Though nectarines and peaches are regarded commercially as distinct fruits, they are actually members of the same species, Prunus persica. The trees that these beloved summer fruits grow on are indistinguishable; both have long, lance-shaped bright green leaves with finely serrated edges. The two fruits, however, have one noticeable difference -- nectarines have smooth skin while peaches have a thin cloak of woolly fuzz.
Occasionally, nectarines will grow on peach trees, and vice versa. The first nectarine probably came about in this way, as a natural mutant with an alternate form of a single gene. From its native China (which still leads the world in total peach and nectarine production), the fruit traveled along the silk trading routes during the 2nd or 3rd centuries B.C.E., arrived in Persia, and spread throughout Europe.
In order to produce quality fruit, nectarine trees must be cultivated in areas that have both cold winters and intensely hot summers. Today, nearly all of the American-grown nectarines come from a fifty-mile-wide belt of land in California that stretches from Fresno to Visalia. During the winter months, a dense ground fog, named tule fog for the Central Valley's tule grass wetlands, settles in this area and provides the necessary chilled air. By June, the sun is out, the air is warm, and early-season varieties begin to mature and ripen.
One of the first nectarines to arrive in markets is Snow Queen, an intensely sweet, buttery, white-fleshed fruit with pink-red skin. Arctic Queen is another early-season variety, one that is praised for its low acidity. At mid-season, Panamint nectarines make an appearance. These have citrusy, golden-yellow flesh, and were bred to adapt well to the warm weather climate of Southern California. As the season concludes, which sometimes occurs as late as early October in an exceptional year, Stanwick nectarines offer a final, juicy farewell. Their greenish-white flesh has a peculiar musky scent and is worth trying if you ever come across this prized, rare variety.
When selecting a nectarine, first smell the fruit near the stem. It should be intoxicatingly fragrant. Give a gentle squeeze along the seam that stretches down one side. If the nectarine feels too firm, let it ripen at room temperature for a few days. Nectarines will not get any sweeter once they are picked from the tree, but they will soften and develop aroma. Look for fruits that are freckled with sugar spots, small golden patches that indicate extraordinary sweetness.
Perfectly ripe nectarines make an awfully good dessert all by themselves. They are even better baked atop a crisp, buttery crust until their sugars caramelize.
Nectarine (or Peach) Tart
Sometimes, while this tart bakes, the sweetened fruit juices will spill over the edge of the crust and pool on the scorching hot baking sheet. You can try to avoid this by enforcing the crust or by draining the fruit to release extra juices, but I love the drama and smell that comes from a splash of burnt caramel. Plus, it looks rustic and gorgeous!
Makes one 12-inch tart
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter
1½ pounds ripe nectarines, sliced into ¼-inch-thick wedges
2 to 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit
Fill a cup with cold water and place it in the freezer.
Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Use a sharp knife to cut the butter into thin slices, then toss the slices into the bowl with the flour mixture. Using your fingers or two knives, rub the butter and flour together until there are no butter pieces larger than the size of a pea, about 10 to 15 seconds.
Remove the cup of water from the freezer. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of water over the butter-and-flour mixture. Give it a few strong squeezes to see if the dough will clump together. If not, pour in another tablespoon of water. Quickly shape the dough into a flattened disk, wrap it in plastic, and place it in the refrigerator to chill for at least one hour.
Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
On a floured surface, roll the dough out into a 1/8-inch-thick circle -- it should be about 12 inches in diameter. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined baking sheet, and chill it in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Arrange the nectarine wedges on the dough in overlapping concentric circles, leaving bare a 1-inch border at the edge. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center, partially covering the fruit. Sprinkle the tart evenly with the granulated sugar. Bake it until the fruit juices bubble and the crust turns golden brown, about 1 hour.
Let the tart cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then slice it into wedges. Serve each wedge with a generous dollop of whipped cream, perhaps sweetened with a splash of brandy.