No Stone Unturned: Cooking With India's Seasonal Stone Fruits – Part I

No Stone Unturned: Cooking With Indias Seasonal Stone Fruits – Part I
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peach salsa Discover the goodness of peaches with a Peach Salsa. Photo: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum

Mangoes will keep, but India’s lesser-known stone fruit season is gone in the blink of an eye. Go out and grab all the luscious peaches, cherries, apricots and plums you can find. Leave no stone unturned!

"O, to take what we love inside,

to carry within us an orchard, to eat

not only the skin, but the shade,

not only the sugar, but the days, to hold

the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into

the round jubilance of peach."

-Li-Young hee

For a few weeks during mango season, India also produces exquisite peaches, plums, apricots, cherries and green almonds. These beauties, scented with northern mountain air make a long journey to Mumbai only to be ignored. Despite small cultivation, a large percentage of India’s stone fruit remains unsold and rots away.

I would never have developed such a passion for stone fruit if it weren’t for the scurry of squirrels who plundered my peach tree in Boston with such joyous abandon that I too, wanted some of this deliciousness. What followed were tarts, jams, roasts, a frenzy of sweetness in my kitchen on par with the tree party outside.

While stone fruits are available in the USA in summer and fall, in the subcontinent the season is gone in a flash. In Mumbai, I have an alert on my cellphone to remind me to scour the markets between the third week of May and the second week of July.

Stone fruits are also called Drupes. A fleshy outer flesh surrounds a hard pit. Many are deciduous, growing mainly in the North East hills and the northwest states of India.

Stone fruits are packed with vitamins C, K, phosphorus, copper and zinc and taste excellent when ripe. Also, unlike their dried versions in india, they aren’t treated with the corrosive drying agent, Sulphide e22.

They also have tremendous culinary value in sweet and savoury dishes. You can cook a variety of dishes from Chinese and Indian to Italian and Mexican cuisines. Purees and compotes freeze well, while squashes and jams keep for months. Stone fruits liven up salads, make divine desserts, ceviches, reductions and lend body to sauces. In part 1 of this series, we will focus on peaches, plums and green almonds.

Peaches

Peaches and nectarine belong to the same species. They are an ancient fruit, believed to have originated in Persia or China 4,000 years ago. From here, the Romans took the golden fruit to Europe. India began commercial cultivation in the 19th century even though peaches came to England in the 1500s.

Alton, Khurmani, Peshawari, Sharbati and Shan-e-Punjab are some of the peach and nectarine varieties India grows. While most peaches come to the market in the summer, a few like Kateru ripen in the fall.

Plums

Indian plums (genus prunus) are small and dark and often confused with a local fruit, jamun, also called Malabar or Java Plum. Plums came to India 4,000 years ago from China. While they are now a commercially important crop in China, in India they are grown as quickly flowering fillers for mangoes and litchi. Cultivated mostly in the temperate zones of north India and all over Punjab, India is the 9th largest producer of plums like the Satlej purple, Kala Amritsari, Triton and Alu Bukhara, the latter is also a generic term used to describe dried plums or prunes. City markets only get plum varieties unsuitable for drying.

Green almonds

Green almonds make such a fleeting appearance in Mumbai that when I posted a picture on Facebook, there was confusion about whether they were bitter or sweet almonds. Most cultivated almonds are sweet, and the bitter almond is a recessive trait removed by cultivators. Almonds also grow in the wild but are toxic. The green almond is the young fruit of the almond tree, belonging to the same genus as peach. The pulp and the kernel harden and brown as the fruit matures.

Almonds are native to India and the Middle East - the earliest samples date back to the bronze age in the Jordan valley. USA and Australia grow most of the world’s almonds today. Green almonds taste great steamed and salted and add a rich chewiness to salads.

In Mumbai, you will find some of these fresh stone fruits at Crawford Market, Dadar, Vasai market and Colaba market. Fresh and ripe plums should be tender but without soft, dark patches. Good ripe peaches and plums should be firm but not hard, brightly coloured, without bruising or soft, wet patches. Fresh green almonds are a clear, distinct pale green. When exposed to warm weather, they blacken and harden fast so they should be consumed immediately.

