One of the joyous parts to the latter half of summer, and early fall, is the abundance of tree fruits - cherries, plums, peaches, pears, and apples. In addition to many recipes, there are variations on fresh eating, and ways to save fruits for later.
Cherries are usually the first tree fruits to ripen, from late June through late July, depending on area and cultivar (cultivated variety). Generally the sour cherries ripen about two to three weeks later than the sweet cherries. Ripe cherries, similar to apples, peaches and pears, develop a characteristic color and blush which you'll soon learn. If picking your own, be sure to pick them before their skins crack, and leave the stems on the fruits.
Cherries-fresh, frozen, or dried-make great, low-calorie snacks. Fresh they'll last four to seven days in the refrigerator. Frozen they'll last up to a year. Similar to blueberries and some other fruits, they are loaded with vitamin A and beta-carotene, plus antioxidants. If drying, as in a dehydrator, pit and cut large ones in half first.
Dark cherries are the best to freeze, as they won't darken as will the light ones. Freeze whole, or with sugar or in syrup. Ascorbic acid in a syrup helps prevent browning of the light cherries. Easiest is to pit first, then freeze on rimmed cookie sheets prior to packing for freezing. This way they can be removed as needed, and won't be frozen into a block.
Plums generally ripen between mid-July to late September. Ripe plums, similar to blueberries and grapes become covered with a powdery white "bloom." If picking your own, fruit should separate from the branch easily and be sweet and juicy to eat. Only Japanese plums may benefit from picking a short time before they are tree-ripe; allow them to ripen in a cool, but not cold, room for a few days before eating. Watch, too, for plum crosses with apricots such as plumcots.
In addition to fresh eating, plums make excellent dessert sauce, pie, coffeecake and preserves. They can be frozen both raw and cooked, or freeze the tangy juice for a punch base. Mix this juice with ginger ale for a refreshing winter punch.
Peaches ripen in the northeastern states from mid-July to mid-September, nectarines (basically a peach without the fuzzy skin) beginning in late July. If picking your own, pick peaches just before ripe and they'll still soften a bit, similar to pears and late apples. Or pick ripe if eating fresh within days. As with other tree fruits, leave the stem on the fruit. Ripe peaches last three to five days in the refrigerator.
If you can't use your peaches and nectarines right away, keep them in a cool place such as a refrigerator or cool basement. In a warm room, they will continue to ripen and soon spoil. Shortcake, pie, cobbler and salads abound when peaches are in season, and you can make fresh peach pie, sundaes, milkshakes or ice cream. Preserve them in jams, conserves, butters, chutneys and pickles, or even dry them. Though most cultivars can be frozen, the flavor and consistency are usually better when they are canned.
Pears ripen in most northeastern areas between mid-August and late September, as with other fruits depending on area and cultivar. If picking your own, similar to peaches pick just before ripe. If you leave pears until they are perfectly ripe to pick, they develop hard, gritty cells in the flesh and begin to rot inside, since they ripen from the inside out. Fruit should separate easily from the tree with a slight upward twist. Pick your pears with extreme care, because if you even slightly damage the delicate skin, the fruit will spoil quickly.
Pears keep best in home storage if you wrap each one in tissue paper or newspaper and store them in a cool place free from odors. They will be ready to eat anytime from a week to a couple of months later, depending on the kind. Keep in a pantry or room temperature one to four days to ripen, then store up to a week in the refrigerator. They'll last up to a year frozen.
Credit: I Can Garden
For the best, full, mellow flavor allow them to ripen at room temperature for a few days after you remove them from cold storage. If you push on the stem end with your thumb and it makes a slight dent, the fruit is ready to eat.
A typically southern use of pears is "honey," which combines them with lemons, limes, ginger or coconut. Other ways to eat fresh are to cut in halves, topping with vanilla ice cream, chocolate, whipped cream, and what else -- a fresh cherry! Then there are tasty pear conserves, chutneys, pickles, butters and nectars. In Europe, large amounts are pressed into an alcoholic cider called "Perry," which is found here in some specialty beverage or food outlets.
Freezing pears is easy. Peel, cut in half, and scoop out the seeds. Place in a pot of water with lemon juice to retard fruit browning. Use half a squeezed lemon for every four cups of pear slices, or a fruit preservative like ascorbic acid, according to label directions. Add half to 2/3 of a cup sugar to help preserve as well. Then place in containers or plastic freezer bags laid flat with air squeezed out before sealing.
Apples are the last major tree fruit to ripen, with cultivars from late August to November, depending on area. If picking your own, ripe apples have a characteristic blush, separate easily from the tree (leave stems on), and when cut open you'll see brown seeds. Color when ripe is not necessarily red, as some of the best-flavored apples are yellow, green, or russet brown. "Winter" (late-ripening) apples need to stay on the trees for a few weeks after they begin to show color in order to develop their flavor. A few light frosts don't hurt these.
For ripe apples, wash and refrigerate, and they usually will last from four to six weeks. Early-ripening apples, and those described as "soft," generally don't store well. Refrigerate soon after picking, as apples will ripen six or more times faster if left at room temperature.
If slicing, they'll rapidly turn brown, except for a few cultivars. To delay this, soak slices in a mix of one part lemon juice to three parts water, or with a commercial anti-browning product such as ascorbic acid, or apple juice fortified with vitamin C (the latter helps delay browning). Eat slices within a couple hours, or refrigerate if they're to be used later.
You can use apples for cooking before the fruit is fully ripe. In fact, if you are storing them you should pick before they are fully ripe. To store for later, you can freeze or dry slices. For drying, dehydrators work best, as do thin slices. Soak as above to prevent browning prior to both drying or freezing. To freeze, spread slices on a baking sheet first as with cherries, then repack in containers or freezer bags when frozen.
For apple sauce, cook until softened or in the microwave on high power, perhaps one minute for each cup of slices. Then, for a smoother sauce process in a blender, or for a chunky sauce use a potato masher instead. Using at least some red apples with the skin still on makes a pink sauce. Use your favorite cultivar, or try mixing several for different flavors.
Whether you like fresh apples, juice or sauce, they all will provide the same nutrients and a natural source of energy. Apple juice is the most recommended fruit juice for infants and children. Apples provide many vitamins, water (they're about 85 percent water), and fiber but don't add to cholesterol or fat. One apple has about 90 calories.
More on these fruits, including their culture and cultivars, as well as small fruits, can be found in the Fruit Gardener's Bible by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry.