In Season: Nectarines are California’s summer gold rush

White nectarines can be quite sweet, but are not as versatile in cooking as are yellow nectarines.
White nectarines can be quite sweet, but are not as versatile in cooking as are yellow nectarines. The State (Columbia, S.C.)

What a smoothie! Nectarines can do anything peaches can do – and probably more.

It’s that skin; sleek as an apple, not fuzzy like a tennis ball. Instead of demanding to be peeled, nectarines can leave on their smooth coat for most recipes. That makes them an easy choice for summer enjoyment.

Now is the height of nectarine season. Despite the drought, fruit will be plentiful and flavorful this summer, though perhaps slightly smaller.

“The harvest will be about the same as last year,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. “Like most fruit this year, they’re ripening about 10 to 14 days earlier than normal.”

California is the nectarine state, producing more than 95 percent of the nation’s crop. While other states grow a fair share of peaches, nectarines are (almost) all ours.

“We’re still the biggest peach producer, too,” Bedwell explained. “While we grow about 60 percent of the nation’s peaches, nectarines are almost exclusively a California fruit.”

As for which fruit California farmers grow more, nectarines and peaches are just about on par, Bedwell said. “It’s almost neck and neck between nectarines and peaches. Some of the best-tasting fruit, nectarines have all the sweetness of peaches but a crisper texture and that smooth skin.”

Like peaches, both yellow and white nectarines are widely available at local farmers markets as well as some supermarkets and produce stores. Considered a niche fruit, white nectarines are lower in acid, giving them a honeylike sweetness but not necessarily enough tartness to stand up in a pie. Meanwhile, yellow nectarines can be used in any peach recipe.

Also like peaches, nectarines come in both freestone and cling varieties – and lots of them. The most popular varieties include Royal Ruby, Royal Glo, Firebright, Fire Sweet, Honey Fire, Honey Blaze and Honey Royale.

But nectarine season is shorter than its peach counterpart. While fall peaches stretch into early October, nectarines disappear before the last day of summer.

“Nectarine season usually ends around Labor Day,” Bedwell said. “They don’t hang around much longer than that.”

While California still dominates the stone fruit market, our farmers are growing a lot fewer peaches and nectarines than a decade ago, Bedwell said. “At the height of our production in 2004, we had 35,000 acres in California planted in peaches, nectarines and plums. Our estimate for 2014 is 18,000 acres; we’re down almost by half. (The decline was due to) a lack of pricing. People were not able to make money from stone fruit.”

For fruit consumers, that downsizing still translates to an expected harvest of about 325 million pounds of nectarines. And prices this season should be just about the same as last year.

“The better-producing orchards are still around,” Bedwell added. “We lost a lot of production overall but supply and demand are now stable. We’ve found some equilibrium, so this crop can be profitable.”

Most California nectarines grow in orchards where Fresno and Tulare counties meet. “When I think nectarines, I think of our Golden Triangle: Reedley, Kingsburg and Dinuba,” Bedwell said. “That’s nectarine country.”

With their combination of flavors, nectarines can be both sassy sweet or tart and savory. That makes them a flexible ingredient for entrees and salads as well as desserts. Diced with peppers and onions, they make a snappy salsa. As an appetizer, thin slices are a perfect match for ricotta cheese and cured meat atop crackers or crostini.

Because nectarines are a cousin to almonds, that nut brings out even more flavor when added to nectarines. In nectarine dessert recipes, try almond extract instead of vanilla.

Debbie Arrington: (916) 321-1075, @debarrington

Raspberry-nectarine crumble

Here’s a dessert for just one person, to use one perfect nectarine. This works well with whatever fruit is in season – it would be wonderful with a pear, apple, peach or plums, too. If you don't have fresh fruit, substitute frozen. Recipe from Ellise Pierce, the Cowgirl Chef. She notes you can assemble the raspberry-nectarine crumble ahead of time, refrigerate and pop in the oven during dinner.

1 medium ripe nectarine, cut in 2-inch chunks

8 raspberries

1/2 to 1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon corn meal or polenta

1 tablespoon oatmeal

11/2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch sea salt

11/2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, toss nectarine chunks and raspberries with sugar, 1 tablespoon flour and lemon juice.

Mix remaining flour, corn meal, oatmeal, brown sugar, cinnamon, sea salt and butter in another bowl, and with your fingers, rub the butter into the mixture until it resembles small stones. Put in the fridge for 15 minutes or so to let the mixture harden back up a bit.

Spoon the nectarine pieces and raspberries into a 6-ounce ramekin and top with as much of the topping as you can pile on.

Cook for 30-40 minutes, or until the top browns and the juice bubbles up. Serve warm.

Per serving: 404 calories; 19 grams fat; 58 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 47 milligrams cholesterol; 299 milligrams sodium; 6 grams dietary fiber; 40 percent of calories from fat.

Serves 1

Moroccan chicken naanini with nectarine chutney

Recipe courtesy California Tree Fruit Agreement.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/2 cup harissa paste

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 pieces naan, halved

1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil

4 large roasted red bell pepper strips

Nectarine chutney:

2 cups peeled, chopped ripe nectarines (2 to 3 nectarines)

1/2 cup minced shallots

1/3 cup white wine vinegar

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1 1/2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Place chicken breasts between plastic wrap and pound to flatten.

Add harissa paste, lime juice and salt in a large resealable plastic bag. Knead bag to mix, then add chicken. Seal bag, then turn several times until well coated with mixture. Refrigerate for 2 hours to marinate.

Meanwhile, stir together chutney ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more to cook off excess liquid. (Chutney may be made several days ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.)

Preheat grill to medium-high; grill chicken for about 5 minutes on each side or until cooked through.