Drupes are ancient fruits steeped in myth. The Chinese peach tree is a symbol of immortality, therefore Chinese brides often carry peach blossoms.

In Greece, one mythical version tells of Demophon, who married and abandoned Phyllis, who then hanged herself in grief. The gods, moved by her suffering transformed her into an almond tree. Demophon, returned repentant and clung repentant to the lifeless almond tree upon which, it flowered.

Zhu Xi, a Song Dynasty Confucian scholar, attributed four virtues to the plum: hope in the bud, prosperity in the flower, peace in the fruit, and righteousness in maturity.

5 spice chicken peach galette Chinese 5 Spice Chicken (L) & Peach Galette. Photos: Tara Deshpande Tennebaum

Recipes for the Indian kitchen

Chinese 5-spice plum chicken

Peach salsa (vegan)

Rustic peach galette (vegetarian)

Mixed stone-fruit sangria (vegan)

Green almond and green apple salad (vegetarian)

Peach Salsa (makes 1.5 cups)

This dish is really a cross between a chutney and a salsa. It’s good with cheese and crackers, yum with tortilla chips or on tacos and great with roasted meat and grilled fish. I use various red chilli pastes depending on what’s available - sriracha, habanero, sambal olek, tabasco original even the little containers of chilli sauce that come with Chinese take out!

Ingredients

16 peaches, sweet pitted, peeled and finely chopped (you can leave the peel on if you prefer)

5 cups apple juice

1 tbsp of orange zest

2 tbsp quality red chilli paste or to taste

1 tsp of red wine vinegar

3 tbsp chopped green onion bulbs

2 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Salt and honey to taste

Method

1. Cook the apple juice, vinegar, chilli paste, zest and peaches in a pot over a low flame until soft and sticky but still chunky.

2. Remove from the flame and cool.

3. Adjust salt, sweet, sour and spiciness by adding vinegar, honey or chilli paste to suit your taste. If your peaches weren’t sweet to begin with you will probably need more honey.

4. Stir in onions and cilantro. Serve cold or at room temperature. Store for upto 3-4 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Mixed Stone Fruit Sangria (serves 4-5)

If you want Sangria that can sit around a while, replace the sparkling wine with a sweeter white wine such as a Chenin Blanc or Reisling. I pit and slice all my fruit because it shares its flavour better when cut, but you can leave the cherries and apricots with pits if you prefer.

Ingredients

1 litre fizzy white wine like Vino Verdi, Prosecco or sparkling white

1/4 cup orange liqueur like cointreau, rand marnier

½ cup inexpensive white port or a sweet white wine (use extra granulated and powdered sugar if you want to omit this)

½ cup brandy

1 tbsp white sugar powdered or to taste

2 cups sliced stone fruit, like cherries, plums and peaches, apricots

3 2-inch sticks of cinnamon

3 sprigs mint for garnish

Method

1. Soak all the fruit, sticks of cinnamon, sugar in the orange liqueur, white port and brandy overnight.

2. Before serving, remove the cinnamon sticks. Add the fizzy white wine and stir well. Taste and adjust sweetness.

3. Pour into highball glasses half filled with ice. Spoon out some of the fruit into each of the glasses. Decorate with a sprig of mint and serve immediately.

(adults only and don’t drink and drive)

Rustic Peach Galette with Filo Pastry (vegetarian or vegan)

I should have called this peach papad because the dessert is a crispy layer of filo topped with juicy peaches. I love this dessert not just because it’s so easy to make but also because it’s elegant and light. I enjoy it as is but some of my friends like a bit of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream with it. If you’re vegan, replace the butter with oil or melted margarine.

