It's late afternoon at the farmers market. Shoppers have had a few hours already to load up on white and yellow peaches and nectarines, apricots and three kinds of plums, but still there's a crowd around a counter where wedges of fruit are available to taste.
Little kids with chins already sticky with juice push forward for one more sample; meticulous matrons smack their lips over fragrant white nectarines. Buyers wave bills and go back and fill their bags with another half-dozen plums or peaches.
Relax. Take a deep breath. Time is not running out on the stone fruit season.
This year, thanks to weirdly favorable weather conditions, California's crops of peaches, nectarines and plums have been early (10 days to two weeks in most cases) and abundant. Marty Willbanks of the Olson Family Farm in Kingsburg just south of Fresno says that the stone fruit crop is "outstanding and better than normal" this year and that the fruit is sweeter than usual because of early hot weather.
Add that bounty to the availability of new varieties that ripen in late summer and early fall and we're barely into one of the best seasons in memory.
Think of it -- you have until early October to indulge, one way or another. Peach pie? Why not? Cobblers and crisps? Of course. Preserves, chutneys, sauces? This is the year to bake and can.
There are dozens of varieties of peaches, nectarines and plums. Through June, look for Fancy Lady peaches, Flavor Crest peaches, Blenheim apricots and Santa Rosa plums. In late June, Elegant Lady peaches and Blackamber plums come into the markets. Early July brings Fantasia nectarines and Friar plums, while Elephant Heart plums can be found in late July. The old-fashioned favorite O'Henry peaches are available beginning in August.
When buying peaches and nectarines, look for those with a yellow background color (although that ranges from a pale creamy color to a bright gold, depending on the variety), with no traces of green (a sign that the fruit was picked too early and will not ripen). Many stone fruit farmers are happy to help you choose fruit depending on when you'd like to eat or cook it.
Use ripe fruit to make poached peaches in mint syrup -- the skins slip off easily with the help of a small paring knife. It takes just five minutes for the peaches to poach, but a cooling surprise comes in the juxtaposition of mint and sweet fruit.
It's hard for us not to eat all the Santa Rosa plums we get our hands on, but we've exercised the utmost restraint and used them in a modern upside-down cake. Nectarines or peaches work just as well, and with any of these, the fruit yields a juicy glaze that soaks into the cake when it's inverted after cooking. The cake itself, a simple batter enriched with browned butter and vanilla bean, is a little softer and sweeter than a shortcake.
Our apricot tart takes advantage of the fact that thin-skinned apricots need no peeling, so it's easy to cut picture-perfect halves. Use perfectly ripe apricots for this recipe, not too soft and not too hard. Apricots and almonds are an irresistible combination, and the ground-almond crust of this tart is sophisticated in flavor and forgiving in preparation. The filling of apricot halves in a rich custard is finished a la a creme brulee.
Poached peaches in mint syrup
Total time: 15 minutes plus several hours chilling time
3 cups water
1 1/2cups sugar
4 whole ripe peaches (about 1 1/4 pounds), peeled
18 mint leaves, torn
4 mint sprigs
1. Combine the water and sugar in a deep 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the peaches. Simmer 5 minutes.
2. Remove the peaches from the syrup to a bowl. Stir the torn mint leaves into the syrup and simmer 1 minute. Pour the hot syrup over the peaches. Cool. Refrigerate several hours.
3. To serve, place each peach in a small bowl. Spoon syrup over and garnish with a mint sprig.
Each serving: 351 calories; 1 gram protein; 91 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.
Apricot tart brulee
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes plus
1 hour chilling
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2cup toasted blanched almonds, ground fine
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks total) cold butter, divided
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
7 to 8 apricots, cut in half and pits removed
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, combine the flour, ground almonds, 3 tablespoons sugar and the salt in a bowl. Cut one-half cup cold butter into small pieces and work it into the dough with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the dough is crumbly and evenly combined but not pasty.
2. Combine the egg yolk, one-half teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the egg yolk mixture in. Use a fork to quickly stir until the mixture can be formed into a ball.