Stone Fruit and the Secret Ceremonies of Summer


Most of us have them — those private moments when we eat something that brings on the summer in our lives. Maybe it’s the first corn of the season or the arrival of local tomatoes. For a friend, the season starts with strawberries, and she drives two hours to buy her favorites from a farm stand in southern New Jersey, even though our city green markets are full of produce from Lancaster County, one of the most productive non-irrigated agricultural counties in the entire nation. It might seem silly, but these are the secret ceremonies we use to celebrate the season.

For me, it’s officially summer with the appearance of stone fruit — peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines — that typically show up in green markets around the summer solstice, in sync with that seasonal ceremony. But like all produce, it is vulnerable to climate stress — stronger storms, sudden hail, droughts and other rainfall patterns affect the cost and availability, often resulting in a smaller yield and changes in the fruit’s quality. This year we were lucky; our stone fruit was particularly abundant in the market. Because it was picked early due to the extreme heat in July, I had to let the fruit ripen on the counter a bit before using. But the flavor was — and continues to be —  great, perfect for one of the few baking recipes I have mastered: the fruit crisp, a homey dish that matches my low-key baking skills. I start with a summer mix of peaches, apricots and plums (plus some blueberries if they are around), continuing right through autumn’s apple season.

I also mark the first day of September by eating a chocolate sundae for breakfast from Basset’s, a sixth-generation ice-cream maker in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. But that’s another ritual.

Individual Stone Fruit Crisps

I don’t add cornstarch to thicken the fruit mix as some cooks do, only a bit of flour. Because I like to eat my crisps cold, the fruit thickens a bit on its own in the refrigerator, and I don’t mind that the mix bubbles through the topping onto the baking sheet. I just line mine with a sheet of parchment.

Lee Bailey’s Peppered Peaches

By late summer, there are so many peaches around that I wanted to make something other than a crisp and remembered this recipe from my favorite ’80s cookbook, Lee Baileys’ Country Weekends. I hadn’t made it in ages and wasn’t sure it was going to taste as good as I remembered. So, my friend came over and we made the peaches together: The verdict was yes, the recipe holds up, and it’s an unusual way to use our surplus, particularly because you want peaches that are slightly underripe, not too soft and not too hard. Plus, the whole process takes under 10 minutes.

The finished peaches should not be refrigerated, are best eaten within two to three hours, and make an interesting side paired with grilled meat, a spicy Indian dish like vindaloo or even a soft young blue cheese and toasted baguette.

  • Peaches, halved, pitted and peeled (see below)
  • Fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar mixed with 1 tsp. salt
  • Cayenne and ground black pepper
  • Saucepan of boiling water

Cut the peaches in half with a small sharp knife until you hit the pit, starting and ending at the stem end. Gently twist the two halves in opposite directions, and the peach should separate neatly. Since most peaches in the market are freestone (which means the pit is easily freed from the peach, versus clingstone, which means the pit is much harder to remove), the pit should easily pop out or be pulled out with your fingers. Try not to bruise the peach in the process.

Using a large, perforated spoon, dip each peach half in boiling water for about six seconds, slip off the skin, place on plate lined with paper towels. Coat peaches with lemon juice, and sprinkle with sugar and salt mixture, adding cayenne and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Transfer to serving dish.

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