What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of courage to shake the tree?
– Logan Pearsall Smith
Most stone fruits are members of the Prunus genus from the Latin prunus for plum. Stone describes the pit that is found in the center of the fruit.
Originating in China, stone fruits date back to 1000 BCE. We would like to thank the Silk Road not only for spreading wonderful Chinese spices and silks, but also for sharing stone fruits with Western neighbors in Persia. After making their way to Europe, stone fruits arrived in the Americas via Spanish settlers in Florida in the 16th Century. Several immigrant groups, predominantly Spanish and Russian, introduced California to stone fruits, and we imagine that their deliciousness encouraged expansion to sunny pockets of the United States and eventually into multitudes of mouth-watering dishes.
Beyond coloring our landscapes with clusters of elegant blooms, stone fruit trees produce sweet and utterly juicy treats. What botanists call a drupe, stone fruits have a single hard pit in the center that provides both physical and nutritional support as the fruit grows on the tree. Freestone and clingstone are two types of drupes referring to the ease to which the center pit is freed from the flesh. What is and is not classified as a drupe can get scientific and confusing, so we’ll leave it at the following list of our favorite stone fruits.
Many of the following heavenly ingredients can be made into jams or jellies, or play a leading role in some of our favorite desserts, so we’d like to inspire you with the impetus for kitchen exploration. ‘Tis the season for stone fruit celebration, and our test kitchen is overflowing with all kinds of color.
With a “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” attitude, peaches are the most popular of the stone fruit family. With a fuzzy exterior skin, fragrant and soft peaches have no need for sugar, heat, or dressing when ripened sufficiently on the tree. With delicate, round velvety cheeks, they are one of nature’s sweet gifts, and biting into a perfectly ripened one can make us delirious. But just because they don’t need to be manipulated does not mean we don’t like to. When cooking peaches, it is best not to overdo it as their texture can be easy to lose. When we want peaches halved and intact, we use the freestone variety so the pit is cleanly removed. You can see from our test kitchen dossier on peaches that we like to experiment. For example: Use peaches instead of apples in a classic Tarte Tatin and pair with ginger; or slice peaches, slather with coconut milk and cinnamon, and grill to caramelize that delicious sweetness. And the peach celebration would not be complete without a tasty Ever After cocktail with peach and rosemary essence!
A close relative to the peach, nectarines are the smoother-skinned of the two; for culinary purposes, nectarines can be substituted for peaches, as the flesh is quite similar. Their skin can vary widely in “blush” which refers to the dark red color that covers the skin, and indicates variety rather than ripeness. Choose those that give a little to the touch and have a fragrant, sweet scent. Nectarines can be incredibly juicy when ripe — and we are talking about the kind of juicy that runs down your arm when you take a bite. Given their super-sweet syrup, we would highly recommend the juice of nectarines for a sweet cocktail; or cut one up and serve in a fresh salad with feta cheese, prosciutto and balsamic vinaigrette.
Say hello to the little jewels of the stone fruit family. With a skin like fine velvet, apricots vary in color from deep orange to yellow. If you are lucky enough to live near an apricot farm, 95% of which are in California, you will enjoy the euphoria of tree-ripened apricots instead of those that have ripened in transit. As close relatives, apricots and almonds pair well in poultry and pork dishes, and for added texture, choose the dried variety. Like all of our stone fruit friends, apricots make fantastic dessert combinations as in our Champagne Apricot Sorbet.
With festivals dedicated to their glory, cherries are a nutritional and culinary super-fruit. Rich in symbolism, cherries and their blossoms signify feminine beauty, love and the cycle of life. Sweet Bing cherries can be enjoyed raw, and we don’t hesitate to indulge around their peak season. The American classic cherry pie is made with smaller, more sour cherries. Cheesecake or ice cream can be one step above heavenly with a generous pour of Cherry Port Sauce. Try dried cherries in duck, pork, or chicken dishes for a tart and sweet taste or serve with almonds in a side of jasmine rice. Of course, sometimes simple is best, as in cherries poached in red wine over vanilla bean ice cream. Do try it.
