For lovers of fresh fruit, this has to be the best time of year. The parade of stonefruit (known collectively as summer fruit), which starts before Christmas with the first cherries and apricots, is now in full swing.
A flood of glorious peaches, nectarines and plums is upon us, joining later-season varieties of cherries and apricots. (Cherry varieties like Staccato and apricots like Trevatt and Cluthalate continue to ripen right through to late February.)
Peaches and nectarines were among the first fruit trees imported to New Zealand but by the late 19th century, seedlings grown from the stones were found to be more suited to New Zealand's soil and climate than most introduced cultivars.
Peach seeds may sometimes grow into trees that bear nectarines and nectarine seeds can grow into trees that bear either nectarines or peaches. You can't reliably grow nectarines from pits, as occasionally they will throw peaches, so they are grafted on to peach trees to guarantee a crop of nectarines.
Nectarines are identical to peaches with the exception of one gene — the one that makes peaches fuzzy and nectarines smooth. For this reason the two fruits are pretty much interchangeable in recipes, the advantage for nectarines being they don't have a fuzzy skin.
Like peaches, nectarines come with white or yellow flesh and fall into two categories: "clingstone", describing how the flesh clings to the egg-shaped seed stone known as a pit, and "freestone", where the flesh comes easily away from the pit. Freestone fruit are much easier to use in recipes where you don't want the stone but this information isn't usually displayed when you buy the fruit, so you need to know your varieties.
Fantasia, a freestone variety that ripens a little later in the season, is considered the established favourite in the freestone category with a sweet flavour and juicy flesh. Ruby Diamond is an earlier freestone variety with a shiny, dark red skin and a delicious old-fashioned nectarine flavour. If you just want to eat the fruit, clingstone varieties like Mid Star, which is a semi-freestone, is a highly coloured, red-skinned fruit with yellow flesh that's super-sweet and super-juicy with mild flavour. Summer Bright is another great clingstone nectarine, with a sweet, intense flavour that can be eaten slightly underripe when it's still crunchy or soft and juicy when it's ripe.
While nothing tastes better than sun-ripened fruit picked straight from the tree, if you are buying nectarines it's better to buy them slightly underripe. Once they're ripe, it's nigh impossible to get them home without a bruise — they bruise even more easily than peaches.
Place them in a paper bag with a banana or an apple and leave on the bench for a few days. You'll know they are ready by the luscious fragrance that comes out of the bag when you open it and the flesh should be slightly yielding. Test by gently pressing on the shoulder, it should have a little give.
Here are some of my favourite ways to use these glorious fruit while they are in peak season.
Grilled Nectarines with Ricotta and Prosciutto
Nectarines (and peaches) go really well with any kind of fresh soft cheese. This is also fabulous made with burrata or fresh mozzarella. Make sure you use freestone nectarines, otherwise you'll be working hard to get a clean cut. If you can't find mint, use fresh basil.
Ready in 10 mins
4 nectarines, halved and destoned
8 slices prosciutto
1 cup ricotta
A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Heat a grill pan over a high heat. Grill the nectarines, cut-side down, until browned (about 4-5 minutes). To assemble, arrange nectarines, prosciutto and ricotta on a serving platter. Garnish with mint leaves and a drizzle of oil.
Fresh Nectarine Tart
This pastry recipe makes enough for two large tarts or two dozen individual tarts. If you don't need it all, freeze the rest for another day, or chill, covered, for up to a week.
Ready in 45 mins + chilling
4 nectarines, halved, destoned and thinly sliced
2 Tbsp honey mixed with 2 tsp boiling water
250g butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
2½ cups flour
ORANGE YOGHURT CREAM
2 cups creme fraiche
½ cup yoghurt
1 Tbsp finely grated orange zest
To make the base, beat together butter and sugar in a food processor or mixer until it is pale and creamy and the sugar has dissolved (8 minutes). Add egg and beat to combine.
Slowly add flour and mix until just combined. Turn pastry out on to a lightly floured surface (it will be quite soft) and use floured hands to shape into 2 portions. Wrap one half separately in baking paper and store in the fridge or freezer for another day.
Press the remaining half of pastry into a 24cm tart tin and chill for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Bake pastry base until golden (15-20 minutes). Allow to cool, then carefully remove from the tin.
While the base is cooling, make the orange yoghurt cream. In a bowl, stir the creme fraiche with yoghurt and orange zest.
To assemble the tart, spoon the yoghurt cream into the base, then arrange the sliced nectarines on top and drizzle with the honey mixture.
Roasted Nectarine Chutney
This is a great way to use bruised or damaged fruit. It's delicious served with cheese or cold meats. The recipe scales up easily, you will just need to increase the cooking time, as it will take longer to reduce.
Ready in 2 hours
Makes 6 cups
1¼ kg nectarines, halved, destoned and coarsely chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and coarsely chopped
5 cardamom pods, crushed with the back of a spoon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups soft brown sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
¾ cup sultanas
1 tsp salt
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
½ tsp cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake and line an oven tray with baking paper for easy clean-up.
Place nectarines and red pepper on the prepared tray and roast for 30 minutes.
Transfer the roasted nectarines and red pepper to a large pot, add all remaining ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and glossy (about 1 hour).
Divide chutney between sterilised jars and seal with sterilised lids. Stored in a cool place, it will keep for at least a couple of years.