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Get Your Grill On: Fruit on the Barbie

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Quick, actual fact or urban legend: nectarines are a cross between a peach and a plum. Yeah, I got it wrong too. It turns out nectarines are not affiliated with plums at all, but rather are the product of a specific recessive gene in what would have been a peach, resulting in the typical bald pate of the nectarine instead of the usual fuzzy hairline of the peach.

So the tale of the nectarine is inextricably linked to the procession of the peach down through the centuries. Fruit historians ("fruitorians" perhaps?) assume that the nectarine had its origins in China, several millennia ago. The peach, and by extension the nectarine, held a significant place in not only the cuisine but also the folklore and traditions of several Asian nations. In Chinese lore, the peach was consumed by the immortals, and was considered to confer immortality upon those who partook of its sweet flesh. In Vietnamese myth, the flowering branch of this cordial fruit signified not only victory, but the peace and happiness that followed.

The dissemination of the nectarine followed a meandering path - the Persians carried it from China to the Roman Empire and beyond; it was not recorded in Europe until the seventeenth century, and subsequently made its way to North America, where it was carried across the land by the Native American tribes as they moved westward. Today, 95% of the nectarines produced in the United States come from the farthest reaches of that migration - California.

Sweet goodness

Nectarines provide the usual benefits that fresh fruit has to offer, in a delectable form. Low in calories and sodium- and cholesterol-free, nectarines are an excellent source of Vitamins A and C, plus a generous helping of dietary fiber. Vitamin A promotes lung health, while Vitamin C functions as an anti-oxidant and is critical for good immune function. Recent research indicates that consumption of fresh fruits contributes significantly to a reduced risk of macular degeneration. And of course, the cardiovascular benefits of regular consumption of dietary fiber are well-known to us all.

So now's the time to start enjoying this delicious riff on the peach as often as possible -- slice it into your granola, whip it up in your smoothie, and when you're feeling a tad decadent, chop it and sauté it and crown a scoop of ice cream with it!

Bringing it home

Nectarines are at their peak right now - they are a quintessentially summer fruit. I highly recommend you make a pilgrimage to your local farmers market for these rosy-cheeked beauties - the supermarket varieties have generally been picked too unripe to ever achieve their full flavor and sweetness. A ripe nectarine will have a faint ambrosial aroma, and the skin will yield slightly to pressure. Reddishness of color is not an indicator of ripeness - a pure yellow nectarine may well be riper than one with an extensive blush, depending on the variety. And there are over 150 varieties!

If your nectarines are still a bit hard, placing them in a paper bag at room temperature for a few days will enhance ripening (and putting a banana in the bag will make it go even faster). Once ripe, they can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to five days. Though take note, they taste best at room temperature...

And while they are thoroughly delightful eaten right out of the hand, nectarines also lend themselves to all sorts of culinary delights. Add these quick and easy recipes to your summer repertoire, and you will find yourself the hit of the backyard barbecue!

Asian Ahi w/ Nectarine & Ginger Compote

In honor of the nectarine's Asian origins, try this divine dinner. While it may not make you immortal, it'll certainly make you happy!

Marinade:
1/3 cup sake
1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon organic dark honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil

4 ahi tuna steaks, 6 ounces each

Compote:
3 medium nectarines, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon peeled minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sambal oelek (Vietnamese hot sauce) (optional)

Combine marinade ingredients. Place ahi steaks in a shallow glass dish, pour marinade over them. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Combine nectarines, ginger, and green onion in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat until bubbling; reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, until softened but still a little chunky. Remove from heat and stir in sesame oil, lime juice, and sambal oelek (if you like a little heat!).

Fire up the grill to high. Sear the ahi steaks, about 1 minute on a side - leave 'em rare in the center. Plate the steaks, heap a little compote over each one, and pass the rest of the compote on the side.

Serve with organic brown rice and an oriental veggie stir-fry, and you're approaching nirvana...

Serves four.

Grilled Nectarine & Goat Cheese Salad

Quick, easy, satisfying - a hit every time...

2 large nectarines, cut in half and pit removed
3 ounces crumbled fresh goat cheese
4 ounces mixed baby greens
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pecans
1 tablespoon organic olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Fire up the grill to medium. Place nectarine halves on grill, cut side down. Grill for about 2 minutes; turn, grill another 2 minutes. Remove from grill and cool slightly, then cut each half into four slices.

Toss the baby greens with the olive oil and the lemon juice. Divide among four plates. Top the greens with the goat cheese and the pecans, and arrange the nectarine slices around the edges of the plates.

Throw in some fresh crusty bread and a pitcher of lemonade, and you have the perfect summer lunch...

Serves four.

NOTE: A version of this blog appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the August issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.