The Fruit of the Earth: Six Unique Categories of Summertime Fruit Indulgences
Grilled Pound Cake with Lime-Mint Infused Strawberries
By Carol Ritchie
“Fruit, in all its richly hued and succulent variations, is perhaps the purest expression of the earth’s largesse. The most accessible of foods, it is infinitely satisfying in its pristine form … At the same time, fruit readily lends itself to transmutation by the culinary arts.”
I can’t think of a better way to begin than by quoting the editors of the Time-Life Books 1983 edition of The Good Cook: Fruits. The Texas heat is just around the corner and nothing is more refreshing during the sizzling summer months than one of the thousands of fruit flavors generously offered to us by Mother Nature. Of all of nature’s bounty, the sweet fruit of the earth is always ready for us to eat and enjoy, right from the tree, shrub or vine.
But as The Good Cook suggests, fruit is also — and likely more often — used to highlight wonderful kitchen creations in recipes ranging from drinks to desserts, appetizers to main-dish meals, and everything in between. Fruit is not the easiest food to classify — not that it needs classifications — but in order to take a closer look at the many options we now often have available to us in most markets, here’s a breakdown of fruits in six unique categories to consider for summertime dining indulgences.
From the Orchard
It wasn’t all that long ago when the choice of apples in the market was limited to the sweet Red Delicious or Golden Delicious varieties, or the tart, green Granny Smith. But there are thousands of varieties and now it is commonplace to see a dozen or more types of apples in grocery produce sections. Whether eating out of hand or preparing traditional favorites such as tarts, pies or simply fresh-cooked applesauce, consider trying something new or different: Baldwin, Braeburn, Cortland, Criterion, Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp, Jonathan, Junami, McIntosh, Pink Lady, Rome Beauty, Winesap or York Imperial. And don’t forget to chop up some apples (along with celery and walnuts, mixed with mayo) for a quick, refreshing Waldorf salad.
Pears, like apples, are crisp and delicious to eat raw; however, pears are often prepared in dishes that require cooking techniques, such as poaching in wine and sugar syrup, or baking, stuffed with raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon. Anjou and Bosc pears are great for cooking; Bartlett and Comice pears are sweet and juicy out-of-hand. Thinly slice fresh pears (or apples) to add to green salads for enhanced flavor and a crispy crunch.
Related to apples and pears, quinces and crab apples are very firm-fleshed and quite tart, and are best for compotes, jellies, and jams. Asian pears, also known as apple pears, often look like golden brown or yellow-green apples and are very crunchy, juicy and lightly sweet.
The Pitted Ones
Juicy and succulent describe the fragile fruits known for having pits. These same fruits — though wonderful to enjoy fresh from the tree — are superb for sweet desserts: pies, cobblers, puddings and crisps. Apricots, nectarines and peaches have thin skins, are quite perishable, and are best enjoyed at their peak of ripeness during the summer months.
The window of availability for cherries is even more limited, bursting forth brightly around the Fourth of July. Look for Bing, Montmorency, Royal Anne or Tartarian cherries for summer pies. Plums, like cherries, are more firm than peaches and have thicker skins, but can be equally juicy and refreshing, and do well in cooked dishes, such as puddings and sauces. Dates are another sweet choice; however, this candy-like fruit is often sold dried for baked goods or eaten out-of-hand.
Mangoes could have easily been included below, under the “Tropical” category, but this large, juicy, sweet fruit from the tropics has become ubiquitous among commonly found fruits in today’s markets. And the mango does have a pit. A very large pit! Use a chef’s knife to peel a mango and cut around the oblong pit. Enjoy the succulent golden flesh of this bold-flavored fruit in fresh slices, chopped in a tropical fruit salsa or in a sweet dessert sauce over ice cream.
Sweet and Compact
What would summer be without berries? A lot less fun, I imagine. There isn’t any other specific category of fruit that comes close to having the range — and likely personal favorites — of fresh fruit flavors as does berries. Blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries and gooseberries. Elderberries, huckleberries, loganberries and mulberries. Raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and currants. Oh, my! From shortcake to milk shakes, and pies to preserves, berries will find their way into summertime dining. To prepare for a summer full of fresh berries, the month of May is National Strawberry Month. To celebrate, try my Grilled Pound Cake with Lime-Mint Infused Strawberries (see recipe).
Green, red, purple or black, grapes are also available for the picking. Varieties such as Thompson Seedless or Ribier table grapes are served alongside a selection of gourmet cheeses. This simple idea for an appetizer plate proves that grapes are perfect for plucking during alfresco dining on the patio. And of course, your favorite glass of wine comes from this fabulous fruit.
The Cool Melon
Cool, refreshing, summertime. These are the thoughts that most often come to mind when watermelon is mentioned. One of the largest of all fruits, it isn’t difficult to determine how this fruit got its name. Lacking intense flavor, and with a watery texture, this huge melon has a mild and smooth, sweet fruit flavor. It certainly quenches a thirsty appetite by the wide slice. Seedless varieties — though rarely without some soft, edible seeds — have become popular for the simple “slice and serve.” Watermelon is wonderful in fruit salads, dessert sauces and purées and smoothies.
