All summer fruits have their own life. The time for great nectarines is late summer, but
they are available from June on. The best way to select a great nectarine is with your nose.
When I have a basket or two of ripe nectarines out in the store, you can smell their wonderful
fragrance the minute you walk in. A good ripe peach has a sweet fragrance, but you can smell a
ripe nectarine a mile away.
Until about 1940 nectarines were small, drab green fruit with very little red cheek. They were
fragile and had a short shelf life, so they weren’t popular. Then in 1942 the LeGrade variety
appeared, named after the town in California where it was developed. More than a hundred different
varieties have been developed in the decades since, and now the industry believes nectarines will
surpass peaches as the most popular stone fruit. They’re certainly my favorite.
A lot of people think of the nectarine as a fuzz less peach - and it is related to peaches, almonds,
and plums - but the nectarine is a different fruit. Like its relatives, it came out of ancient China,
but no one knows for sure what its origins are. The flesh is meatier and juicier than that of most
peaches; the fruit is also more fragile because it’s not protected by a fuzzy skin. For that reason
most growers won’t ship a really ripe nectarine, and in most instances you’ll need to let nectarines
ripen at home for a couple of days before eating.
Nectarines from Florida and Georgia begin to appear on the market in May, but they tend to be green
and hard. In June and July, unless they’re local, they’re good but not great. It’s in August and the first
half of September that California nectarines are really superb. If nectarines grow locally and you can get
tree-ripened ones at your local farm stand during the summer, by all means buy them.
Imports from Chile and other Southern Hemisphere countries show up in January and February, but those
that are shipped by boat are not very good. A few tree-ripened ones are shipped by air, and although they’re
good, they’re very expensive.
Packers are now developing a new technique for shipping that may change that picture soon. It’s called
controlled atmosphere. The nectarines are put in sealed containers, then the air is pumped out and replaced
with air that has a high nitrogen content. This effectively puts the fruit to sleep and prevents the damage
caused by chilling. If the technique is perfected - and I hope it is - we may see the unthinkable happen.
Stone fruits like nectarines, peaches, and plums that are ripe, sweet, and juicy in the middle of winter.
Look for unbruised, colorful fruit, although you may have to accept a bruise or two on really ripe
nectarines. Avoid fruit that looks green or has a wrinkled or leathery-looking skin. Choose medium to large
nectarines. A gigantic one will be mealy, and a very small one was probably picked too green.
Ripening and Storing
Often your best bet will be to buy nectarines that are still firm, take them home, and let them
ripen out on the counter a day or two, until they have a little give and develop a wonderful fragrance.
You can refrigerate a nectarine when it’s fully ripe, but only for a day or two. Longer refrigeration
will rob the fruit of its juice and flavor.
Nectarines are great eaten out of hand, but there are other good things to do with them. Try a
nectarine antipasto. Chill sliced fresh nectarines with sliced green onions, sliced fresh mushrooms, snipped
fresh dill, salt, pepper, and an oil and vinegar dressing. Serve in lettuce cups. For breakfast, stir together
crisp rice cereal or cornflakes, honey, and flaked coconut. Spoon into ripe nectarine halves placed in a shallow
pan; heat in a slow oven until the nectarines are warm and the coconut is lightly toasted. For a quick nectarine
relish, chop equal quantities of fresh nectarines and firm tomatoes, add a generous measure of chopped scallions,
and stir in chopped fresh mint or basil. Add salt and use as a relish for hamburgers or fish. Try nectarines in
a chicken sandwich. Shred the chicken and add alfalfa sprouts and thinly sliced fresh nectarines moistened with
well-seasoned mayonnaise or tart French dressing. Stuff into pita pockets.
Other recipes from Produce Pete.