By Pete Wells
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: The 5 Best Summer Fruits, Ranked
Our restaurant critic heads outdoors to celebrate his five favorites for crisps, crumbles, slumps or just plain eating.
The season for most summer fruits is short. In some cases, it’s not short enough. Mulberries, reaching the peak of their stewed-shoe flavor and falling one by one to the ground, noticed only by flies? Nope. Black currants, useful only for crème de cassis, and then only if you have a broad definition of “useful”? No, thanks. Honeydews, indestructible totems of hotel breakfast buffets? Not until all the batter at the make-your-own waffle station is gone, and probably not even then.
I’ll wait for the five charmers below. They earned their positions by their versatility, although each one can be perfect if you just, you know, pick it up and eat it.
They have the cheeriest and most hopeful flavor of the berries, but act fast. What looked like a basket of jewels at the market can turn to mush by the time you get to your front door. Americans seem to be forgetting how good fresh raspberry purée can be — strain and sweeten it, and you are two-thirds of the way to peach Melba, or an ice cream sundae. Left alone with some sugar for 15 minutes they will also give you a topping for shortcake or angel food cake, whose only near rival is a mound of macerated strawberries. Unlike strawberries, though, raspberries don’t lose their spirit when you cook them. If you can get a flat or two at a decent price, make jam right away. But just a pint, baked with their weight in sugar at 325 degrees for 20 minutes or so and then stirred to dissolve the sugar, will make a very loose jam. (Darina Allen goes into more detail, but not much more, in her book “Forgotten Skills of Cooking.”) It won’t keep long, but it will taste like the morning sun.
A peach is almost impossible to screw up. Eaten out of hand, it is the best kind of mess. A quart or more in a cobbler, pie, slump, crisp, crumble, betty or buckle is always good, even if the baker isn’t. Before they’re ripe, peaches can slip into a salad or a skillet, where after a few minutes with butter and seasoning (allspice? fennel seed? saffron? sage?) they are ready to meet grilled duck, pork chops or a sliced ham. Once they’re soft all over, eat or cook without delay. Even a few hours in a fruit bowl on a summer afternoon is enough to fur them with mold, after which emergency measures may or may not help.
Blueberries are the only big-deal summer fruit that is native to North America. They earn their high ranking in part by appearing so often in the wild, spread across valley meadows and mountaintop clearings. The ground-hugging, scrubby bushes have the darkest, smallest, most concentrated fruit, while the high-bush varieties will fill your hat or basket faster. A small haul can be enough for pancakes, muffins or a bowl of cereal; more means a fool or a pie. For either one, try making half into a compote and, after it cools, stirring in the other half. Big portions of blueberries alone can be a luxury. The other trait that raises them high on the list, though, is that even a handful pitched into anything made with stone fruits, or other berries, produces tiny explosions of flavor and color.
Nobody shares a cherry. Its pleasures are private, from the way it rolls loose in your mouth once you pluck the stem to the sudden rush of juice — which in your first taste of the year is always more lush and complicated than you remember — to the quiet, propulsive exit of a stripped-clean pit. The cherry in question is a sweet variety, Bing or Rainier or Queen Anne, usually very cold, although the juice of a cherry left in the sun has a wonderful urgency. Sour cherries’ rewards take more effort. Bake them, stones and all, into a clafoutis. Pit them for a pie filling that will make you wish you’d bought 10 more pounds for the freezer. Boil them with sugar and maybe a vanilla bean, and you have a base for sodas, lime rickeys, any number of cocktails, the sharbats that Persian hosts pour for their grateful guests, or best of all an ice cream sauce so bright and intense that other toppings can stand down.
You could call its flavor plain. Or one-dimensional. You could say it’s boring and still not get much argument. But complex aromatic compounds did not make the watermelon the champion of summer fruits. No, it is the watermelon’s eagerness to join any party in sight. Cheapskate sophomores on a bender? Carve out a plug of rind, patiently feed the melon a bottle of vodka as if you were giving baby formula to a pet pig, then stopper it up and refrigerate. Neo-tiki sophisticates? Saber the top off, scoop the guts out, and behold the bowl for your watermelon punch. Unexpected teetotalers? Blend, strain, add water and lime juice — that’s agua de sandia. Last minute lunch? Knock wedges or cubes together with red onions and feta or an other salty young goat or sheep cheese, splatter it with oil and tarragon, mint, or anise hyssop. Dinner without cooking? A half-tomato, half-watermelon gazpacho, don’t be shy with the vinegar. All-grilled dinner? Hmm, grilled watermelon is sort of nasty. Just keep it cold and cut it up for dessert.
Horticulturists have bred what they call “personal watermelons,” but watermelons are social by nature, built for crowds, happiest surrounded by humans, surrendered to the whim of the summer mob, whether that leaves them split open on a blanket or thickly Vaselined and tossed into the pool.