Muskmelons, like watermelons, have thick rinds and are divided by skin texture: smooth or “netted.” Cantaloupe, Crenshaw and Persian melons have a delicate netting over the skin and pale orange flesh. The honeydew melon has a smooth skin with pale green flesh. All muskmelons are sweet to taste, present a wonderful “perfume,” and are great with a mixture of other fruits for cool summer salads. I’ve included the sweet honeydew melon with other fresh fruit for a sumptuous summer dessert in my Fresh Fruit with Sabayon Sauce & Brown Sugar Gratin (see recipe).
Probably the juiciest of all fruits, and rich in vitamin C, the family of citrus fruit is very large and wide-ranging. Oranges and grapefruit are the most common for breakfast dining; however, many other varieties are worth considering. Blood oranges, clementines and tangerines (Mandarin oranges), pomelos, kumquats and ugli fruit are all readily available in supermarkets for those willing to eat “outside the box.”
Lemons and limes are generally favored for flavoring other dishes, including drinks and desserts. From the juice to the zest, these tart citrus fruits lend a wonderful zip to savory dishes, and a fresh tang to sweet indulgences. Look for Meyer lemons and Key limes for delicious meringue pies. Use dried citron in heavenly holiday breads. And use a zester kitchen gadget to grate all of the goodness from citrus peels over and into countless kitchen creations.
Tropical, Exotic and the Rest …
There are a whole host of other fruits that simply don’t fit well into any category. Many only grow in tropical climates. Others can only be classified as “exotic.” Several are quite common and have been staples in American kitchens for decades. And all of the rest are worth trying when they are waiting in the produce section for inquisitive tasters to enjoy.
Bananas and coconut (with slices of orange) make up an ambrosia fruit salad. Make it your own and throw in some slices of kiwi fruit. Lightly broil fresh figs, drizzle with honey and balsamic vinegar, and serve with toasted walnuts and goat cheese for a scrumptious appetizer/dessert. Investigate fruit flavors of Asia with loquats, lychees and longans. Or try the star-studded tastes of cherimoya, guavas, kiwanos, sapotes, tamarillos, tamarindos, and of course, carambola — the real “star fruit.” (Slice one and you’ll see … stars!)
Don’t forget the “P” fruits: papaya, passion fruit, persimmons, pineapple, pomegranate and prickly pears. They are all delicious miracles of nature and could not be more dissimilar from one another. They are also wonders of the world on a plate worth exploring. And that leaves us with the most controversial fruits. Rhubarb is not a fruit, but is generally eaten as a fruit. The long slender stalks are the only edible portion of this large, leafy vegetable, and are often served in very sweet, yet quite tart, hot summer pies — an “acquired taste” for many.
On the other end of controversy, there are many fruits that are generally thought of and eaten as vegetables. Avocados, cucumbers, eggplant, pumpkins and tomatoes fall into this category. Technically, these are fruits. What you want to call them is up to you. Nevertheless, along with all fresh fruit and vegetables, these wonderful ingredients should be part of many delicious meals year-round.
Nature’s Sweet Bounty
There is a world of flavors to enjoy. The sources of these flavors continue to become more readily available as the local grocery truly becomes an international market. Bananas are bountiful. Peaches are perfect. Apple pie is American. So sure, enjoy these long-cherished favorites. But try something new for the summer. Mix it up and share nature’s sweet bounty. Find pure satisfaction and refreshment in the fruit of the earth.
Grilled Pound Cake with Lime-Mint Infused Strawberries
4 slices pound cake
1 teaspoon lime zest
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
Mint leaves for garnish
Heat a grill pan (or outdoor grill) on medium heat. Place slices of pound cake on the grill and heat for 1 minute, or until golden brown with grill marks. In a medium bowl, whisk together the lime zest, lime juice, honey, chopped fresh mint and vanilla bean paste. Add the sliced strawberries and stir gently. Let stand 5 minutes to allow flavors to mingle. To serve, spoon lime-mint infused strawberries over grilled pound cake slices and garnish with leaves of fresh mint. Enjoy during National Strawberry Month and all summer long!
Fresh Fruit with Sabayon Sauce & Brown Sugar Gratin
6 egg yolks
1 cup fortified wine (Marsala, Madeira, sherry)
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 cups fresh fruit, sliced or cut to desired sizes and shapes
1/3 cup light brown sugar
Half fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a simmer. In a stainless steel bowl that fits on top of the saucepan (and not touching the water), whisk together the egg yolks, wine and sugar, until combined. Place bowl on top of saucepan and cook for about 4 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the custard is thickened. Whisk in the lemon zest. Remove bowl from heat. Spoon sabayon sauce into six small gratin dishes. Arrange the fruit in the sauce. Sprinkle brown sugar around the fruit and lightly caramelize the sugar by placing the gratin dishes under the broiler for 1 minute, or until golden brown.
Notes: Use a citrus zester to grate the outermost skin of a lemon for the lemon zest. (Or use a paring knife or vegetable peeler on the lemon to carefully shave very thin strips of lemon zest.) When recipes call for zest from a citrus fruit, always zest before slicing. Since this recipe only calls for the zest of a lemon, use the zest from the peel and refrigerate the lemon for another use.
Rather than broil, use a blow torch very briefly over the brown sugar topping. However, be careful not to burn the fruit. Whether broil or brûlé, the idea is to quickly caramelize the sugar, without heating the fruit.
Select any favorite fresh fruit for this recipe. For the photograph, I chose banana, mango, kiwi fruit, plums, cherries, blood orange and honeydew melon (cut into balls using a melon baller).