I’m in heaven with all the sensational fruits that explode at the markets every summer. Each shopping trip, I invariably lug back with way too much fruit. But everything looks so good I can’t resist; rosy nectarines, blushing apricots, and crisp, dark cherries.
So to help you choose the best summer fruits, here’s some shopping tips. Best bets are often at Farmer’s Markets, where the growers take primo care of what they’re selling and often they encourage sampling before you buy.
The most popular sweet cherry varieties are deep-dark red and plump, with moist, perky stems. Bing cherries are reliably excellent. Although some varieties, like Queen Anne and Rainier, are light red and yellow-colored, they have a more delicate taste, which some people prefer. Cherries should be washed, then stored in the refrigerator. Unlike most other fruits, cherries are more appealing when served very cold and crisp.
Avoid cherries that are wrinkled, which means they were picked a while ago. Split apart cherries means they got wet while growing and will mold quickly.
When buying berries that are packed in plastic or cardboard containers, peek underneath: moisture on the bottom indicates the berries below are soggy or moldy.
Strawberries should be uniformly red with no green at the tips or at the stem. (Did you know the cluster of seeds concentrated at the tip is referred to as a ‘cats nose’?)
Strawberries should have a sweet smell. Some berries have been hybridized to be red on the outside, but disappointingly underripe within, so color’s not always an accurate indication. Avoid buying commercial strawberries after rainy weather: since they grow near the earth, they’re often sprayed with a rather nasty chemical to prevent mold. Look for organic strawberries instead.
If you’re not going to eat strawberries the same day, store them on a plate in the refrigerator, in a single-layer, so they don’t mush each other down.
Raspberries, blueberries, and other bushberries should be plump and dry. Blackberries should be inky-black and a bit soft, never rock-hard. There’s nothing worse than a sour blackberry.
Blueberries should be firm. Most have no fragrance. Did you know that each blueberry can contain up to 100 seeds? If you don’t believe me, slice one open and count. I never wash any berries since they’re too fragile-except blueberries and strawberries.
Can you freeze fresh berries or pitted cherries? Yes. Lay the fruits out in an even layer on a non-reactive baking sheet (or line one with parchment paper.) Freeze. Once frozen, store in zip-top freezer bags. Frozen berries and cherries can be used for sauces, or added frozen mixed with other fruits for pies, crisps, and cobblers.
It’s been said that finding a good melon is like falling in love. Sometimes you have to try a lot of them to find the right one.
Judy Rodgers in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook insists that the best melons are the ones with lots of netting and claims not to have picked a bad one since learning that. I always take a good sniff. The most amazing melons I’ve tasted were melons that I could smell before I could see them.
Choose a melon that’s heavy and relatively firm, but not-rock hard (except for honeydew melons.) Any mold by the stem end or mushy spots are indications of it being over-the-hill.
A simple melon dessert can be made by pouring sweet wine, such as Muscat or Sauternes, over slices of melon and berries and chilling them well. Store melons in the refrigerator.
Nectarines and Peaches
The best peaches have a sweet, perfumed aroma if you sniff the stem end. Peaches need to be picked a day before ripening, then ripened off the tree. Or better yet, the same day. If they’re too green, they were picked too soon and will never taste good. Ditto for nectarines. Find fruits that are mostly red and blushing.
If faced with a bin of underripe fruits, find one that’s rather soft and smell it. If it smells good, chances are the rest will be too, once ripe.
Apricots and Plums
Neither of these fruits boast much aroma, but they make up for it with lots of flavor. Apricots should have an appealing blush and no green. Red-tinged apricots means they’ve received lots of sunlight and will likely be good. Apricots are best when they’re gushy-ripe. They should be very soft, like a water balloon. My favorite variety are the Royal and Blenheim apricots. Most of the flavor in plums are in the skin, and they make the best jam, especially when mixed with raspberries. Santa Rosa and Elephant Heart plums are reliably good. The little yellow mirabelles (shown above) are prized in France for jam and tarts.
Baked apricots are a superb, easy dessert: simply halve ripe, but firm apricots, place face-down in a baking dish, pour in a wine glass of white wine (dry or sweet), and drizzle with a copious amount of honey (use more than you think, as apricots get quite tart when cooked.) You can add a split vanilla bean too. Bake until the apricots are tender and juicy.
Delicious with vanilla ice cream!