It is the nectar of gods that runs down my chin and soils my shirt. My favorite fruit is now arriving at Southern California farmers markets, and I can barely control myself. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than sinking one’s teeth into that appropriately named fruit, the nectarine. I’ve only eaten nectarines over the sink. I can’t remember ever having gotten a ripe nectarine to the table. I remove the sweet juicy and fragile nectarines from their bag and lay them on the counter next to the sink. I wash them gently under running cold water and I should then set them aside. But I don’t. I bend forward and ravenously eat them, unmindful of the dripping nectar.
Nectarines are a subspecies of peach known as Prunus persica var. nectarina. The nectarine is not a cross between a peach and plum as is sometimes suggested. In fact, the peach and the nectarine, genetically, are the same thing, with the peach having fuzzy skin and the nectarine smooth. The nectarine tree and peach tree are virtually indistinguishable, and sometimes nectarine fruits appear on peach trees and vice versa. As with peaches, the flesh of nectarines can be white or yellow. They are classified too by how easily the flesh separates from the stone or pit. Freestone nectarines separate easily and clingstone do not. Nectarines bruise more easily than peaches.
There are different cultivars of nectarines such as Arctic Star, Desert Dawn, Fantasia, Heavenly White, Ruby Grand and Snow Queen. There are more than 250 cultivars, so you are only likely to come across three or four of them. Their scientific species name, persica, indicates that they were once thought to have originated in Persia, but they originated in China and were known two millennia ago. They seem to have entered the Mediterranean before the Christian era.
The skin color of the nectarine is no indication of its ripeness, sweetness or juiciness. When buying nectarines, make sure they do not have any bruises, green tinge or shriveled skin. Look for firm fruit, but not rock-hard fruit. A ripe nectarine will have a sweet, noticeable fragrance. When shopping for nectarines, give them a gentle squeeze to test for ripeness; you’ll notice a slight softness. The problem with this method, especially at farmers markets, is that too many people squeeze them too inappropriately and they become bruised. Trust the vendor and pick a nectarine away from where people are squeezing them. Ninety-five percent of American nectarines come from California, and their season runs from May to October with the peak being June to August. Nectarines should be eaten right away and kept not more than five days in the refrigerator. (If you can resist eating them over the sink even sooner.)
Although I’m not terribly interested in nectarine recipes, given the way I eat them, one way they do get used in the Mediterranean is in a kind of sangria from La Rioja and Navarre regions of Spain called zurracapote or zurra for short. Sangria is a wine and fruit punch, but in this version, nectarines are the main fruit.
For this recipe, choose one bottle of good quality light white wine, such as a Spanish cava, a good rose or a Rioja red.
- In a pitcher, stir together the ingredients.
- Half fill the pitcher with ice cubes and leave in the refrigerator for two hours before serving.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Nectarines called Arctic Star from the Santa Monica farmers market.