By Joe Dizney
The offer was too tempting.
“Come on over. Get some peaches! The plums are ripe, too! Take as many as you want.”
And so they were. On this unusually tropical — at least for this summer — day, I could actually smell the peaches on the tree from 10-or-so feet away as I crossed my neighbor’s yard to take advantage of their generosity and abundance.
The tree limbs were heavy with fruit and the only questions in my mind were precisely HOW ripe I wanted my harvest to be and how high I was willing to climb to compete with the bees that swarmed and clustered around the most fragrant and sweet, sun-bathed prizes.
Peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries are referred to as “stone fruits” (or drupes) because their pits (actually, seeds) are large and hard. (Almonds are drupes as well and genetically related to the peach. All are spring flowering trees and members of the larger rose family — but more on this later.) Most are native to warmer climates of the world — China, Asia, Persia/Iran — but have been cultivated in the West for thousands of years. Here in the lower Hudson Valley, we are right at the northernmost limit of cultivation, but peaches, plums and cherries have been grown and harvested for 300+ years by Native Americans and settlers.
Here at the tail end of summer, we are privy to their last blush of abundance, and although I am fortunate enough to have benevolent neighbors, the markets — both farm and commercial — are flush with fruit. And while there’s nothing quite like a fresh peach — still warm from the sun eaten on the hoof — something about this time of year always makes me long for a fruit crisp or crumble.
Fresh fruit, barely processed, is covered in the most basic of crunchy coverings and warmed quickly — just enough to soften the fruit and brown the topping. Again, this is barely a recipe, more of a strategy for using what you have on hand. Oats are the basis of the topping but I like to add some nuts for crunch and almonds conceptually complete the picture for me. And where Alice Waters suggests seasoning with noyaux (a liqueur or extract of the kernels of bitter almond, peach or apricot pits), the more readily available almond extract shares a familial link and adds an exotic frangipane essence that just seems right. (Vanilla extract will also do fine in a pinch.)
Crystallized ginger, exotic but pretty readily available, offers another Oriental touch but is again by no means necessary. If you’re into messing around consider further enhancing the Persian flavors with a splash of rose water and/or a pinch of saffron to either the fruit or crisp mixture.
Ripeness, Peeling and Poaching
Ripeness: How do you tell a ripe peach? As in my neighbor’s yard, smell is the best indicator. A ripe peach SMELLS peachy. But it is also not mushy or bruised. Smaller fruit — nectarines, apricots, plums — are best sampled. FYI: Summer stone fruits are generally of the “freestone,” i.e. easier to peel/eat than the earlier clingstone” varieties — the flesh separates freely from the pit. Consequently, freestones are generally better for canning or freezing. Both are great for eating fresh.
Peeling: That velvety coat on peaches and apricots is botanically referred to as pubescence and seems to offend certain sensitive eaters. Fortunately, it’s very easy to peel these fruit and the method is exactly like the one I was taught for peeling tomatoes: For ripe produce, plunge whole fruit into a pot of simmering water for 15-20 seconds and drain-cool. The skins will peel off easily. For unripe, firm fruit, with a sharp knife score a shallow cross — at two inches in length — in the skin on the base of the fruit. Plunge into simmering water for a bit longer — 30 to 45 seconds. Drain, cool and peel. Fruit may then be pitted and sliced as per the recipe.
Poaching: Ripe fruit, particularly peaches, can be VERY juicy, making for a runny crisp, which I don’t find a problem but some do. Alice Waters recommends cooking peeled slices with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and at ¼ cup water for a very brief time — 3 to 5 minutes — and draining. This also has the advantage of salvaging harder, less-ripe fruit.
The drained slices are then used as per the master crisp “strategy,” reserving the extra syrup for a couple of particularly good bonus uses: A splash can be added to cream or whipped cream to season a sauce for the finished crisp.
Or better still, the reserved syrup can be further sweetened and spiced — I simmered a cup of syrup with an additional ½ cup of raw sugar, a pinch of saffron and a couple of tablespoons of rose petals (as I just can’t leave well enough alone) for 15 minutes. The warm syrup, strained and poured over raw peeled and sliced less-than-ripe peaches (just to cover) sweetens, lightly cooks and optimizes your harvest and makes for an even simpler but no-less-seasonal dessert.
Stone Fruit Crisp
Prep time: 20 minutes; Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes; 6-8 servings
This is a very forgiving recipe: Use what you have and sweeten as necessary. Excellent additions are blueberries (add ½ pint to apricots or nectarines) or raspberries (surprisingly also technically a drupe — again, add ½ pint to peaches or nectarines).
3-4 pounds peaches, plums, apricots or nectarines (See text note on Ripeness, Peeling and Poaching.)
6-8 tablespoons raw, organic sugar
½ teaspoon almond extract
1½ tablespoons flour
¼ cup crystallized ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup rolled oats
½ cup raw, whole almonds
6-8 tablespoons butter (softened)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 6-cup gratin dish or large, deep-dish pie plate.
- Pit and slice fruit in ½-inch wedges. In a large bowl, gently toss the prepared fruit with the flour, ½ of the crystallized ginger, ¼ teaspoon of the almond extract and 2 to 4 tablespoons of brown sugar, depending on how sweet/ripe the fruit is. Turn fruit mixture into the gratin dish or pie plate.
- For the Crisp Topping: Roughly pulse/chop the oats and almonds in a food processor. Add the remaining crystallized ginger, 4 tablespoons butter, 4 tablespoons brown sugar, ¼ teaspoon almond extract and salt and pulse to just incorporate. (You want a rough, crumbly-clumpy mixture).
- Randomly drop the oat and nut mixture over the fruit and bake in the top third of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, checking after 15 minutes or so that the top does not brown too much. (Cover loosely with foil for the remaining cook time if this is the case.)
- Serve warm — plain or topped with a splash of cream, whipped cream or some good Hudson Valley vanilla ice cream.
Photo by J. Dizney