Place cooked chicken on half of the bread pieces. Spread on chutney and top with pepper strip and remaining bread. Brush both sides lightly with oil and place on grill over medium heat.

Press down to flatten slightly with a panini press or foil-covered brick, and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes on each side or until lightly browned.

Serve with additional chutney, if desired.

Serves 4

Sparkling Summeripe nectarini

From Alexandra and Peggy Thurlow of Mountain View Fruit Sales in Reedley.

For thyme-infused simple syrup:

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Handful of fresh thyme sprigs

For nectarini:

1 very ripe nectarine, sliced

2 ounces of gin

1.5 ounces of thyme-infused simple syrup

1.5 ounces fresh lime juice

2 thyme sprigs for garnish

Splash of sparkling water

Splash of St. Germain liqueur

Handful of ice for shaker

Make simple syrup: In a small sauce pan, dissolve sugar into water over low heat, stirring occasionally. Once sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat and add handful of fresh thyme sprigs. Place liquid into a jar with a lid and cool in the refrigerator for at least 2-3 hours, cooling overnight is best. Strain and toss the thyme. The thyme-infused simple syrup can be stored in a jar with a lid for 1-2 months.

Combine nectarine slices, thyme-infused simple syrup and lime juice into a shaker and muddle. Add gin and handful of ice cubes into shaker and shake vigorously. Strain and pour liquid into a martini glass. Add a splash of sparkling water and St. Germain. Garnish with a nectarine slice and a fresh thyme sprig.

Serves 1

Nectarine-blackberry galette

Adapted by The Bee’s Kathy Morrison from a New York Times recipe by Martha Rose Schulman. This works particularly well with white nectarines.

Note: Don’t skip the crumbs under the fruit – they soak up the extra juice. Kathy used crushed plain biscotti in her version.

1 recipe galette dough (see at right)

11/2 pounds ripe nectarines, pitted and sliced

6 ounces (one basket) ripe blackberries

2 tablespoons agave nectar or mild honey

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, divided

1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

1/4 cup crushed plain cookies, plain cake crumbs or ground almonds

1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon milk for egg wash

1 tablespoon raw sugar

1/4 cup quince, apple or currant jelly, for glazing (optional)

Take the rolled-out dough out of the refrigerator, remove the top piece of parchment paper and, if the dough isn’t already on a rimmed baking sheet, move it to one. Leave the dough on the counter while you mix the fruit.

Combine the nectarines, blackberries, agave or honey, 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, and the vanilla or almond extract in a large bowl and gently toss together.

Sprinkle the cookie crumbs, cake crumbs or ground almonds over the pastry, leaving a 2- to 3-inch border all the way around. Place the fruit on top of the crumbs. Fold the edges of the dough in over the fruit, pleating the edges as you work your way around to form a free-form tart that is roughly 9 inches in diameter. Place in the freezer on the baking sheet for 45 minutes to 1 hour. This helps the galette maintain its shape.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the galette from the freezer. Brush exposed edge of the pastry with the egg wash. Combine raw sugar and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon and sprinkle over the fruit and crust. Place in the oven and bake about 1 hour, until the fruit is bubbly and the juice is running out. Remove from the oven. If desired, melt the jelly in a small saucepan with a splash of water and brush hot jelly over the fruit as soon as galette comes out of the oven. Allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.

Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Serves 8

Galette dough

From Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking Chez Moi” (Rux Martin, $40, 496 pages). This is a sturdier dough than pie crust.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces (frozen is good)

1/4 cup ice water

Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut into the flour. At first you’ll have a mixture that looks like coarse meal and then, as you pulse some more, you’ll get small flake-sized pieces and some larger pea-sized pieces, too.

Add a little of the ice water and pulse, add some more, pulse and continue until all of the water is incorporated. Now work in longer pulses – about 10 second each – stopping to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl if needed, until you have a dough that forms nice bumpy curds that hold together when you pinch them. Just before you reach this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change – heads-up.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface. Separate small amounts of dough from the pile and use the heel of your hand to smear each pieces for a few inches off the counter. The French call this fraisage and it’s the ideal way to finish blending a dough.

Gather the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disk, and put it between two large pieces of parchment paper. Roll the dough, while it’s still cool, into a circle about 12 inches in diameter. (It doesn’t have to be perfect – the ragged edges add to the look of the galette.) The dough will be somewhat thick.

Slide the rolled-out dough, still between the papers, onto a baking sheet or cutting board and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (Wrapped up well, it can be frozen for up to 2 months.)

When you’re ready to use the dough, remove from the refrigerator and fill as desired or follow the nectarine-blackberry galette recipe at left.

Makes 1 galette pastry

Farro with nectarines, basil and toasted pine nuts

Recipe from “Grain Mains“ by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Rodale)

To make ahead: Store, covered, in the fridge for up to 4 days. For a fresher taste, omit the ricotta salata until ready to serve, and add small amounts of the grated cheese to individual servings.

1 cup whole-grain farro

6 tablespoons pine nuts

2 nectarines, chopped

4 ounces ricotta salata, finely crumbled

16 basil leaves, minced

2 tablespoons almond oil, (olive oil can be substituted)

1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Soak the farro in a big bowl of cool water for at least 8 and up to 16 hours. Drain in a fine-mesh sieve or small-holed colander set in a sink.

Pour the farro into a large saucepan, cover with water by several inches, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until tender, about 1 hour. Drain again in that sieve or colander, and then run under cool water to stop the cooking. Drain thoroughly.

Scatter the pine nuts in a dry skillet and set it over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 4 minutes.

Pour the pine nuts into a large serving bowl. Add the cooked farro. Stir in everything else: the nectarines, ricotta salata, basil, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.

Serves 4

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