STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Strawberry hullers, melon ballers, peach pitters, apple slicers, mango peelers – our kitchen catalogs are full of gadgets capitalizing on summer’s bounty.
Me, I just use a knife.
Meanwhile, there’s enough glistening, gorgeous fruit around to send a person into a hypoglycemic stupor until fall.
Locally, strawberries and raspberries can be had at the Durango Farmers Market as well as a few peaches and plums. Matt Hauser, who sells fruits and vegetables in front of Durango High School, brings goodies down from Colorado’s banana belt, the Palisade region. The best freestone peaches – Red Globes, Coral Stars, Sun Crests, Glow Havens – are in season right now, as well as delicious little blackberries with no names at all. Plums, nectarines and apples will be in any day.
“That’s crazy early,” Hauser said of the apples, which don’t usually appear before mid-to-late August.
The hot, dry spring advanced the growing season for many farmers, bringing cherries to market up to three weeks sooner than normal and ending the season in mid-July.
Paige Lynch, new owner of Biddies Orchards in Hermosa, finished off her dark, plump cherry crop two weeks ago, picking 94 pounds in the rain to get them to the Farmers Market the next day. Her apples and pears are coming soon.
Apricots, too, came fast and furious and now they’re gone. The first fruits – cherries, peaches and apricots – are the most susceptible to frost, making them the most inconsistent. They bear a crop only once every three to five years.
“It’s not uncommon to get 50-degree swings in a day here and plants aren’t big fans of that,” said Darrin Parmenter, Colorado State University La Plata County extension agent.
In fact, it’s darned hard to grow fruit in these parts. It freezes early, late and sometimes often. And in a dry year like this one, fruits can refuse to bear at all.
“We have a mishmash of tart and sweet cherries, pears, plums and then apple,” he said, “and it’s not like we have giant orchards of any of them.”
This is the first year area farmers have had a decent cherry crop. Hauser got in about half a full crop, he said, but they were larger and more flavorful. And it’s the first time he’s had apricots in five years because of late freezes and hail damaging the trees.
But let’s forget all that and dig in. What can we do with all that fabulous fruit? Colorado has a harsh climate and dry land. Most varieties of fruit come in for just a few weeks a year. In other words, get it while the gettin’ is good.
“When you get it, get it into the freezer,” said Judy Rohwer of Rohwer’s Farm in Pleasant View, who sells raspberries, plums, cantaloupe and vegetables at the Durango Farmers Market. “I raised seven kids. I don’t waste a bit.”
Freezing is the simplest way to keep fruit for a later day. Cherries, peaches and berries all freeze relatively well. Nothing is ever as good as fresh, but these fruits will hold their structure and flavor well enough to eat out of hand (cherries) or fill up a baked good (peaches and berries).
For the more talented and less time-pressed, you can always preserve the gifts of summer by canning. Nothing brings August back to life in the dreary days of winter like the first whiff of a jar of home-canned peaches. (Mama, are you reading this?)
For those of us who have a big sweet tooth and little discipline, the tiny bins of soft, not-too-sweet raspberries from the Gardens at James Ranch or Rohwer’s Farm provide the perfect excuse for a raspberry buckle (a cross between a crumble and a coffee cake.)
Even the early season, cling peaches – where more juice runs down your arm than into your creation – send us into the kitchen to try grunts and slumps, cobblers and crisps, some more successful than others. Take my advice – don’t substitute peaches for any other fruit. They’re twice as juicy and not nearly as sweet. (I ended up with a soggy coffee cake and a too tart tart. And please, please don’t mention the kuchen.)
Strawberries, which you can find locally from Chimney Rock Farms, bring on the craving for a cold pie with sweet custard underneath. But get there early. The first time I went, they were sold out at the Farmers Market by 9 a.m.
Blueberries, even more than peaches, are a sugar-lover’s downfall, so perfect are they in a coffee cake or a simple pudding cake, to say nothing of a pie or a cobbler or a fruit salad or … I digress.
While blueberries aren’t grown locally, the grocery stores are full of them, and cheap, too. You can buy a container as big as a bucket for less than $10. For the less enthusiastic, a pint sells for about $3.
Local grocery stores carry some Colorado-grown fruit like Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford cantaloupes. Colorado watermelon and cherries are available, but are beyond their prime.
“Nectarines, peaches, plums, these are what you want to buy now,” said Shelley Lucero, produce manager at North City Market. “And Olathe corn is in.”
Olathe corn! OK, it’s not fruit, but it might as well be for as sweet as it is. And like fruit, get it now or forget it. Hauser picked his first crop July 8 and expects the season to run just a few more weeks.
The good news is corn freezes beautifully. Simply cut it off the cob and store in an air-tight container. If you can. I bought a dozen ears and not one has made it into the freezer bag. They’ve filled up my chowders, graced my salads and created one helluva pudding.
So let’s forgo the carb-counting and sugar-watching. It’s mid-summer in Southwest Colorado – our time to revel in the sweet repast Mother Nature provides.