You’ve been there, right? Leaning over the kitchen sink, so that the juices of the nectarine, peach, pluot or plum you were devouring ran down your chin into the sink rather than down the front of your shirt. It’s a right of passage, growing tall enough to partake in that only-in-summer ritual. For years, I associated ripe fragrant peaches with the farm stands outside of Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, where we would spend a week every summer. Alongside oversized Burpee cantaloupes and Silver Queen white corn, we would lug bags of those peaches back home, after stopping at the farm stands on our drive back to humid, land-locked Bethesda. Those visits, when I was a girl, marked the beginning of my life-long love affair with farm stands and farmers markets.
My horizons expanded, of course. Nectarines and plums became essential players in my summer meals. I was introduced to pluots, though, more recently. Dapples and Mariposas are my favorites with their mossy green skins with subtle rosy hues. As they ripen, the skin becomes a deeper pink, and the claret color of their flesh, when you slice them open, is stunning.
And, while desserts such as cobblers, crisps and pies always have been summer staples in my home, I’ve been celebrating stone fruits in salads this summer. Earlier this month, this Heirloom Tomato and Peach Salad with fresh corn, developed by Chef Johnny Monis for the Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section, caught my eye. A composed salad that tastes as fresh as summer should, I made it for friends a few weeks ago. I followed the recipe almost exactly, except for using a tangy Bucherondin goat cheese instead of the briny feta Chef Monis called for. It was hit with all of us, including the vegetable-averse children at the table.
I’ve made the salad several times since, changing it around each time. It’s one of those recipes that is more guideline than a hard-and-fast set of measurements. Last weekend, I made a version that I’m sticking with: I added nectarines and pluots to the stone fruit contigent, and melon cucumbers, with their honeydew-like fragrance, for complementary crunch. A modest amount of sliced red onions add color and punch and heirloom tomatoes provide additional sweetness and color, too. The fruit and tomatoes provide plenty of juice, so no need for vinegar. A few tablespoons of good olive oil, sea salt and pepper to taste, and a quick stir and you’re ready to plate. Instead of goat cheese, I shaved mildly salty ricotta salata on top of the salad before serving. The colors of the salad were especially vibrant sitting on a bed of baby spinach.
I also turned a similar mix of these fruits and vegetables into a summery bulgur salad, adding minced mint leaves and toasted pistachios for extra flavor and texture. It made a refreshing lunch salad the next day. I think it would look lovely on a buffet table this summer, too.
Let’s get back to dessert: Nectarine-Plout Compote was inspired by Laurence Hauben, a chef and teacher here in Santa Barbara. I attended her local seafood class a few weeks ago, and for dessert she served us a panna cotta topped with a compote made of locally-grown Santa Rosa plums. I ate every bite of her rustic creation and craved more of those two wonderful tastes together: creamy, luxurious custard and sweet, soft fruit. So, I made a version of that comforting dessert myself.
I used this easy-to-prepare recipe for panna cotta from Ina Garten; double vanilla flavor is provided by vanilla extract and vanilla beans. The surprisingly complex-in-flavor compote is even easier to prepare: cut about 1 1/2 pounds of a mix of nectarines and pluots (or your favorite stone fruits) into bite-size pieces (skin them if you must, but I didn’t and the compote was delicious), add them to a saucepan with about 1/4 cup of sugar (add a bit more more if your fruit isn’t super-sweet), 1/4 cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice (about 1/2 of a large orange), and then cook until the fruit is soft and the liquid has reduced a bit, about 15 minutes. Take the compote off the heat and spoon it into a bowl to cool. When you’re ready to serve your panna cottas — in a jar or unmolded from a ramekin — spoon the colorful, sweet and tangy compote on top. Or, skip the panna cotta and serve a spoonful of the fruit on your favorite ice cream or yogurt…or spoon it directly from the jar into your mouth, like I did.