We drool over the sight of purple plums. Plums originated in Asia and have undergone much crossbreeding, which as resulted in the jeweled colors of yellow, orange, red and purple-colored beauties. Plums can sit in for pineapple in upside-down cakes or pureed (minus the skins) for a frozen plum sorbet. We’ve also been asking ourselves why we don’t use prunes more; although they might sound like a quest for a geriatric, high-fiber diet, they are sweet little treats, and as with many dried fruits, can be used to infuse balsamic vinegar during reduction. (Remove the prunes halfway through the reduction process.) Like dried cherries, prunes are lovely with duck, pork or poultry. Plums are also a pleasant complement to pears, which we discovered in creating our Foie Gras Terrine with Mulled Plums and Gingered Pears. And we ask that you have a glass of Champagne with said foie gras to toast the stunning plum.
Almond cultivation is quite an impressive process. Almond trees are not self-pollinating, so the almond farmer must round up a swarm of bees to do the grunt work. To further complicate almond things, at least two different varieties must be grown in the orchard for cross-breeding. Throughout the growing process, beautiful flowering trees give way to green pods and later dried hulls, and the pods are eventually shaken off their trees in late summer and early fall. It’s a process that we as fans of the almond think is worth all the trouble. With a fairly sweet taste on their own without being overpowering, almonds fit magnificently in desserts: puff pastry, cake, ice cream, chocolate, biscotti, cookies. Pair them with fruits, in salads, or with goat cheese. With a smooth, buttery texture, almonds pair well with chicken, lamb, and Indian cuisine. And of course we like to keep a stash of them around as snacks when we’re tempted to reach into the cookie jar.
Stirring things up in pina coladas and the world of botany, coconuts are part of an ongoing debate. Are coconuts a fruit, nut or drupe? Nuts are technically fruits, so maybe they’re both. Drupes have pits and sweet, juicy flesh, and coconuts don’t quite fit in. In order to make them fit, some botanists have categorized it as a dry drupe and called it a day. Regardless of where they fall categorically, we wanted to give a little love to the coconut. After all, when we are biting into chocolate-covered coconut paradise, do we really care if it’s a nut, fruit or dry drupe? The coconut shouldn’t worry about fitting in, as it fits in just fine with Thai curry, citrus fruits or ginger. Thai Red Curry Beef and Pumpkin puts creamy coconut milk to perfect use. Shredded coconut and our friend cilantro will liven up a fruit salad. And sometimes a little taste of coconut is as close as we get can to the beach in December.
We commend stone fruits for helping us create delicious desserts, however we like to branch out a little, too. Use dried stone fruits in savory dishes. Make a stone fruit cocktail. Go out on a limb — after all, isn’t that where the fruit is?
Tipsy Pork Chops with Bourbon-Laced Peach Chutney
Spicy Peach & Ginger Grilling Sauce
Grilled Peaches with Coconut Milk and Cinnamon Sugar
Gingered Peach Trifle
Gingered Peach Tarte Tatin
Ever After Cocktail
Tomato & Nectarine Timbale
Champagne Apricot Sorbet
Cherry Port Sauce
Lavender Biscotti with Almonds
Olive Oil Poached Sablefish with Citrus & Thyme
Pan de Higo (Fig Cake)
Persian Honey Almond Brittle
Classic Mexican Mole (with Grilled Chicken and Cashews)
Love & Honor Cocktail
Hazelnut and Fig Linzer Cookies
Almond Tarragon Cake
California Tree Fruit Agreement
Sweet Georgia Peaches
University of Rhode Island Greenshare Factsheets
Is a coconut a nut or a fruit?
Almond Board of California
The Worldwide Gourmet
Dossier and photo by Kalle Guinn. Originally published on August 17, 2010.