Ingredients (serves 6)

12 peaches pitted, peeled and sliced thinly into 8 slices each

1/2 cup brown sugar plus 2 tablespoons

6 sheets of regular filo

4 ozs of butter melted or unflavored vegetable oil

4-5 pieces of whole star anise

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degree F. line a 12-inch by 18-inch (approximately) baking tray with parchment or wax paper.

place two sheets of filo dough on top. keep the rest covered with a damp cloth. brush generously with butter or oil. place the next two sheets over the buttered sheets and repeat the process. ensure that the entire sheet of filo, including the corners is buttered. once you’ve finished sheet 5 and 6 arrange peaches in a line leaving a 1.5-inch margin on all sides.

after you have completed arranging one layer of peaches (approximately 6 peaches) sprinkle with ½ the brown sugar.

place the next layer of 6 peaches over the first layer. sprinkle again with brown sugar. fold in the edges first the overhang of 1.5 inches. then fold again over the peaches another 1.5 inches until you have folded all the corners. sprinkle remaining brown sugar over the folded edges of filo. scatter the star anise seed side up over the peaches.

bake 20 minutes in the center of the oven until pastry is crisp. move tray from the middle rung to the bottom and bake another 10 minutes until the bottom crisps up. serve immediately.

Baked Chicken with Plums and Homemade Chinese 5 Spice (serve 4-5)

Chinese 5 Spice is a classic staple of the Chinese kitchen. You can buy it anywhere, but it’s also easy and fun to make at home since an Indian kitchen has most of these spices anyway. This mix traditionally contains Schezuan peppercorns, which I substitute with its close cousin teppal or trifal, used in Konkan fish curries.

Plums can range from sweet to very sour. Taste your marinade and adjust sweetness before you bake the chicken.

Ingredients

1 kg chicken with skin and bone in 8 large pieces

6 red plums pitted

4 red plums whole

3 small white or red onions peeled and quartered

1 tbsp ginger paste

1 tbsp garlic paste

1 tbsp sesame oil

1 tsp white sesame seeds

1/2 tbsp dark soy sauce

4 tsbp honey (if plums are on the sour side add more honey)

3 tbsp chinese red chilli paste or a red chilli hot sauce

2 heads of bok choy (optional)

For Chinese 5 spice

1 .5-inch stick cinnamon/6 cloves/ 1 teaspoon fennel or saunf seeds/1 teaspoon teppal/1 star anise all seeds removed

2 heads of bok choy steamed lightly just before serving (optional)

Method

1. Toast all the spices for the Chinese 5 Spice in a dry skillet on medium heat about 2 minutes. Cool and grind to a fine powder.

2. Puree 6 plums with the Chinese 5 Spice, ginger, garlic, soy, sesame oil, and red chilli paste or sauce. Stir in a teaspoon of salt and sesame seeds. Taste the marinade for sweetness and spice levels. Adjust.

3. Toss chicken, quartered onions and remaining plum halves in this sauce, cover and let sit in the refrigerator for 3 hours or overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Lightly grease a baking tray. Place the marinated chicken skin side up, onions and plums in the tray and spread about. Cover with foil, prick the top of foil with a fork and bake 30 minutes. Remove foil and contine to bake another 25-30 minutes until golden brown and fully cooked.

5. Serve with steamed bokchoy.

Green Almond and Green Apple Salad (serves 2)

This salad has a beautiful colour. If you can't get green apples, buy the red ones. Once the almonds are sliced they will discolour very quickly even when refrigerated. If you don’t have feta or goat’s milk cheese use a fresh low fat cottage cheese from Parsi dairy.

Ingredients

6 green almonds washed

1 tsp of unflavoured vegetable oil

2 green apples with skins washed, cored and sliced into 8 segments each

1 tbsp golden raisins

½ cup fresh goat’s milk cheese or mild feta

For the dressing

1 tbsp golden honey

Juice of half a lime

½ tsp salt

¼ cup unflavoured vegetable oil

Method

1. Whisk ingredients together for the dressing. Taste for salt. Pour over the apples, cover and set aside.

2. Slice the green almonds in long vertical strips. Taste a piece or two to ensure they aren't too bitter.

3. Toss the raisins, green almonds with the apples and dressing. Top with cheese and serve immediately.

Watch out for Part - II of the series on cherries and apricots.

The author began her career on the English stage and worked as a model and MTV veejay. Post marriage, she moved to the US and attended classes at The French Culinary Institute in New York and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The cookbook author now lives in New York and Mumbai, and documents her food stories on her website.

Tara D Tennebaum

Tara D Tennebaum

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