for Syrian families, and the difficulties providing enough calories and clean water. You understand my point.
So that rock-hard peach that weighs nearly a pound is still sitting on your counter, perhaps getting softer, but not ripening. Hmm. A thoughtful person soon asks two questions.
Why aren’t vendors selling more stone fruit that’s ripe and ready to eat? And if one wants to gamble and buy hard stone fruit, can the hard fruit be repurposed should it not ripen well enough?
There’s a pretty good harvest of stone fruit coming to market this year. Conditions have been favorable. Three years ago, when I last wrote about peaches, the entire crop was small due to weather conditions.
Cling peaches are the first varieties we’ve been seeing. They’re so named because the flesh clings to the stone, or pit, within, as you’re eating it. It has less flavor than the freestone peaches that come later, and of course the stone comes right out (hence the name). As always, the best peaches and nectarines won’t come to market until July and August, when the hot weather has worked its magic.
“We can’t buy a ripe peach from a supermarket or farmers’ market, because the next day it would be too ripe,” explains Jim Mills of Produce Express, who supplies optimal produce to fine dining establishments in our region. He’s also a veteran chef from the Paragary restaurants. He’s speaking of the impracticality of expecting growers to offer stone fruit that’s as ripe as what you might pick on a backyard tree.
Then there are handling and distribution issues. Fully ripened apricots and peaches bruise so, so easily. Hence they have to be picked, further handled in sorting, packed, trucked, displayed, all of these steps taking time. Then there are shoppers who unadvisedly pick up fruit and squeeze a half dozen as they fuss to make a selection, damaging all they handle.
Mills explains that you want to buy fruit that has been picked a few days before it would have ripened naturally on the tree. By then there’s enough sugar in the fruit that it will indeed ripen on your kitchen counter. (Don’t put it in the refrigerator to ripen).
However, it’s not enough that stone fruit was picked just a few days before it hits the farm stand or farmers’ market. If the crew is sweeping through the trees and picking fruit in varying degrees of ripeness, not all the fruit coming to market is desirable. The vendors know their fruit: when they offer a slice for you to taste, often they’re selecting the ripest fruit from what they are offering that day, says Mills. Nevertheless, you want a sample slice with a good amount of sugar and taste, even if it’s hard.
Your best bet is to develop a relationship with one or more sellers, whether it’s in a supermarket, at a farmers’ market, or at a farm stand. Have a taste. Ask the seller to select fruit that will ripen on your time line. If it doesn’t, speak up next time and see what you hear. Sellers can be wrong. Another chance might be warranted. Or go elsewhere.
Smart shoppers assess whether peaches, apricots and nectarines have a green hue, however small, at the stem end. If they do, keep shopping. “The whole piece of fruit won’t ripen properly,” says Mills. It was picked too soon.
Supermarkets are at a decided disadvantage in this game. Their field-to-store cycle is often longer, and the scope of the picking, sorting, distribution and storage channels are on a far larger, more time-consuming schedule. Yes, at times they may have hard fruit that will ripen up to expectations because of the source and quick delivery, but it remains a challenge for them. Give it a try when the supermarkets have their specials on stone fruit. Speak with a staffer in the produce department.
I happened to be in Esparto with a friend recently, and he suggested we scoot up the gravel drive to Manas Ranch for peaches. I bought a dozen peaches and apricots, and they were very flavorful. Their website blares, “Best Peaches in the West,” a slogan awarded to them by Sunset Magazine years ago. I’ll stop in again any time I’m out that way. That one is on my “yes” list. Find your vendor.
On the other hand, a friend brought peaches and apricots from Raleys on a fishing trip recently. We left them on the counter. The apricots were soon delectable; the peaches simply softened on the outside and weren’t suitable at all for eating out of hand.
What is one to do if hard stone fruit doesn’t ripen well? Throw it out? Hardly. Pies are often best with fruit that’s a touch hard or lacking in flavor, as is jelly or jam. But what are the other possibilities?
Looking for alternatives, I dropped in on Nena Rasul, a veteran pastry chef at Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento. She had a lot of suggestions. Smoothies are a possibility. Fruit slices might go in a pitcher of sangria, if that can work into an upcoming summer gathering. Crisps and cobbles are also good choices.
The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook has a wonderful recipe for roasted summer fruits, served with ice cream. A mixed selection of fruit is touched up with olive oil and sugar and roasted in the oven. Check your copy for all the details.
For a fancy appetizer, briefly grill both sides of stone-fruit halves. You’re just trying to get grill marks, not cook it. Then arrange within a baking pan, put a dab of a flavorful cheese in each upturned half, and put it in a 400-degree oven until the cheese melts.
Your stone fruit may not ripen for eating out of your hand, with juice dripping down your chin, but by repurposing it you can still have a winner.

Dan Kennedy

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