Cherries: These cheerful oh-so-summery fruits fall into three categories — sweet, sour or middling sweet-and-sour.
- Common sweet varieties are the deep burgundy Bing or two-toned Rainier and are naturals for eating fresh out of hand.
- Pitted cherries can be tossed in fruit salads, flambéed 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 cooked they are perfect for pies and preserves.
- Varieties like Montmorency and meteor bridge the sweet-tart gap. If unsure which camp a cherry falls into, snag a taste before buying.
Buy cherries that look plump, 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. Taste when possible, otherwise choose cherries with a strong aroma. Fresh cherries should be refrigerated and eaten within a couple days of purchase.
Blackberries: 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 which are dark, plump, 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; 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. If you have a bumper crop of berries, freeze them: Spread the fruit 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 aren't a substitute for fresh, but are perfect for sauces, smoothies and in baked recipes.
Blueberries: These gorgeous little berries are on many folks' radar these days — not only do they taste great; they are really good for you. Rich in healthy antioxidants, they are embraced as a "super food" by conscious eaters. These American natives, which look like small marbles with a mini crown, are in season from mid summer 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.
Pluots: 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 original 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 with a full aroma that 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.
Strawberries: 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. Fraise 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 soft berries, or red stains (a sign of squished fruit). If your fruit is very delicate, spread it out on a plate and keep covered with a paper towel or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Peaches: 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 donut-shaped ones.
Select peaches free of bruises or marks 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.
Nectarine: Like an understudy anxiously waiting in the wings, nectarines are 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, they are great grilled, 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 with a full aroma and that 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.
Summer Melons: 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.
Botanically, melons cross-pollinate with abandon, which explains why there are so many hybrid melons on the market. Try an unfamiliar melon and you may discover a new favorite.
When buying melons, compare the weight of a few and choose the heavier one, it will be juicier. All ripe melons should be firm but not hard, and have a nice floral smell — except for casabas which have no aroma. Avoid melons with cracks, soft spots, and moldy stems. The netted skin melons, like honeydew and musks, shouldn't be green, but yellow, gold, or orange depending on the variety. Knock on the melon like 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 2 to 4 days, wrap well and refrigerate after cutting.
Pears: Pears with their graceful shape and floral flavor have an elegance that few fruits can command. They have a pleasantly grainy texture which distinguishes them from their botanical cousins, the apples. Pears and apples are often interchangeable in recipes, but using pears is a sure way to amp up the classiness factor in a dessert. Pears are perfect with cheese; a strong blue cheese and a sweet juicy pear are a match made in heaven.
Pears, like apples, come in a multitude of sizes and types. There are two main varieties: bell-shaped European varieties and round apple-crisp Asian pears. Pears are best in late summer and fall. Ripe pears will have a slight give at their neck and a pleasant floral aroma. Pears ripen off the tree, which is why they can come to market rock hard. They will soften when left at room temperature, but tucking them into a sealed paper bag with a banana speeds up the process. Pears suited for eating out of hand or serving with cheese are juicy Anjou, Bartletts, or Comice (think ABC). When cooking, use the dense, tan skinned Bosc pears--they transform into delicious tender fruit when roasted or poached. For a great all-purpose pear, seek out the speckled, pint-sized Forelle. Asian pears, which are crisp and juicy, are great sliced in salads and relishes.
Raspberries: Like little baubles, raspberries add finesse and elegance to the simplest of dishes. Whether nibbled au natural 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. As with all berries, try to use within a day of purchase (or picking). Refrigerate berries in covered containers; the open containers they are often sold in aren't always ideal for storing. Wash raspberries with cool water in a colander just before using. If you have a bumper crop of berries, freeze them: spread the fruit out on a paper towel lined pan. Freeze until firm, then transfer to sealed plastic bags and store for up to 6 months. Thawed berries are wonderful, but aren't a substitute for fresh; use them for sauces, smoothies, or in baking.