The Ultimate Summer Fruit Guide
When you taste a ripe early-summer strawberry, it's like discovering a whole new species of berry. Strawberries come in many sizes; you can find long-stemmed berries for dipping or small ones perfect for eating whole. Fraises des bois are miniature, wild, woodland strawberries, less than an inch long, and are extraordinarily sugary and floral. Ripe strawberries have a uniform deep red color. White or green tops indicate unripe fruit (strawberries don't ripen once picked). Look for plump berries with fresh, green leafy caps. Avoid baskets with moldy or soft berries, or red stains (a sign of squished fruit). If your fruit is very delicate, spread it out on a plate and keep it covered with a paper towel or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to two days.
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These gorgeous little berries are on many folks' radar these days. Not only do they taste great, but they are really good for you. Rich in healthy antioxidants, they are embraced as a superfood by conscious eaters. These American natives, which look like small marbles with a mini crown, are in season from midsummer through early fall. Dried blueberries are available year round, have a concentrated flavor and are a great portable snack. Look for plump, uniform berries. Avoid baskets with green or wizened berries, or blue stains (a sign of squished fruit). A shiny white bloom on the berries is completely normal and actually a sign of freshness. Blueberries don't have much of an aroma, so a taste test is a good idea to confirm full flavor. Refrigerate berries in covered containers; the open containers they are often sold in aren't always ideal for storing. Wash berries with cool water in a colander just before using.
These cheerful oh-so-summery fruits fall into three categories: sweet, sour and middling sweet-and-sour. Common sweet varieties are the deep burgundy Bing and the two-toned Rainier; both are naturals for eating fresh out of hand. Pitted cherries can be tossed in fruit salads, flambeed with rum or brandy, or baked in cobblers, custards and, of course, pies. The dusky red sour cherry has a short season (up to four weeks in good years) around mid-July. Raw, their complex, tart flavor is an acquired taste, but when cooked they are perfect for pies and preserves. Varieties like Montmorency and Meteor bridge the sweet-tart gap. If you're unsure which camp a cherry falls into, snag a taste before buying. Buy cherries that look plump and are free of cracking, splitting or blemishes, and choose those with supple green stems, if you can. All red varieties should have a deep, uniform color. Fresh cherries should be refrigerated and eaten within a couple of days after purchase.
A good blackberry, which looks like a plump cluster of inky bubbles, is sweet, with a pleasant pucker. This family of berries encompasses over 100 varieties, such as marionberries, loganberries, boysenberries and olallieberries. Blackberries run the gamut from pinky-sized minis to thumb-sized fat ones. Eat berries at their peak — July and August — for best flavor. Look for berries that are dark, plump and free of mold or damage. Avoid those that have either the stem caps or a reddish cast — signs they were picked too early. Check cartons' sides and bottoms for juice stains, a sign of poor handling. As with all berries, try to use within a day of purchase (or picking). Refrigerate berries in covered containers and wash with cool water in a colander just before using. If you have a bumper crop, freeze them: Spread berries out on a paper towel-lined pan, freeze until firm, then transfer to sealed plastic bags and store for up to six months. Thawed berries are perfect for sauces, smoothies and in baked recipes.
The perfect summer peach embodies everything good about eating local foods in season. When you get really, really great peaches, their fleshy, juicy sweetness is nearly impossible to resist. Luckily, it's now getting even easier to find different varieties, such as yellow, white-fleshed or doughnut-shaped ones. Select peaches that are free of bruises or marks and that give to gentle pressure in the palm of your hand. Those that are just shy of ripeness can be left on the counter in a paper bag to ripen for a day or two. Avoid any that have a green under-color on their blushing skins, as well as those that are rock-hard; they'll never ripen properly. Store ripe fruit in the crisper in the refrigerator.
Summer melons, lush and sweet, are a real pleasure after months of uninspiring, out-of-season fruit. (There are actually two melon seasons, summer and winter.) Summer varieties include the well-known American cantaloupe, esteemed Charentais and Cavillion, and juicy, almost spicy, muskmelons. Winter varieties include honeydew, casaba and the aptly named Christmas melon. When buying melons, compare the weight of a few and choose the heavier one, as it will be juicier. All ripe summer melons should be firm but not hard, and have a nice floral smell. Avoid melons with cracks, soft spots and moldy stems. Knock on the melon as you would on a door; if it sounds deep and thick, it's ripe. Melons do not ripen or become sweeter once they are picked. Store whole melons at room temperature for two to four days. Wrap well and refrigerate after cutting.
Like little baubles, raspberries add finesse and elegance to the simplest of dishes. Whether nibbled au naturel or enjoyed with a dollop of cream and hot fudge sauce, ripe summer raspberries are always a pleasure. Raspberries should be firm, without bruises or mold. Check cartons' sides and bottoms for juice stains, a sign of poor handling. Ideally, raspberries should be eaten directly after picking and not be chilled. Chilling is a must, however, for shipping and storing, otherwise they heat up and soften or mold in a matter of hours. If you can't eat them immediately, refrigerate raspberries in covered containers — the open containers they're often sold in aren't ideal for storing. Wash with cool water in a colander just before using. To freeze, spread the fruit out on a paper towel-lined pan and freeze until firm, then transfer to sealed plastic bags and store for up to six months. Thawed berries are wonderful but aren't a substitute for fresh; use them for sauces, smoothies or in baking.
Like an understudy anxiously waiting in the wings, the nectarine is eternally standing in for the celebrated peach. Yes, the nectarine is a peachy double, with all the same genetic makeup — except for a single gene for fuzzy skin. But a good nectarine — aromatic, luscious and rich, with sweet-tart nectar — deserves respect in its own right. Perfect for summer eating, nectarines are great grilled, or in pies, tarts, cobblers or other rustic desserts. Nectarines are excellent eaten out of hand, or raw in savory salsas and salads. They can be used in any recipe that calls for plums, apricots or peaches. Choose nectarines that have a full aroma and yield to slight pressure when squeezed along their crease. Those that are just shy of ripeness can be left on the counter in a paper bag to ripen for a day or two. Store ripe fruit in the crisper in the refrigerator.
Pluots represent a growing category of hybrid fruits that take the best of two species to produce a unique fruit. In this case, breeders take the smooth skin, shape and texture of plums and mix it up with the fragrance and flavor of apricots to get a sweet and juicy pluot. With a bit more apricot than plum, you've got an aprium; with an even mix of the two fruits, you have a plucot. More than just a name game, these interspecific fruits are an improvement on the originals and are addictively sweet and juicy. Pluots can be eaten and cooked like plums and apricots. They are great grilled, in salads, poached or eaten out of hand. Choose pluots that have a full aroma and yield to slight pressure when squeezed along their seam. Those that are just shy of ripeness can be left on the counter in a paper bag to ripen for a day or two. Store ripe fruit in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.